High Programmer > Alan De Smet > Rants > Reviews > Initial Impressions of Amazon's Kindle for iPhone

Initial Impressions of Amazon's Kindle for iPhone

Maybe someone at Amazon read this article on e-books at Ars Technica, (Backup links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) in which the author argues that the iPhone is a more compelling e-book reader than the Kindle or any other dedicated device, because Amazon has released the "Kindle for iPhone". I'm ready to move to e-books, and this seems an interesting possibility. After playing with it for a bit, these are my initial impressions.

Now, all of my problems with so-called "digital rights management" or DRM remain. If you "buy" a Kindle book from Amazon, you are entirely at their mercy. If Amazon decides to get out of the e-book market, and you buy a new Kindle to replace a broken one, you won't be able to move your books. Sound implausible, because Amazon is a big successful company? Sony did it to their customers. (Backup link) Or maybe Amazon will move to a new DRM system, abandoning the old one and stopping you from moving your e-books from a broken Kindle to a new one. Again, it might sound implausible, but Microsoft did it for their ironically named "PlaysForSure" service. (Backup link) (Microsoft granted PlaysForSure customers a temporary stay of execution. (Backup link)) Amazon expressly "reserves the right to modify, suspend, or discontinue the Service at any time, and Amazon will not be liable to you should it exercise such right." (Backup link) Maybe you trust Amazon, but in a decade you'll want to move to the hot new TurboReader by MicroGoogleSoft. The DRM will lock you out, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to unlock it yourself. But assuming you absolutely trust Amazon to survive indefinitely, and you'll stick with Kindle and its successors forever, what about your heirs? Under the terms of service (Backup link), when you die the books disappear. We'll be looking at a digital dark age.

Given that, as a source for books under copyright, Kindle for iPhone already fails. But I can still evaluate it as an e-book reader.

The iPhone app doesn't have a built in store browser. Instead you're told, "Get the best shopping experience by visiting www.amazon.com/kindlestore on your Mac or PC. You can also use Safari on your iPhone to buy books." This is dumb. The Amazon store is usable from Safari, but it's only mediocre. It's slow, clumsy, and obviously designed for big screens with the ability to open new links in tabs. You can't buy books directly from the search page, you need to go to each individual book's page. When you're done buying a book, you're taken back to the Kindle Store front page, not your search. This makes buying several books at once slow and frustrating. If you already own a book, there is no indication in the search listing or book page. Amazon doesn't tell you until you try to buy the book. This is frustrating if you're coming back after a few hours to finish purchasing a series of books.

Amazon did kindly make a bunch of public domain books available for free. This is good. Amazon is clearly reusing the Gutenberg Project's free books. This is good. (Might I recommend free P.G. Wodehouse?) On the down side, the conversion is only adequate. The conversion was obviously automated, and the automation was mediocre. They ended up with strange names for authors; for example P.G. Wodehouse is apparently "1881-1975 Wodehouse P. G. (Pelham Grenville)". The table of contents wasn't turned into links to the chapters. Chapters don't start on new pages. "Straight quotes" have not been turned into “curved quotes”. (I appreciate the irony that I haven't bothered myself.) They faked up automatic covers, but the author name frequently stomps on the frame. I expect I'm not the only person experimenting using the free books, and this isn't an promising start.

I'm looking for a "real" free ebook, in hope of getting an idea what a well formatted book looks like. I'm having problems finding one. So far all I've found is a copy of the Bible, and some romance novels. "Real", free books are available online, why can I find them on Amazon?

When I purchase some books, I get emailed one receipt per book, even if I bought ten books in a row. This is probably okay if you are only buying a book or two a day, but for someone loading up on free books, or buying a series all at once it's a mess.

Amazon will let me email Word documents and "picture files" so they'll be uploaded to the Kindle app. They charge $0.10 per file. I appreciate that they need to pay for the cell phone network for the Kindle, but it's frustrating that I can't do the conversion and upload myself for free. And this certainly means you can't load confidential documents into the Kindle app.

Moving on to trying to read a book, be careful if you have a bad signal. At one point I asked the Kindle app to download a few books on my way out the door. When I reopened the app a bit later with a low quality signal, the application blocked for a minute or so, saying it was busy synchronizing. If you're looking to quick look something up, or read for a minute while waiting, you might be out of luck.

The book list is okay. With only a dozen books loaded on, it's already feeling a bit cumbersome. I'm guessing the intention is that with the iPhone version you'd only keep a dozen or so books, unlike the dedicated Kindle, which promises to hold "over 1,500 books."

Actually reading a book, you scroll left and right to change "pages". I was initially baffled. After all, this is a computer, you scroll up and down. One of the advantages of scrolling up and down is that I can scroll down a bit, keeping the previous line or two still visible. Or I can smooth scroll as I go. But I realized they're trying to simulate pages. I'm not yet sure what I think of it. Perhaps I'll grow to like it, but for now I'm underwhelmed.

I can change the font size, which is good. I can't change the font, which is unfortunate.

The "Go to" interface gives quick links to the Cover, the Table of Contents, the "Beginning", arbitrary page numbers (although these change based on the font size), and any bookmarks/dog ears I've made. That's all good. Conspicuously missing is direct links to individual chapters. Instead I need to go to the pages holding a copy of the table of content. The opportunity to provide an even better interface for navigating the book was lost.

This  is an  example of
fully  justified  text.
The    experience    is
something   like  this.
It's   a  difficult  to
scan mess.

The book text is always fully justified. Full justification looks nice, but requires a careful balance between text width, font, and font size. Done automatically, with the font size controlled by the user, you occasionally end up with giant gaps mid-line. This happens with distressing frequency with the Kindle app.

Finally, a weakness is the iPhone itself: my iPhone drains pretty quickly. I only ever get two days on a charge, and only one day of heavy use. Adding reading to its daily tasks and I fear the poor battery just won't be up to the task.

All in all, the Kindle app for the iPhone is okay, but not great.

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