Update: see a presentation of the Kindle2 here.
Another look at an old, but not aging, topic: eBooks. There is visible agitation ahead of Amazon’s expected announcement, probably as you read this note Monday February 9th. Jeff Bezos is set to announce a new version of the Kindle eBook reader, let’s call it Kindle 2.0. [Since I first drafted this column, bloggers obliged with more details. February 9th announcement, ships Feb 24th, price $359 (?!). See here]. By “coincidence”, Google announces a neat eBook reader Web application (as opposed to a native one, to code running on the device) for Android and iPhone. See it here, it’s almost perfect on the iPhone, with an option to place a neat dedicated icon on the Home screen. I write almost perfect because, unlike Google Reader, another Google Web app, the top of the book reading app screen seems to be fighting with the always present top of the iPhone screen. FINR (Fixed In Next Revision).
More nits, some books are rendered with strange extraneous characters here and there such as “Il mar -10 chait devant” in Les Misérables (abridged edition). I checked the books.google desktop version, no such trouble. In checking, I found another difference, a good one: the desktop version is a facsimile scan of the book pages, including handwritten notes, scratches, tears. The smartphone implementation uses OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to convert the facsimile’s bitmap scan into text. The intent becomes retroactively obvious: even with the iPhone’s pinch-zooming, you don’t want to zoom in and out of the digital picture of a book page too big for the smartphone’s screen, you want to read text reformatted to fit the device. The nits mentioned above, the extraneous characters, result from OCR dealing with, I saw the book pages in question, imperfect material.
The Google smartphone library is impressive, the NYT says 1.5 million books, great classics, not the latest John Grisham crime novel, more Shakespeare, Plato and Rider Haggard, but the price is right.
As for more recent content, as discussed in an earlier Monday Note, Mobipocket, a little-known Amazon subsidiary, sells current books for your Blackberry or Windows Mobile device. On the iPhone, applications such as Stanza and eReader offer both free and paid for content.
Back to the agitation preceding Monday’s Kindle 2.0 announcement. This past Thursday, Amazon confirmed some of its Kindle e-books will become available on smartphones. Which smartphones, which books, the NYT story doesn’t say. As you can easily imagine, there is much speculation that a native iPhone app will make some or all Kindle content available on Apple’s smartphone. We’ll see.
Last September, this is what I wrote Jeff Bezos:
... Please make all the wonderful Kindle content available on the iPhone.
I own a Kindle and I also tried your other company's Mobipocket on my Blackberry. The latter experience, reading a Michael Crichton novel on a pocket device wasn't wonderful but the convenience of the all-in-one pocket device won me over. Then, I bought a book on the iTunes AppStore, the reading experience improved to the point of pushing me to write to you.
[a friend] told me you do read your email: I had evidence of this when I encountered a problem with my Kindle and couldn't enter the right info in your support page. Someone in your staff responded quickly, courteously and successfully…
Native app of Web app, Amazon or not, I’m happy to see more e-books on smartphones.
This said, electronic books remain a controversial topic. In part, this is because dedicated e-book readers have been less or much less successful that expected. Sony, for example, has been trying successive generations of e-readers without success, this for more than ten years now. For its own Kindle, shipping since November 2007, arguably the concept’s best overall implementation, Amazon hasn’t released sales numbers, this for a company generally not averse to publicity. The rumor mill pegs the total at approximately 500,000 units. Is this the success Amazon expected? We know the classic maneuver: paint a target around the arrow’s landing spot during the night and, when the sun rises, point to the result and, voilà, bull’s-eye! We’ll see how it’s applied on Monday.
On the pros and cons of electronic books, Ars Technica, one of the best tech blogs, features a great, long piece on e-books by John Siracusa.
I agree with e-book detractors: today’s e-books aren’t as nice as paper books. But I also think it doesn’t matter for the medium term, dedicated e-books will become better and better with new screen technology and will conquer a significant market share.
I agree with people who don’t like e-books on today’s smartphones, they’re not as good as dedicated e-book readers or as nice as the real thing. But tell this to publishers who see smartphones sold by the tens of millions and to users who like the convenience of an e-book enabled smartphone. These users are not in the majority today, but watch Web browsing on the iPhone, today’s Web browsing champion. People read news, blogs, newspaper sites, they’ll read more and more books if more are made available in an affordable and convenient format.And this says nothing of the impact of possible smartphone variants, bigger screens, still pocketable.
Now, I know, Steve Jobs said people don’t read anymore. But he changed his mind before: no video on iPods, only Web 2.0 apps on the iPhone, the PowerPC is so much better than Intel’s crippled x86 architecture… To his deserved and lasting credit, he changed his mind – and how! — JLG