One of the downers of the iPhone to me is that I can’t install one of my favorite eBook readers like I can on my Windows Mobile devices. I tend to use eReader, but also hop over to Mobipocket or Microsoft’s Reader, depending on the format of my content. I was thinking about this last night and then had an "A-ha!" moment realizing there was at least one possible solution here: Amazon Upgrade right in the Safari browser.
If you’re not familiar with Amazon Upgrade, it’s a program that debuted back in 2005 and provides a digital copy of a physical book purchase from Amazon. Not all of the books in Amazon’s collection are eligible for the digital copy, but if the book you want is, you can pay a nominal fee to have instant access to the book in digital form. I checked my prior book purchases and found that one was eligible: Marc Orchant’s wonderful "Unofficial Guide to Outlook 2007". You’ll know the book is eligible if you see the "Upgrade this book" information in the main description. I dropped $3.79 onto my AMEX right over the iPhone and was able to view the book immediately within the browser.
So can you really read the book? It’s a challenging experience at best, but yes, you can read the content on the iPhone, or any other full featured browser. The digital books are essentially scans of the physical books, which presents a challenge. Since the content is a scan, you won’t get the textual reflows to fit your device screen like you would with a dedicated eBook reader. This is the biggest challenge right off the bat due to the iPhone screen.
I tried to read the book in portrait mode, but once you pinch the screen to make the content fit from left to right, the text is very small; too small for most folks.
Turning the iPhone to landscape made for a much easier reading experience, but again, you’ll have to pinch the screen to get the text just right. When doing this, you’ll need to account for the next page arrow bar as well. I set the screen to show the text and the right arrow bar only, so that I could easily flip to the next page as shown below. BTW Marc: I missed your acknowledgments in the physical book, so this was a nice surprise! :)
Now that you can read the book in landscape mode you’ve got another challenge: vertical scrolling. You’ll constantly be flicking the page down as you read, again because the text isn’t really flowing to fit your screen. It certainly doesn’t make for the ideal reading experience, but it’s doable. Page turning is also tricky as you have to tap on the very thin arrow bar. For this to work right, we need some larger buttons that are easier to find and press. In fact, when I first started reading, I kept missing the arrow bar and originally thought there was no way to turn the page other than entering the next page number in the top menu bar. Eventually, I realized I was just missing the thin bar with my finger. Bear in mind that each page of the book has to be loaded in your browser: there’s a small lag over WiFi so reading over EDGE increases that loading time.
So what’s next for eBooks on the iPhone? Well, with no current third-party application installations, there needs to be a change in the content format and delivery methods for eBook reading. The Amazon Upgrade platform is fantastic on a full-sized screen, but if Amazon wanted to cater to smaller-screened devices, they’ll need to move from book scans to some HTML-based content platform. I doubt they’ll do this simply because I see them as a competitor to Apple in terms of content; remember that Amazon sells a ton of CDs on line and will be selling DRM-free digital audio as well.
How about the major eBook content providers? I’d love to see them mod their platform by combining their current offering approach with Amazon’s web-based delivery system within a touch-optimized interface. Wouldn’t it be great to log into your eReader account, view your bookshelf and have web-based access to your purchases, for example? I don’t know that Apple really wants to get into the relatively small eBook market, but I’m wondering if they’ll see the opportunity here. With the right web-based content system, web interface, agreements with publishers and the famous Apple marketing, it’s very possible they could swoop in and own the eBook market in one fell swoop.