Tuesday, April 28, 2009

....in which the mobile e-book needs Mr Whoopee's 3-D Blackboard

You would think by now I'd have become a convert to reading e-books on an iPhone or BlackBerry. I mean come on,

  • I'm an avid reader, I generally am working through two or three books at a time, and there's always a book on my nightstand
  • I'm certainly not technophobic....I am on my laptop most of the day and being in the smartphone app development business I generally have a BlackBerry and iPhone with me most of the time
  • I travel fairly often and hate to carry more baggage than absolutely necessary, but always take a book or two
  • I already do a lot of reading on my smartphone, I subscribe to a good twenty or more blogs or newsfeeds which I check on almost daily
  • I have a vested interest in promoting and using smartphone apps myself, even to the point of making myself use them when they aren't always productive for me.
So why is it that it is the year 2009 and despite owning every smartphone manufactured since the dawn of time I am still happily doing my part in deforesting the planet by ordering more paper-based books every month?

As a person deeply committed to the success of smartphones and mobile applications, this question bothers me, so every six months or so I try once again to get past my inability to enjoy reading on my mobile device. Now I have not yet tried Amazon's Kindle, although I've heard good things about it, and I suppose someday I will break down and buy one, its kind of inevitable. But the success or non-success of Kindle doesn't bother me so much. My real nagging question is why can't I seem to get hooked on e-books in the first place?

About a month ago I read where Amazon had released a Kindle-compatible reader app for the iPhone. "Aha!" I figured, "this will not only give me a chance to try out the Kindle purchase process, but maybe it will also finally wean me off of my paper book habit!"

So I downloaded the app to my iPhone, and within an hour I had purchased a couple of books on Amazon.

To give credit where credit is due, the purchase and downloading process could not have been simpler. I selected some titles I was interested in on amazon.com, purchased them, and literally within minutes the titles appeared on my iPhone in the Kindle app. Very painless. Couldnt be easier. So far so good. Now I can read whenever and wherever I want!

More than a month later, I haven't gotten past page 20 of either of the two books I purchased!

How can this be? I swear I have given it the old college try several times now. And its not that the books didn't turn out to be any good - I have since purchased and read both books in paper-based formats and enjoyed them. And its not even about eye-strain - honestly I haven't even been able to force myself into a long enough reading session with an e-book to worry about eye-strain.

I wish I had an explanation, but I don't - my latest attempt at e-book reading was about as (un)successful as my similar tries with my BlackBerry, as well as various Windows Mobile and Palm PDA's and smartphones over the years. The purchase process this time definitely was improved, but somehow the reading part (which is the whole point) just isn't working for me.

Here are some theories:

1. The smartphone form factor is just not suited for long-form reading. Jeff Bezos was interviewed on Charlie Rose earlier this year about the new Kindle 2, and Bezos was adament that the Kindle screen and body are designed the way they are because it provides a pleasurable reading experience. I believe he must be right about this, reading anything more than a short news clip on my iPhone just doesn't seem pleasurable at all.

2. The small screen just doesn't allow the book to become immersive enough. To enjoy a book you really have to be able to lose yourself in its pages, to the point where you don't even think about turning the pages themselves, it just happens as part of your devouring of the books contents. On an iPhone, there just isn't enough content on any one page to allow you to lose yourself in the story before you have to "turn the page". Even the smallest paperback books have way more on the printed page than can fit on a single iPhone screen.

The general sensation I get when I try to read a book on an iPhone is like if I was trying to read a sentence where I was only able to see one word at a time. Yes I could read that sentence and at the end even comprehend what the sentence meant. But reading that way is much too mechanical, you can't really soak up enough of the content at any one time to give your brain enough to chew on before you have to get back into the mechanical page turning part.

Yes I am aware that there are people out there who are enjoying e-books on their BlackBerry or iPhone. Unfortunately I'm not one of them, and its kinda disappointing because if enough people enjoyed reading e-books, it would be another really great reason for more people to own one of these wonderful devices. I suppose if I was shipwrecked on desert island with nothing but my iPhone and a bunch of e-books, yes I'd learn to enjoy reading that way as best I could. But with real books as an alternative in real life, I just don't see it.

Way back, probably before any of you were born, there was an old cartoon tv show Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had many wonderful and funny characters. One of the characters was professor Phineas J Whoopee (aka "Mr. Whoopee") who would use his magical 3-dimensional blackboard to explain various scientific principles to Tennesee Tuxedo (a penguin) and his buddy Chumley (a walrus). Mr. Whoopee's 3-d blackboard was small enough to put in your pocket, but when you took it out you could stretch it and resize it to be as big as you wanted.

I solemnly promise, as soon as Apple announces a version of Mr. Whoopee's 3-D Blackboard, I will definitely give this e-book thing another try.