By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, March 4, 2009 at 7:01 am
First the bad news: In multiple ways, Amazon.com’s new Kindle reader for the iPhone and iPhone Touch falls short of being the ultimate iPhone e-book application. It fails to replicate all the major features of a $359 Kindle device. It’s on the rudimentary side in certain areas. I found one or two instances of issues that were either quirks or outright bugs. I’d love to see a book reader for iPhone that was as polished and functional in its own way as the phone’s iPod software–and this isn’t it.
Despite everything, it’s a delight to have Kindle on the iPhone. What makes Kindle Kindle isn’t software as much as it is content–240,000 books’ worth of it, by far the largest collection of e-books ever assembled. Getting access to those books on a phone is by far the biggest deal in content for Apple devices since Apple itself added moves and TV shows to the iTunes Store. And given that there are far more iPhones and iPod Touches on the planet than Kindle devices, this could be a bigger moment for electronic books than the introduction of the Kindle in 2007 was.
The basics of Kindle on the iPhone are pretty much what you’d expect: You read books a page at a time, flicking through them with your thumb. You read in a full-screen mode that maximizes real estate for words, but tapping the screen gives you a pop-up interface with tools for bookmarking, changing text size (there are five options), and the like. [UPDATE AFTER HAVING PLAYED WITH KINDLE FOR IPHONE A BIT MORE: Having to swipe your thumb to flip pages is kinda uncomfortable, and you do it a lot when reading–I wish that you could turn pages by simply tapping.] And for the first time, Kindle books appear in real black text on a real white background rather than the Kindle device’s grayish E-ink display:
Typographically, iPhone Kindle “pages” have reasonably crisp type, but there’s no hyphenation, which occasionally leads to ungainly justification with way too much white space, as in the line “realistic-looking cloth rabbit” below:
Overall, the wonderful public-domain book reader Classics shows it’s possible to do more elegant type on an iPhone:
On the plus side, photos that look terrible on the Kindle 2’s 16-shade E-ink screen look dandy on the iPhone:
You can buy new books on your iPhone in a pinch, but only by browsing plain old Amazon.com in Mobile Safari–it hasn’t been optimized for iPhone, and the Kindle app itself suggests you do your buying on a computer or a Kindle. A feature called Whispersync syncs your bookmarks across all devices you read books on–a practically mandatory task if you own a Kindle device and an iPhone, since it lets you pick up reading on one device where you left off on the other. And, of course, you get access to any books you bought previously on a Kindle device. But magazines and blogs I’d subscribed to on my Kindle 2 didn’t travel to the iPhone.
In fact, it’s not clear whether you can get magazines, newspapers, and blogs on an iPhone at all–when I tried to subscribe to the New York Times in Mobile Safari, the Amazon site promisingly made reference to sending it to an iPhone:
But then it asked me to select a specific Kindle to download it to–and Kindle for iPhone wasn’t an option. And Amazon’s press release for Kindle for iPhone makes no reference to anything but books being available. (Too bad–it would be cool to be able to have the Times or The New Yorker downloaded to an iPhone for reading in unconnected places like airplanes.)
Also confusing: When I first launched Kindle for iPhone, books I already owned were in an “Archive” section, with thumbnails of their cover art:
But when I downloaded them to the iPhone, some of them inexplicably lost their pretty covers:
And some filled the iPhone’s screen while others were mysteriously undersized:
(I’ll try to get answers from Amazon on the glitches I’ve encountered, and will update this review as relevant.)
Kindle for iPhone is also missing a few Kindle 2 features that some folks might pine for, including highlighting (I did notice that highlights I’d created on my Kindle showed up on the iPhone) and note-taking, the ability to search, and a built-in dictionary. And it’s no stunner that the controversial text-to-speech book-reading feature is nowhere to be found.
I’ve spent most of this piece picking nits, and yet I’m still excited to be able to buy and read honest-to-goodness mainstream books for reasonable prices (usually $9.99 and under) on a device I have with me everywhere I go. The fundamentals are in place, but this app is bursting with the potential to go much further.
I’m not sure if this first pass at Kindle for iPhone is on the basic side because:
1) Amazon rushed it out the door and has grand plans to make it better and better, until it’s just as ambitious as the iPhone’s software for listening to music and watching movies and TV shows;
2) It thinks that nobody’s really going to do all that much book reading on an iPhone, and therefore the app doesn’t need to be very fancy;
3) It’s intentionally dumbing down the iPhone app to prevent it from discouraging people from buying $360 Kindle devices.
But I very much hope that option 1) comes closest to explaining the company’s motivations and plans…and that 3) is way off base. (Which it probably is–the full-blown Kindle’s larger screen and vastly better battery life make it far better for serious, extended reading; I think the existence of a good Kindle for iPhone is more likely to boost Kindle sales than to depress them, and I’ll bet Amazon agrees.)
More to come, including comparisons of Kindle for iPhone with other iPhone e-book options, such as Shortcovers, which launched last week…