iphone as ebook reader part 2. The Books?

Now that the kindle is the device-de-jour, with the blogosphere furiously debating its various pros and cons, it’s probably about time to get back to the iphone, and how I’m liking it as an ebook reader. A few weeks ago, I raved about the screen, except for its size. Today, I look at the here and now, and whether it’s reasonable to actually use the iphone as an ebook reader. Well the short answer is yes. The longer answer is maybe.

There is nothing so damaging as having great potential. As with the screen, the rest of the iphone ebook experience is of the ‘this could be bloody good’ one day ilk. The trouble is actually getting books you want to read onto the device. In brief, there are three ways (that I could find) of reading ebooks.

The first is to do it online. Any unhacked iphone can do this – and simply requires going to an appropriate ebook provider and letting it serve up the pages you want, for you to read using safari, the iphones web browser. There are a few of those around, but for the most part they offer only creative commons and free etexts from project gutenberg. The range is fine if you’re into out-o-copyright titles, but if you want to indulge in the latest Harry Potter, you’ll have to find another way of getting the content. The online experience is also mixed. I used manybooks.net (iphone optimised page) and read Geek Mafia. (Which incidentally, was a fun read.) The screen is terrific, but there are no dedicated next page buttons (well, there are, but the pages are much longer than a iphone screen can display, so you have to scroll quite a bit to get ot them). And there is a bit of a lag whilst the browser loaded the next page. On a wifi network, it was mostly seamless (except where my wifi signal strength was marginal). Out and about, the loading did interrupt the flow of my reading though. At least on the 2g network that my hacked iphone has to use in Australia. And, if you’re out of network range, you’re also out of reading material. So, not a totally satisfactory solution.

The second way is to actually load an ebook onto the iphone itself. Those of you familiar with the device know that there’s no user accessible file system. So short of hacking and installing books.app (see, with apologies to New Labour, the third way) you have to create a safari bookmark that actually contains the text of the book you want to read. Which sounds pretty weird. But it mostly works. For Mac users, there’s a terrific application called filemarkmaker. Drag your word file (or pdf or whatever) and it creates a safari bookmark which contains your book, or picture. So, you don’t have to worry about being online to read your chosen tome. The trouble is, too big a filemark will either cause safari to crash or the phone to go into a death spiral requiring a reset. I managed to create a filemark for The Book is Dead but it fell over pretty badly over some larger texts. I stumbled across an old John Grisham novel in the darker recesses of the intertubes, and had to break it down into smaller files to make it work. Seems like a 500k file is as big as you’d want to try. Your mileage may vary.

It works though – and it’s damn nice having your books with you all the time, and not having to depend on the vagaries of finding a network.

The third way is to install books.app on a jailbroken iphone. Because I had to hack my iphone to make it work in Oz, I could do it, but I’m currently working on a minimalist model of intervention, and avoiding all installable software (including firmware upgrades) in an extremely conservative attempt to ensure that my phone keeps working as a phone 🙂

Of course, all of this suggests that the iphone is not yet a mainstream ebook reading device. But it has terrific promise. Once Apple lets programmers create applications (bring on the SDK) and once somebody sells me recent releases in a format I can read on the device. Whilst it’s nice to browse project gutenberg, or scrape the vaults of piratebay, I would actually like to be able to buy current releases as well. In that respect, I’m jealous of both kindle+amazon and sony+connect. Despite this limitation, I’m pretty sure that I can load up my iphone with enough reading material to keep me busy on a fortnight’s holiday.

But I am beginning to think that most of us will end up using a device we already have, rather than a dedicated ebook reader. And that device is more than likely going to be some kind of multi-purpose media playing communicator. Like the iphone, or a similarly connected tablet or notebook computer. And for the moment, I’ll be using the iphone in my pocket.

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