Amazon changed all that with the Kindle by creating a device with built-in 3G networking that delivers books to you the minute you buy them. I was one of the people who purchased the first-generation Kindle, and though it delivered on wireless purchase of books, it was a clunky, poorly designed device.
In the meantime, Apple introduced the iPhone 3G and the App Store, and several ebook reader apps have worked their way onto the home screens of millions of iPhone owners. So, is Steve Jobs right? Is there no need for a dedicated electronic book device like Kindle?
I've used both the original Kindle and the new Kindle 2, and I've also read my share of electronic books on the iPhone. Which of the reigning champions of the ebook world is the winner? Read on to find out.
The Contenders: Kindle 2 and iPhone 3G
The Amazon Kindle 2 (US$359) is the second generation of Amazon's ebook reader. What makes it so different from the other (i.e., Sony) ebook readers on the market? Built-in free Sprint 3G connectivity, AKA "Whispernet." Yes, it's free. Any book that you purchase from the Amazon Kindle book store has built-in wireless delivery included in the price, so you buy a book and it's delivered to your Kindle within a minute. It kind of makes going to the bookstore seem like an idiotic exercise in gas-wasting futility, especially when many of the books are discounted heavily over their dead-tree counterparts.
I had a love-hate relationship with my original Kindle. I loved the built-in 3G, and often found myself purchasing books on a whim. But the design of the device was horrible. It was a clunky, angular box with too many buttons, a horrible user interface, and a tendency to require a reset on a regular basis.
The Kindle 2 changed all of that. Amazon took a design cue from the iPhone and created a new, ultra-thin, and curvaceous Kindle that is not only much better looking, but also more usable. Kindle 2 has more memory (2 GB, as opposed to 256 MB in the original), more shades of gray in the display (16, as opposed to 4 in the original), better battery life, and a new text-to-speech feature that has caused some authors to yell "foul!" Instead of the scroll wheel and slider on the original, there's now a little five-way controller that makes it easy to underline items for selection and then punch the button to enter the selection.
Using the Kindle 2 is easy. Each device is assigned an email address that is also associated with your Amazon account. What's nice about this is that if you happen to purchase more than 1,500 books and max out the memory of your Kindle 2, a copy of the books that you remove from the Kindle is still stored on the Amazon servers and you can download them at any time. What if your Kindle dies, or you lose it and get another? Enter the email address into the new Kinde, and your library is instantly available for access.
Out of the box, the iPhone 3G is not an ebook reader. What it takes to become an ebook reader is software, and there are several amazing ebook reader apps available from the App Store. Between the time that I started writing this article and now, Amazon also surprised us by releasing the Kindle for iPhone application. Suddenly anyone with a Kindle can also read their electronic library on iPhone.
My first choice for an ebook reader app was eReader (see screenshot at right), simply because it was free and from Fictionwise, the first ebook store that I frequented back in my Palm days. I've used eReader with my Fictionwise account for about six months. But when Kindle for iPhone appeared, I had to install it as well since the app would allow me to read my Kindle books when I didn't have my Kindle 2 with me. Other reader apps include Stanza and Wattpad.
Stanza is incredibly full-featured, and it works with just about every possible ebook format except, of course, the proprietary Kindle format. It even works well with Project Gutenberg etexts, which means a large library of classics are available to you for free.
Readability: Kindle 2 wins by a nose
The Kindle's screen is larger than that on the iPhone, it delivers sharp, high-contrast letters on an off-white non-backlit background, and it more resembles an actual book page than the iPhone 3G. In the iPhone's favor is the backlighting, which makes it possible to read ebooks in dark rooms without having to bring along a clip-on light. However, being able to read an entire page on the Kindle 2 instead of a paragraph or two at a time on the iPhone gives it a much more book-like feel.
User Interface: iPhone 3G FTW
I didn't like the page-turning buttons on the original Kindle, and though the Kindle 2 has improved on the idea, it's just not the way you read a book! When you pick up your first-edition copy of The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, do you turn pages by clicking a button? No, you flick the page with your hand. Kindle for iPhone and eReader both let you flip pages with a flick of a finger across the screen.
Why Amazon didn't consider a touch screen for the Kindle 2 is beyond me. And if Apple ever decides to come out with a large-format iPod touch or iPhone (I can dream, can't I?), that would be the best ebook reader I could think of. A full page of text at a time, reading on a backlit screen, and using a flick gesture to turn pages would be ebook heaven.
Battery life: Kindle 2 is the long-distance marathon winner
One of the reasons Amazon didn't choose to include a backlight for the Kindle 2 display is that backlights use power. With a Kindle 2 with wireless turned on, you can read for up to 4 days. Turn the wireless off, and you can read for up to two weeks. The E-Ink electronic display uses no power except when updating a page.
The iPhone 3G burns through a full charge like Sherman through Atlanta (forgive me for that simile, southerners!). Is this a problem? If you want to read a book for a long time, like on a flight between the US and Australia, forget about using an iPhone unless you can plug it in. However, for short reads while you're commuting or waiting in a doctor's office, the iPhone's shorter battery life isn't that important.
Delivery of books: Kindle 2 is the clear and free winner
Both devices download ebooks over a 3G network from online bookstores. On the Kindle, you can browse and purchase books from the Amazon Kindle bookstore, then have them delivered free of charge to your device. The cost of the 3G service is included in the price of the book; there's no monthly fee to AT&T or your other carrier.
With the iPhone 3G, you're going to pay that monthly service charge whether or not you are actually using it as an ebook reader, so it's really a sunk cost. But still, the Kindle 2 delivers for free and that's why I'm giving it the win.
Number of books available: iPhone 3G Wins
When I first started writing this post, the Kindle was the hands-down winner in terms of the number of electronic books available. With the release of Kindle for iPhone, the 245,000+ books in the Amazon Kindle library are now available for purchase by iPhone owners.
The iPhone has an advantage over Kindle in this category, in that it can read books in the iSIlo, Palm Doc, plain text, PDF, ePub, eReader, and MobiPocket formats. Through other bookstores such as Fictionwise and eReader.com, hundreds of thousands of ebooks in many of these other formats are available for the iPhone and not on Kindle.
Other capabilites: iPhone 3G wins by a huge margin
The Kindle is primarily an ebook reader. It does, however, have a very rudimentary web browser listed under the "Experimental" item in the main menu. It can also read books to you through a text-to-speech capability
The iPhone? There are well over 20,000 apps now available in the App Store. No contest.
And the winner is...anyone who loves books!
Based on the six criteria listed above, there is no champion ebook reader. For people who are looking at buying a portable device to read electronic books, the iPhone and Kindle 2 both have positive and negative points.
In my personal opinion, the Kindle 2 is best for gadget geeks who are also voracious readers and people who don't necessarily want to buy an iPhone. The iPhone is the best ebook reader for people who are already own the iPhone (duh!) and who read books only in short spurts.
It's wonderful to see that we have so much choice in quality electronic book readers,and I'm thrilled to see Amazon try to reach their goal of getting every published book into the Kindle library. People who love to read are really the winners in the competition between dedicated ebook readers such as the Kindle 2, and software ebook reader solutions available for the iPhone.
As I mentioned above, I honestly believe that the best possible ebook reader would be a Kindle-sized iPhone. WIth the larger screen and backlight, Kindle for iPhone software, and ability to do much more than just display ebooks, an "iTablet" would be tremendous. Amazon would have a win, although the Kindle would probably cease to exist, since the Kindle library is the iTunes of electronic books. Steve Jobs may not believe that Apple needs to make an ebook reader, but if they simply made a large format iPhone / iPod touch, Apple would own the market for electronic book readers.
Do you read ebooks? If so, what's your favorite method of reading them? Leave a comment and let us know.