Latest in 5 apps

Image credit:

eBook Roundup: 8 Apps for iPhone readers

David Winograd

An e-book (or ebook, or eBook, depending upon who you ask) is the digital equivalent of a paper book. According to KiwiTech, the publishers of Classics2Go, the market for eBooks has increased more than 60% over the last six years and growth from this point is expected to be very strong.

We can reasonably connect the start of this burgeoning market to the release of the Amazon Kindle in 2007. Strong sales convinced some wary readers that this was a viable option. You could carry a few hundred books under your arm, and the reading experience was, well, acceptable. Going on a long trip? Wouldn't it be nice to take about 20 pounds of paper out of your luggage?

2007 also marked the introduction of the iPhone; it took about a year for eBook apps to appear on the iPhone. Now there are so many of them that finding the right one for your purposes can be a confusing prospect. I would like to clarify all this a bit by categorizing the four types of eBook apps, at least so far, and letting you know what you can expect from each.

In deciding upon an eBook reader you need to consider: what sort of material you will be reading, how much you are willing to spend (if anything) and the quality of the viewing experience.

Last year, Andrew Kazmierski and Phill Ryu released Classics (iTunes link). Their idea was to take a bunch of books in the public domain, 22 in the current release, and control all aspects of the user experience. We covered the first release of Classics upon its original release when its price was $2.99. Since then, the price has dropped to .99 and the number of books has increased.

This app looked so impressive that it was featured in an Apple iPhone commercial. Upon launch, the reader is presented with a nicely rendered wooden bookshelf displaying colorful dust jackets. Click on a book and start reading. There is no wait, since all the books were downloaded with the app. Future updates bring more books. The books are all the kind of classics that are on school reading lists ranging from Frankenstein and Dracula, to Hound of the Baskervilles.

The feature set is slim. Tap the right side of the screen or swipe right to left and the sepia toned pages turn using a pleasing animation. There are two buttons on the top of the screen. One brings down a maroon and gold bookmark and sends you to the bookshelf. When you click on the book again, you are brought to where you left off. The second button takes you to a table of contents. The bottom of the screen tells you the name of the chapter you are reading and what page you are on. The top of the screen displays the title of the book. Illustrations in books like Alice in Wonderland are nicely rendered, and the text is attractively formatted. A change in color of the title bar gives you an idea of where you are in the book.

A year later, KiwiTech put out the Classics2Go Collection, (iTunes link) also at $.99 which one-ups Classics considerably. It's the only other app with self-contained books, so once again the look is controlled by the developers. So what's improved? The book count is up to 47 and the bookshelf allows you to choose a book by sliding a panel of dust jackets or by the first letter of the title or author. Using what they call a Classique reader format, the graphics are more detailed & show an aged leather texture. The cover page of each book is utterly frame-able. The pages have an aged and mottled look to them. The fonts are pre-chosen for you and book illustrations are in full color. When you leave the book an even more nicely rendered bookmark with a tassel is displayed. The developers control the entire experience and have taken pains to make sure that it's a good one.

The feature set is about the same as Classics. To my eye, the Classics2Go Collection looks superior. The illustrations are in full color and the experience is more like opening a well aged volume. You can download a free lite version (iTunes link) containing a few books to check out the interface and catch up on a few classics you might have missed.

Take a look at this gallery comparing the two apps that make up the self-contained category.

Gallery: Classics and Classics2Go | 8 Photos

The second category is made of of independently produced apps that can download tens of thousands of books from the Project Gutenberg catalog. Project Gutenberg was started in 1971 as a volunteer effort to digitize all the great public domain classics. The catalog holds around 30,000 separate works that can be downloaded on demand. The two apps covered here, Freebooks (iTunes link) at $2.99 and Eucalyptus (iTunes link) at $9.99 are well-designed front-ends to Project Gutenberg. There is no instant reading since all of the book must first be downloaded from the massive database. Both apps make a point of telling you that there are no further charges other than that of the initial purchase. All books, from a staggeringly large selection, are free.

This is a double-edged sword. Since the display is no better than the rather flat and basically texty look of the source material, there are limited options to pretty things up. Freebooks, recently updated, adds features to make it more competitive, but what they and Eucalyptus can do is really no more than putting a Halloween mask on something simple and basic.

Freebooks uses a fixed font that can be adjusted to any one of five sizes. For a choice of background you are presented with the options of sepia, white or black. Black can be useful in low light; when chosen, the text becomes white and the background becomes black. This is a fairly common feature. There is also a slider bar at the bottom of the options screen that will whisk you to any requested page along with the number of pages in the work. Since we're dealing with quite a small screen, the number of pages can be tremendous. Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea clocks in at 1281 pages. The slider bar is in lieu of a table of contents which is not available.

Freebooks allows you to email the book to your computer for easier, but not as portable, reading. The font used is a bit harsh and declamatory, looking something like a text dump. There are no illustrations. Instead of flipping right to left, Freebooks has you tap or swipe bottom to top to flip a page and bottom to top, to go back. The page flipping animation is basic and doesn't adjust with the speed of your swipe.

The reading experience is not as pleasant as the two apps discussed previously where the developers have complete control over the source text. Although the developers did what they could to make things look good, they are limited in controlling their source material. Sometimes you have to wade through pages of Project Gutenberg information before you can get to the book. It's well done considering the content constraints and as you'll see the constraints get tighter and tighter as categories and amounts of functionality differ.

Since there are so many books to choose from, Freebooks provides a very nice search function, along with a listing of featured books, the top 25 books downloaded and a very useful list of genres ranging from Adventure to Young Readers.

Eucalyptus, the other entry in this category, does it better but at a much higher cost. For the money you get a table of contents, nicely positioned fonts and custom formatting. The page turning animation adjusts to the amount of speed you use to turn the pages. There's more to it than a simple page turning routine. As usual you swipe right to left to progress and left to right to go back. The developers of Eucalyptus turned out a Project Gutenberg front-end that is more developer controlled and less basic than Freebooks but at a slight cost in features, for the sake of a better reading experience. There are also no illustrations, but placeholders where the pictures should have been.

When you come back to a book, the pre-formatted page is dark and slowly brightens as if you turned on a reading light. This is a nice, but small, touch. You cannot change the font size or background color since those choices were aesthetically determined by the developers.

One major failing of Eucalyptus is that there is no genre listing to make your search more efficient. You can search for a book by name or author, but I don't think that's good enough when you're dealing with nearly 30,000 books. I prefer Freebooks' organized search capability to Eucalyptus's hit or miss structure.

But when it comes to readability, Eucalyptus wins. A decent question is, does it win by $7? That's for you to decide. If I planned to spend hundreds of hours reading a large number of books on my iPhone I'd go for Eucalyptus, but that's just me.

Take a look at some shots from both apps and decide for yourself:

Gallery: FreeBook and Eucalyptus | 13 Photos

Next comes a category of apps that I don't consider will last very long. These include eReader (iTunes link) and Stanza (iTunes link), in its present incarnation. They are both free.

Let's start with eReader. This app uses the Project Gutenberg catalog but it does a lot more that that. It uses content provider which also mines Project Gutenberg but it purports to add a good number of other books as well.

You can purchase new books via, through a not-very-intuitive system, which sells new electronic books at prices ranging from a few dollars for a small book to twenty bucks or so for a very large book. Purchased books are placed on your Fictionwise bookshelf for later reading. Fictionwise as well as are both owned by Barnes and Noble. Keep that in the back of your head, since this becomes important as the story progresses.

There are a ton of features in eReader. Some might consider it feature overkill. Some of the things you can do are: bookmarking, in-text word search, day for night color schemes where black on parchment becomes yellow type on a black background, an indicator giving you an idea of how far you've read into the book, automatic scrolling (where you can set the scrolling speed and just watch the screen scroll like a teleprompter) and a landscape mode which can be locked down if you don't want your screen changing format every time you turn it.

Fonts can be changed and re-sized. Line spacing, margins, and text justification can be set, as well as daytime and night time themes, hiding or showing status bars; there's even a Coverflow display of your titles, and the list goes on. The presentation is a little bit less polished than Classics, but about on par with Eucalyptus. The page themes allow for lots of colors and textures and I was able to get it to look pretty close to Classics, with the exception of no illustrations. The page turning animation is not as smooth as that found in others, but it's nearly a Swiss Army knife for both free and paid content. eReader is quite impressive as a total solution. It does give you most of the functionality of Eucalyptus but outdoes it in the amount of customization; for that, you can save yourself $8.00.

Here are some shots from eReader to give you an idea of what it does:

Gallery: eReader Pro | 3 Photos

Stanza is the most amazing eBook app I've come across. It does Fictionwise, it does Project Gutenberg, it has as many customization possibilities as eReader -- in fact the options screens looks quite similar. It does everything mentioned above but it has one more neat trick that no one else has: a desktop client.

Using the desktop Stanza for Macintosh client, you can take just about any document on your computer from all the eBook formats -- from .doc to .pdf to just about anything else you can think of -- translate one format to another on your Mac, and then by syncing the web client to the iPhone client, it's easy to transfer anything to the Stanza app. It can even translate various formats to run on the Amazon Kindle! I currently have a ton of Word documents, .pdf manuals and other effluvia all on my iPhone and now those are all readable through Stanza. Outside of Project Gutenberg and Fictionwise (still owned by Barnes & Noble), it also sells the O'Reilly catalog of technology titles including all the TidBITS 'Take Control' books, and a few other vendors.

The depth of options is just about a feature for feature match with that in eReader with some nice additions, like a built-in dictionary and the ability to annotate. Formatting is all custom and non-colored line drawings show up nicely.

Take a look at Stanza. It's pretty impressive, and free.

Gallery: Stanza app Gallery | 13 Photos

The last category reminds me of some history when I was growing up. Back in the olden days there were no supermarkets or chain drug stores. Everything was a Mom and Pop enterprise. Stores used to be a place where everyone knew your name.

Then came the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, which is A&P to us now, and suddenly small stores started closing at an alarming rate. Volume and and expanded inventory of choices built corporations from the ashes of friendly neighborhood stores. You knew your druggist by name and he knew you, your family and your medical problems. But then came CVS, Duane Reed and Rite Aid. There was a level of personality in retail that has long been buried.

Why am I telling you this? Because it's déjà vu all over again. Instead of Amazon and Barnes & Noble creating better reading experiences, they just bought the two best companies and will, in time, re-tool their proprietary apps to be state of the art.

So far the farthest along is found in the Barnes & Noble eReader. I don't want to put too fine a point on it, but what it is, is the eReader app with Barnes & Noble colors and a fairly convoluted system of using Safari to get to the B&N site, hook up with your account, and buy something. Mel Martin went through the motions last month and found it to be a less than a satisfying experience. But his article was about online buying, and I'm sure that will be sorted out especially when in-app buying gets to be a commonly used function and apps are retooled to take advantage of it.

Here are some screen shots of the Barnes & Noble eReader. Quite impressive.

Gallery: Barnes & Noble eReader | 1 Photos


Amazon came out with their Amazon Kindle for the iPhone app (iTunes Link) and, for me, it was quite a disappointment.

Take a look:

Gallery: Kindle app | 8 Photos

Simply put, it has the same feature set as Freebooks but only gives you their Kindle store to buy books. No Project Gutenberg, no importing of anything, in fact hardly anything useful when compared to some of these other apps. Of course, if you have a Kindle it does let you easily transfer your purchased titles wirelessly between your iPhone/iPod touch, and back in March the reading experience was given a thumbs-up by Mel.

So what did Amazon do? They bought Lexcycle, the developers of Stanza. I would expect that any time now, Amazon will come out with a new version of Kindle for the iPhone that will, in effect, be a rebranded version of Stanza. Some things do get through the cracks, however. Amazon now owns Lexcycle/Stanza, Stanza sells current books through Fictionwise. Fictionwise is owned by Barnes & Noble. I didn't believe it either, but it's true. Amazon is making money for B&N, at least for now.

And so goes the sometimes psychotic and quite illogical story of the current eBook market for the iPhone.

Of course this is all going to change again. We've been hearing rumors that we can't fully substantiate, saying that Apple wants to make inroads into eBooks for the potential iTablet device and give Amazon a run for their money. While Erica reported that Apple was no longer accepting new eBook readers for the app store, Apple has responded, saying that it isn't the case; one eBook app in particular was blocked because of concerns that it might facilitate book piracy.

Whatever happens, I do see a future for Classics, Classics2Go, FreeBook and Eucalyptus (if they can just get real with their pricing), since those apps don't take a dime of revenue away from anyone, relying completely on either Project Gutenberg, or rolling it themselves.

For everything else, my crystal ball is cloudy, but if Apple can get their hands on a ton of eBook sales for the iTablet (or whatever it will be called), they can potentially clean up. Can the lightning of iTunes strike again? Speculation at the TUAW watercooler is that the educational market may be key -- there's a king's ransom in college textbook revenues every year. If Apple can negotiate a deal for textbooks on a tablet, they could have a hit on their hands.

We live in interesting times.

What do you think about this market niche? And can you imagine yourself reading War and Peace on an iPhone?

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr