Smartphones challenge the rise of E-readers

Many people who want to read electronic books are discovering that they can do so on the smartphones that are already in their pockets — bringing a whole new meaning to “phone book.” And they like that they can save the $250 to $350 that they would otherwise spend on yet another gadget.

Over the last eight months, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and a range of smaller companies have released book-reading software for the iPhone and other mobile devices. One out of every five new applications introduced for the iPhone last month was a book, according to Flurry, a research firm that studies mobile trends.

All of that activity raises a question: Does the future of book reading lie in dedicated devices like the Kindle, or in more versatile gadgets like mobile phones? So far, e-book software for phones does not appear to have cut into demand for single-function e-readers. According to Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry, about 1.7 million people now own one, and that number could rise to four million by the end of the holiday season.

But there are already 84 million smartphones that can run applications in the United States alone, according to IDC, a research firm. Apple has sold more than 50 million iPhones and iPod Touches, which both run e-book software. Apple itself doesn’t see the iPhone as the ultimate reading device. Next year, it is likely to further stir up the e-book market if, as expected, it introduces a tablet computer — a device bigger than a phone that will most likely run e-reader software along with other programs intended for the iPhone.

People once scoffed at the idea of reading a book on a 3.5-inch mobile screen. For many readers, though, sheer convenience trumps everything else. “The iPod Touch is always at hand,” Shannon Stacey, who has written several romance e-novels, said. “It’s my calendar, it’s my everything, so my books are always with me.”

Stacey, who also owns an early Sony Reader model, said she had now bought twice as many e-books for her iPod Touch as for her Sony. While the Kindle, the Reader and the Nook, the Barnes & Noble device that will reach the market later this month, feature screens that use very little power and are close to the size of a page in a trade paperback, they have comparatively limited features, like gray-and-white reading displays and either partial Internet access or none at all.

Ian Freed, Vice President for Kindle Division at Amazon, said customers still bought more books to read on the Kindle than they did for its iPhone application, though he declined to disclose figures. Amazon is working on e-reading software for the BlackBerry and for Macintosh computers; it introduced software for Windows PCs last week.

“It’s a surprisingly pleasant experience to read on a small screen,” said Josh Koppel, a founder of ScrollMotion, that has made some 25,000 e-books available through Apple’s App Store and has sold more than 200,000 copies.

Books in new forms

Companies like ScrollMotion and BeamItDown sell books in the form of individual applications, so novels like “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer show up right in the App Store. Amazon and Barnes & Noble give away e-reading software instead; users buy the actual books through the browser on a phone or PC.

Publishers are now rushing to develop new forms of books to cater to readers who will see them on smartphones — books that will not work on today’s stand-alone e-readers. When Nick Cave, rock musician, wrote his second novel, “The Death of Bunny Munro,” he and his British publisher, Canongate, worked with a multimedia company to develop an app for the iPhone that incorporated not just the text but also videos, music composed by Cave and audio of the author reading the book.
“What you can do with graphics and moving images creates a lot of possibilities for a publisher that have never existed before,” said Jamie Byng, Canongate’s publisher.
Of course, e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook will evolve as well, most likely adding color to their reading screens.

But in the meantime, Amazon executives say that the limitations of the Kindle actually make it more attractive for reading. “The Kindle is for people who love to read,” Freed of Amazon said. “People use phones for lots of things. Most often they use them to make phone calls. Second most often, they use them to send text messages or e-mail. Way down on the list, there’s reading.”

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