A quiet revolution is taking place — or trying to take place — in the way we read books, which hasn’t changed much in the past 1,500 years. The printed book, supreme for centuries, has even repelled the advances of the digital age. Until now, that is. Most people who have tried one of the e-books from Sony, Amazon and others have been extremely impressed by the readability and the way in which you can download new books if you run out on holiday. The downside is you have to carry another device around with you.
Or do you? Half of the planet already has a phone. Why can’t that be used? Most people recoil from the prospect of reading books on a phone. Unless they are from Japan, where half — admittedly, graphic novels — of the top 10 books in a recent survey were read on mobiles. Is something happening?
Something is certainly happening to me. After downloading some titles to my iPod Touch — an iPhone without phone or camera — reading a book on a mobile became, for the first time, a pleasurable experience thanks to its large screen and some neat innovations. There are lots of choices. You can download a service called Stanza for nothing or e-Reader (with a free book and options to buy more). It fits 20 lines on to a screen, maybe too many for comfort. Far better is Classics, costing US$2.69 in the UK, with 16 free out-of-copyright books, from Paradise Lost to Pride and Prejudice, with more to be added later. Maybe one day it will give access to the digital treasure chest at europeana.eu.
The screen offers a cute image of a bookshelf with books on the shelves waiting to be clicked. The typeface is bigger — limiting it to an eye-friendly 15 lines a screen — with the ability to turn pages with a finger or thumb. You can work it with one hand, leaving the other to take notes or deal with the washing machine. As you turn pages frequently, there is no danger of the back-lit screen switching off. I could see myself reading a condensed newspaper this way, even paying for the convenience.
These are some of more than 5,000 new applications available on the iPhone, which are taking mobile usage to a new level. Over the years I have totted up the functions on a mobile that could be sold as separate products, ranging from cameras to MP3 players. It has got to more than 60, but I will have to abandon it, as the number of new applications is exploding. Among those I have bought recently are a useful spirit level and a clarinet that is made to work, I kid you not, by blowing gently into a tiny microphone attached to my earphones and working the stops on the screen. A harmonica operates in a similar way, while the piano is played just like a piano (with big quality limitations).
A drum acts by just flicking the iPhone in the air as you would a drumstick. Imagine a band using only iPhone instruments topping the iTunes chart sometime soon.
If this is merely the first surge of applications, many from a resurgence of bedroom programmers, goodness knows what will happen when Google’s Android ecosystem and Nokia’s are in full swing.
Meanwhile, mobile books are not standing still. Two companies still want to revolutionize how we read on a phone. Instead of taking in sentences at a time, you concentrate on the shape of a single word in the middle of a screen that changes rapidly, the pace being under your control. You can read on a train or in idle moments. ICUE is in competition with BookMuncher, which will soon move from being mainly PC-based to mobiles, especially those using the open source Android system.