Not by design, the first book I purchased to read on my iPhone Kindle app started with the above preface from Groucho. How fitting. I was just about to write a column comparing the Kindle reading experience with the various book readers for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry platforms. Over the years I have reviewed Tablet PCs, ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs), and every Kindle e-reader predecessor.
All of these devices raised the same basic question: Is there really a niche between ultra-light PCs and a smart phone? If you want a larger screen and more functionality/storage, then why not bump up to a laptop? Why tolerate a stylus or poor keyboard? If you want compactness and can live with a smaller screen and mediocre input anyway, then why not use the device already in your pocket? None of the intermediary form factors really solved an actual problem. The new and apparently improved Kindle 2 just raises the same question I had about Kindle 1. The underlying e-ink technology and background connectivity may be very cool, but the reading experience and interface are shrunken and limited. Why not just use your smart phone?
Amazon, which surely knows enough about me by this point to read my mind anyway, seemed to read my mind. On Wednesday morning it released a Kindle iPhone app that lets anyone with the device buy and read books here, too. Unlike the $350 reader, the app is free and the books are typically $9.99. The interface arguably is more usable than the Kindle's. Navigating the table of contents is faster. The type enlargement function is faster and the screen is easier to read, although you won't be getting the 20-hour battery longevity from the iPhone in this lifetime. There is a cute little bookmarking feature that adds a dog ear to marked spots. Functionally, the Kindle for iPhone is not better than the other iPhone book readers like Stanza. The texts are more nicely formatted than many of the books I see in the App Store catalog, but not by much.
The retail experience is the biggest disappointment. The app actually recommends users go to the Amazon Web site on their standard browser to place an order. You can use the Safari browser on the phone itself to do this but that kicks you out of the app, into the browser, and Amazon's doesn't even format the landing page as an easy Web app. Once you follow this end run around usability and do get the book into your Kindle library, then the registered iPhone app synchs with the online library and downloads the book.
I don't quite understand this kludge. Given the very good standalone Amazon.com app, why couldn't a full-featured retail experience sit seamlessly within the Kindle app? Why would Amazon want to impede an easy path to buy the goods? And there is no text-to-speech here. This new feature on the Kindle 2 seems like a natural hands-free feature for a phone-based version. Was it rushed?
Or is the Kindle iPhone app not really what it appears? At first I thought that Amazon was trying to capture the mobile book reading audience who preferred this device to a Kindle. In fact, I think the app may be good but not good enough to make a great argument for handset book reading.
The app really shines when it complements the Kindle itself. I can read "Memoirs of a Mangy Lover" on my Kindle, and when I access the same book on the iPhone,it takes me to where I left off on the other platform. Amazon calls this "Whispersync." I hope to God the phrase never catches on, but the operation is very neat. This functionality embodies the cross-platform synchronization I am sure will be central to merging Web and Mobile experiences over time.
Yet in this case the cross-platform seamlessness begs the question, why bother? Is the distance between the Kindle experience and the phone experience so great that users would travel with one and not the other? I have not gotten my review unit of the K2 from Amazon (any time you are ready, guys) but I have seen users with them in the wild. The device is more portable than the first version, and I wonder if its devoted fans will leave home without it at all. Shouldn't the iPhone version aim more toward convincing a new market?
But the actual reach and frequency of e-book reading, whether on phones or Kindle and Sony devices remains pretty elusive. Brilliantly, perhaps, Amazon keeps its real sales numbers for the device under wraps, although it crows about the increasing share of book sales going to Kindle owners. I have yet to penetrate more than a dozen pages into an e-book on phones myself, and I never found the Kindle 1 a compelling reading experience. Of course one of the last chapters in Groucho's book may be too tantalizing to miss: "On Polygamy (and How to Obtain It)."