Jan 12

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

The iPhone As An eBook Reader

The BookSquare blog reflects on the iPhone as an eBook reader:

"The iPhone also features a surprisingly large screen, and has the ability to automatically change the screen orientation when a user turns it sideways. At 3.5 inches it seems suspiciously perfect for reading....Setting aside the comfort issues, the iPhone could either kill the nascent e-reader business or take it to new levels. We’ve been saying just about forever that the problem with dedicated e-reader is the fact that the consumer isn’t seeking a device that does only one thing. With its “smart” orientation features, the iPhone could usher in the mass market e-book era."

I agree. I've never been very interested in dedicated eBook devices. Among other things, they don't have the back-end infrastructure for effective content distribution, because all of them are focused on publisher-only options. Because of their book search products, a lot of people are focused on Amazon and Google as the major players in the would-be electronic book distribution network, but it seems to me that Apple is quietly carving out a very strong position with iTunes. We've been actively using iTunes for digital distribution of tutorials from Make:, and have had substantial readership. (We send out a pdf with every weekend video project (readers get both the video and the pdf in iTunes), and we send out a weekly pdf on Craft: of sewing patterns, stencils and paper craft projects. Phil Torrone reports that we delivered 20,000+ PDFs in the month of December.)

What's significant about iTunes and pdfs is that you're talking about a general-purpose content distribution network with a device that gets its volume from markets like music, photos, and video, that are well ahead of books as first class digital objects. I just don't see how any book-specific device has that much of a chance.

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Comments: 27

  Valentin [01.13.07 06:26 AM]

I'm sad to hear that you don't believe in dedicated eBook readers - I was hoping that within the near future I could get a Safari iLiad, subsidised by higher subscription prices (like in the mobile phone business). For me this is really THE ONE Safari feature that I miss most ...

  davidm [01.13.07 10:12 AM]

Forget the OLPC and the Sony ebook reader with their abilities to have extremely long battery life while reading ebooks, the iPhone is it! Not only that, you can pay just $600 (plus two year AT&T contract) and gain the benefits of dazzling special effects while turning pages! The iPhone would also make a perfect spatula, with its wide design, anything more than 3.5" inches would be a waste. It'd also make a perfect door stop. But I can't wait for iPhone 2.0.

Just wait until those Gutenberg Project guys hear about this, they'll be porting their content over to iTunes pronto.

  Tim O'Reilly [01.13.07 10:22 AM]

Davidm -- your comments remind me of early remarks by hypertext purists about the WWW -- or for that matter, dedicated word processor companies like Wang who couldn't see personal-computer-based word processors like WordStar as serious competition.

And as for "porting their content over," the point is that no porting is needed (unlike for most dedicated ebook devices.)

  davidm [01.13.07 11:11 AM]

Aww Tim, I wasn't expecting the Luddite tack.

For sure Apple has added some nice touches to a now classic 'communicator' design (I had a p800 that was basically the same thing years ago), and their reach certainly is a factor, but I don't get the manifest destiny thing for Apple, especially when people are willing to toss out so many other ideals in favour of the canned experience. (I'm typing this on a Mac.)

Where's the expansion slot on the iPhone, where's the p2p network for iTunes that will allow them to provide movies for less than twice what the video stores charge, where's any mention of open source in all this (or is it passé in this quarter now?). It's not anything that would get someone fired from a company for thinking different. This is a cautious, marketed, minimal evolution of what's out there now, with great attention to detail. It's a BMW, not a hybrid or something no one ever expected. It's $1 a song for 2% of the population, not $.05 a song for everyone.

I get it, content distribution is important to anyone whose business is producing it commercially, but somehow all this 'Apple is gonna solve all our problems' thing seems a bit dangerous, and a let down. And I don't think this big, expensive phone is going to mean much to many people any time soon - unless you're hoping for an Apple monopoly, which is where they'd like to be. I wouldn't 'trust' them to carry that torch more than anyone else, and there's no real vision here aside from linear commercial evolution.

  Norman Rhodes [01.13.07 11:24 AM]

3.5 inches is fine and good but isn't there a place for the dedicated e-book reader? The Sony device (PRS 500) can display personal content in the form of PDFs and any reader that is going to succeed will be able to to the same with a wide variety of formats.
Any industry that uses a mass of reference manuals could use the amendability and portability of a quality e-reader, an iPhone just will not do it for them.

The landscape may well be swept by Apple if they produce the killer device that everyone wants, 'The Newton2' re-badged as the 'iPad' ;-) What chance?

  pt [01.13.07 12:20 PM]

at macworld i did a talk about using itunes to manage pdf subscriptions - even without an ipod. i use the sony reader for a lot of ebooks, and with itunes - works great. i'll do a post up on make soon about all this.

i also chatted with the iphone/itunes folks and they seemed interested in some of what i outlined.

  Tim O'Reilly [01.13.07 12:45 PM]

Davidm --

I don't see my comments as Luddite, just realistic. Here are the objections I have to dedicated eBook readers:

1. Since most of them have proprietary formats in an attempt to lock down content, they will never have enough content to get to critical mass. Even the ipod wouldn't have been possible without the widespread availability of technology for people to rip their own CDs (never mind Napster.) Even now, I'd bet that the greatest percentage of content on most people's ipods is in mp3 format, ripped from CDs. There is no equivalent market-exploding externality for eBooks.

In my talks, I show two slides, one a photo I found on the net of the "CD Burnomatic", the music industry's image of the mp3 revolution as a toaster with CDs popping out of it. Then I show some images of the equivalent of ripping a book, Brewster Kahle's operation at the Internet Archive's bookmobile.

2. Even the players who are engaged in mass digitization (e.g. Amazon, Google) are focused on building their own private data collections, rather than supporting an interoperable multi-player ecology of readable content.

3. Because of iTunes support for PDFs, which is the closest equivalent to MP3 in the ebook space, it is a stealth ebook reader already, and I predict that it will get to critical mass before anyone whose strategy depends on cutting deals with publishers. I'm sorry to say that :-), since it would be nice for publishers if this would develop as an orderly marketplace where all the existing players were guaranteed their place in the sun after the revolution, but revolutions rarely happen that way.

  Dinah [01.13.07 01:46 PM]

eBook use occurred to me as soon as I saw the pictures coming up on the MacRumors feed.

What I see as important about it - and finally giving a much needed kick in the ass in the ebook world - is the probability it represents for a pervasive, multi-function device.

No, that doesn't mean I think everyone will buy an iPhone.

You will acknowledge the worldwide growing ownership of mobile phones across age and income levels, yes?

I think Apple has redefined expectations of what a phone can be & do and that iPhone will be widely imitated in three essential respects for mobile reading: landscape view , internet connectivity and support for standard file formats.

These combined with trends in digitization, increasing initial availability of works in digital format, the alternative to copyright in Creative Commons licensing, increased distribution models (e.g. iTunes, MySpace home pages for creators, peer-to-peer networks, public libraries), and the overall growth of self-publishing all add up to easier adoption of an opportunity like that which it appears the iPhone will provide.

  davidm [01.13.07 02:58 PM]

Hi Tim,

I meant you were implying I'm a luddite, although that's not really the right word. Unfortunately I'm not as developed a communicator as you, but I can console myself that I'm not alone.

What I was really referring to in my original post was tunneling something in-obvious like ebooks to the iPhone (why they restrict it to phone in its name is beyond me, since iTunes is already narrow - why not the iPod Communicator?), whereas there are so many other devices similar to the iPhone, as well as many devices directly designed to be an ebook. In fact, we've been seeing an explosion of small tablet like devices for years, Apple cleverly waited to see what happened with the first waves before releasing their own version (granted, they did have the Newton, but the "new" Apple is less interested in being revolutionary/different, and more about being the middleman/end device in a media convergent experience).

iTunes is truly an asset in that regard. Maybe the news should be about Apple providing generous facilities to use iTunes on different devices, but Apple's experiments in cooperation (third party Mac hardware, the Motorola iTunes phone) have been disastrous.

Of course, I agree on your point about iTunes as a commercial pdf distribution medium, maybe they will be successful where predecessors have not, which is interesting I suppose, but more in a book publishing industry footnote kinda way than something that is really getting on top of new technological/social trend, and I wonder how many "compromises" there will be and what will be left. You'd have to tell me what is wrong with and all the other attempts, is it just a matter of funneling it into iTunes, or is Apple just the company folks like you want to work with. In the end is the book industry you 'save' the ones who get along with Apple? I'm not sure what the determinants are.

Its just as likely, I hope, to end up 'fragmented' like the online book selling market, with Amazon dominating but many other providers, hopefully with everyone at least supporting e.g. PDF by default so it'll work for anyone.

Anyway, please excuse my ramblings, too much beer last night. ;)

  davidm [01.13.07 03:31 PM]

Dinah wrote: I think Apple has redefined expectations of what a phone can be & do and that iPhone will be widely imitated in three essential respects for mobile reading: landscape view , internet connectivity and support for standard file formats.

? Other devices have had these features for well over a year. Granted, it is refined on this brand new device. Long live competition. But really, Apple's marketing is fabulous.

  graemew [01.13.07 03:31 PM]

I've read a considerable number of ebooks on my Palm Zire 72, which has a 320 x 320 pixel screen. My guess is that I'd use the iPhone as a reader in portrait mode, rather than landscape, but I agree with your general conclusion that it would make a fine ebook reader, and that iTunes would make a fine distribution mechanism.

I also agree with your comments about critical mass. I'd probably already own a Nokia 770 or 800 if it read any common ebook format, and they're open source.

On the other hand, I think PDFs make a terrible ebook format for handheld readers. You can't change the page width, so you're stuck if the document author had a wider display in mind, and you can't set the font or font size, so again you're stuck with what the document author chose.

O'Reilly has done a great thing in making so much material available as PDF's. They're quite useful on a laptop, but in my opinion useless on anything smaller.

  Tim O'Reilly [01.13.07 04:58 PM]

Graemew, you wrote:

"On the other hand, I think PDFs make a terrible ebook format for handheld readers. You can't change the page width, so you're stuck if the document author had a wider display in mind, and you can't set the font or font size, so again you're stuck with what the document author chose."

But it's quite clear that this is something Adobe is looking to change in future.

  wattpad [01.13.07 09:48 PM]

I believe you guys should also check out Wattpad. It is a free application specifically designed for reading on mobile phones and it is available today.

  Jake Lockley [01.14.07 07:22 PM]

PDF conversions for mobile devices is really poor. Even eBooks you buy look horrible on a mobile device. I've been using my PDA as a book reader for years, and MS Reader turned out to be the best solution. Speaking of which, iPhone is just Apple's walled garden version of the Pocket PC phone. The Pocket PC has many killer apps that are third party, my favorite being Mastersoft's Money, a finance app that puts apps like Quicken to shame. Apple's simply expanding the user base for these devices by targeting the less tech-saavy with a pretty fashionable phone. This is good for us because with time they'll be able to shift the consumer market to where the rest of are and make the older smarter products more commercially viable to the masses.

  Duke [06.16.07 09:18 PM]

The issue that the iPhone will have is battery life. 5 hours of talk time is great. 5 hours of reading + talking time is not so great. I also don't want to have a dead phone every time I get a call because I use it to read and play music all the time.

They really need to work on battery life. 12 hours total is where they need to be for it to replace what I want to replace with it.

  kreeb [07.29.07 01:37 PM]

Unless Adobe fixes it so that the text can be resized on the fly by the reader (not just make the page bigger)PDFs are a terrible way to distribute eText for portable eBook readers. I use an RCA-1100, a Palm m500 and a Nokia E62 to read eBooks on. PDFs are a HUGE pain to read on my Nokia E62. It is not the fault of the Nokia, it is a problem with the PDF files.

  wikeh [09.07.07 06:58 PM]

I agree with kreeb. I would prefer a dedicated ebook reader app that could read .pdb/.prc formats already available for Palm ereaders (I use my Palm for ebook reading now) and .txt and .rtf formats. I'd want it to resize the text to fit the screen, with user selectable fonts and font sizes, to maximize readability. Zooming and side to side scrolling are not conducive to productive ereading (hence PDFs are not the answer). That would also make it more feasible to review documents (extracted from Word or other sources) on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

  Ryan [09.11.07 01:19 AM]

The Iphone is not quite good enough for an ebook reader not only because of the tiny screen size but also because of the lack of software. With conversion tools the Sony Reader can view PDFs in landscape mode pretty well however it is not an easy process and it doesnt always work. I read mostly technical books so having a good PDF reading ability is a must for me. I was thinking of picking up the iRex iliad, but @$700 it is crazy expensive. The best solution for this I can think for this could be either an Iphone type of device with a bigger screen or 8.5" x 11" version of the Reader. This is actually a space I wish Microsoft would jump into.

  WILL Mullen [09.20.07 06:18 PM]

If I want to take pictures, I'll buy a camera not a phone. If I want the rigid format of PDFs, I'd throw a couple of old fashined pBooks into my bag to read. I own a Rocket eBook and loved it because as my eyes went bad, I was able to change the font to a larger one and keep reading without having to zoom in then scroll right and left. My ReB's backlight is no longer bright enough for my diminishing eyesight. However, I have been reluctant to take the plunge into other devices that may not support the common formats.

I recently purchased an iPhone because I can actually see the keypad to dial a number. I figured that as long as I had the thing and was paying for the data port, I may try an ebook on it. However, if I am unable to control font size and Back and Fore ground colors, I may give up and try something like the iLiad.

I believe that instead of buyinga device that does nothing well, I'd rather have several devices, each of which does one thing very well.

  Ben Schwemlein [09.21.07 12:57 PM]

To try it out, I purchased a Sony reader for $50.00. And I would prefer to read O’reilly Safari books on it than a iPhone, because of the Sony Reader’s larger screen size and similarity to paper. Like many other people, a decent portion of my library contains Safari books, which I enjoy leafing through as I work. And I think a dedicated eReader might have a better chance at mimicking this than a phone. I don’t know what the hurdles are, but it would be nice if publishers and eReader manufacturers worked together so that the preferences of consumers like me could be accommodated. I would love to have my Safari collection on my Sony Reader instead of a phone.

  NetMage [11.16.07 02:56 PM]

There is for iPhone, that handles books in text and HTML format quite well:

  Mike Scott [11.29.07 10:48 PM]

The equivalent of MP3 for the ebook space is HTML, not PDF. Quite apart from the problems of PDFs not adjusting to your choice of screen width and fonts, which Adobe are indeed working on, it's very difficult to convert PDFs into other formats. If I get an HTML document and I prefer PDFs, it's trivial for me to convert it to PDF (and furthermore, with my preferred fonts and page width); if I get a PDF and want HTML, it's very much harder.

  Jake McKee [12.31.07 09:16 AM]

I know I'm late to this discussion, but I wanted to jump in, nonetheless.

Tim, I agree with your core point which is that iTunes + PDF = great distribution network.

But beyond that, I don't agree with where your point is going here... you're basically saying that because eBook readers have been poorly designed, and because the iPhone has some (highly limited) capability to display text content, eBook readers are dead and the iPhone will rule them all.

This makes no more sense than saying pre-iPod that because MP3 players were largely a pain in the ass, poorly designed, and hard to use that a market for portable music players didn't exist and therefore we should instead just use our laptops. (After all, they have better speakers, bigger hard drives, and we have them with us anyway)

I'd be incredibly curious to know where you stand in relation to this post nearly a year later. After getting to know the iPhone a little longer, do you still feel like it's a "reading platform" (i.e. a device you can sit on the couch and read content from for hours)?

  Tim O'Reilly [12.31.07 10:10 AM]

Jake --

I contest your fundamental question, that an ebook reader will need to be "a device you can sit on the couch and read content from for hours." It's certainly possible that such a device will exist and will succeed, but it's a bit like defining the opportunity for online video as requiring a device that you'll sit in front of for hours. That's what the movie execs thought, and that's why they missed YouTube.

The medium changes what content people consume. And the more accessible the device, the shorter the content engagement experience. TV's preferred format was not the two hours you spend in a movie theater, but a half hour. The computer's preferred video format was five minutes. Why should reading be different?

Likewise, the length of the pop song was driven by the capabilities of the 45 pm record -- a very different form factor from the classical music that you went out for an evening to consume.

Already, many people consume vastly more reading material in the form of web pages than in print.

So with that understanding, yes, I do think that the iPhone is already a good reading device, and it won't take much more to make it a better one.

I'd be surprised if there isn't "one more thing" at Macworld this January. Or if there isn't, Adobe will be offering something once Apple opens the iPhone to independent developers.

  MJG [01.16.08 02:19 PM]

I know I'm joining you late, but today I went looking for more good news on the iPhone front about an eBook reader. I'm looking to replace my aging LifeDrive. The think I use it for MOST is reading ebooks; after that comes Calendar, Address Book, keeping notes and lists and junk, and then accessing the Internet via WiFi. (Of course, with an iPhone, that last one might get more frequent.)

I don't want a dedicated ebook reader. It's enough of a pain for me to keep my LifeDrive updated with eBooks, as well as any pictures or music I want with me. I don't want to have to keep any other device synchronized. But I think most of all, it's that I like to be reading "my book" wherever I am... I don't want to be reading one book at home and another when I'm out. I don't want to CARRY another device just for books. And I really like having my PDA and my eBook be the same device; it really helps me keep on time and on track.

I also think that if my eBook and my phone were the same device, I might be able to drop my landline service and go all-cellular. Though maybe not; today I had 6 hours of conference calls and NO cellphone could possibly stand up to that. (I drained TWO cordless phone batteries! Good thing I have 4 of those.)

So I'm very much hoping to see an eBook reader from Mobipocket or Adobe sometime this year, after Apple releases the SDK. After that, I just need to see if it provides enough personal info management for me and then I'll be all set.

  David [04.10.08 09:31 PM]

I would definitely recommend "reader" on the iPhone. It has been my favorite ebook reader native or not. It's available free at

  RogerL [11.14.08 02:58 PM]


I know this article is a little older, I am with a company that is making it possible for Authors and Publishers to put their eBook's on the iPhone App Store as well in the future Google Android.

There are several good general ereaders currently avialable on the iPhon with Stanza being the biggest.

Our eReader is more dedicated to Auhors/Publishers deliver a their ebook at low cost also quickly and easily.

One quesiton would be, do you feel that PDF is the equivelant to .mp3 for songs?


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