It would be ironic if, after all the ink spilled about Amazon's Kindle, the iPhone turned out to be the reader of choice for electronic books.
But consider: Mobile phones are the most pervasive of all digital technologies, pushing 4 billion users. If you're carrying a device with you anyway, throwing a few books on it is simple enough, and reader software like Stanza ( www.lexcycle.com ) makes the experience at least a bit more palatable, assuming you can get used to working with a small screen for basic reading.
The Kindle is all over the news, with version two announced in early February, but an informal poll at O'Reilly's Concurrent Tools of Change conference in New York found that only 10 percent of the audience used Kindles, while 70 percent read books on iPhones.
If a surge in iPhone readers is really happening, it's easier to give credence to the rumors that Apple is developing a device to explore this market further, a larger version of the phoneless Touch that would be both ebook reader and turbocharged tablet computer.
I've read books on small digital devices, but the limitations of the format eventually take their toll, and I yearn for a larger screen. I also find that although I enjoy digital reading, I only do it about 20 percent of the time.
Print is still easier on the eyes, and the tangible identity of book in hand, each with its own typeface and unique characteristics of paper and binding, appeals when measured against the Kindle's monotonous six font choices. This may be generational, but I suspect I'll never get used to the idea that in terms of content delivery, books will look largely the same.
So what about the new Kindle? Mine isn't here yet -- the release date is Feb. 24 -- but early hands-on reports say the move to 16 shades of gray (from the former four) yields far sharper images and somewhat improved text, with a slight boost in page-turning speed. The ergonomics of the device look to be substantially improved, especially the resizing of the navigation keys, and I like the idea of the new joystick, which lets you move not just between lines but laterally between words to pop up definitions.
I was startled to read that the executive director of the Author's Guild has attacked Amazon for including a text-to-speech feature in the new device, saying that it may infringe copyright law. I'd love to see the court case that could spring out of that one!
The new Kindle offers two digital voices to read any Kindle text aloud, although I can't see this for anything but occasional use. But what a slim, far more attractive device the Kindle has become than in version one, the new edition offering a redesigned keyboard with closer spacing that should prove much less annoying to use.
I'm looking hard at what may be the sleeper story of the Kindle announcement. Amazon has built in something called Whispersync, which lets you synchronize content between an earlier Kindle and the new one. Using it, the company says, Kindle 2 will sync with a range of mobile devices at some point in the future. There's that iPhone again -- will the new Kindle let you read Amazon content on other hardware?
If that's where we're heading, then we may be making progress on a key ebook problem. I don't want to buy a book that can only be read on one technology, thus locking me into a single company's fortunes.
Google, of course, is not one to let Amazon steal the march on digital books, not with a rapidly growing 1.5 million-volume collection in its Google Book Search project.
Having survived last year's lawsuit with book publishers and authors, the search giant has now launched mobile editions of the entire collection, using optical character recognition technology to make the books compatible with the iPhone's screen and that of T-Mobile's G1. Point your phone to books.google.com/m and be aware that smudges and font issues can confuse the OCR, making the text of some passages problematic.
Anyone in the business of moving content to readers has to be looking at all this and wondering what the emerging model will be. My assumption is that interoperability between devices is critical and that the kind of digital rights management (DRM) schemes that limit how you can copy, print or share books you have bought will have to be abandoned. Ebook sales are currently one-half of 1 percent of the overall book market, a figure that will change only slowly if readers can't do so much as cut and paste or print text.
Expensive ebook readers (the Kindle effectively got a price increase, selling at $359 but now without its $30 case) may ultimately yield to a subscription model, one heavily subsidized by content providers who make their money off subscribers while offering a free or low-cost reader. In any case, with complete PCs now selling (in the netbook range) for $300, the gradually falling price of electronic ink technologies should offer up hardware half that price before a significant percentage of book sales flow to ebooks.
Keep your eye on open source projects like Bookworm, now in the hands of O'Reilly. It's a content management system with included ebook reader ( bookworm.oreilly.com ), one built on open standards as an attempt to surmount the limitations of proprietary systems of the kind offered by companies like Sony and Adobe.
Moreover, it relies on ePub, an open standard for electronic books that is gaining traction as we wrestle with the problems of digital rights management. How commercial publishers size up the ePub idea will tell us much about how serious they are about building ebook readership.
Paul A. Gilster, the author of several books and blogs on technology, lives in Raleigh. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org