iPhone rescues the ebook from the rubbish bin of history?


Ebooks have been a long time coming. If you believe most they’re still coming. If you believe some, their day is already over before it started.

There was a rash of ebook reader models early on to capitalise on the ‘nobody will be reading books in five years’ hysteria, but people bought them in inverse proportion to the number of books they continued to buy. Whether they were any good or not is almost a moot point — books were still around because we were used to the form factor after almost six centuries.

Now it’s ten years on from the original ebook hysteria, and those crazy 15th century stalwarts are still cutting down trees and pressing ink onto them. In the US alone, the market was worth $10.51 billion in 2007.

We have a better class of ebook reader now, however. Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s reader and iRex’s Iliad all have faults, but they have an expanded toolset more suited to the increasingly wireless and converged world where we not only want content on the go but see no need to restrict it to just books.

And just like the iPhone’s ushered in the Jetsons age many dreamed of in other areas, the stats say it’s doing the same for ebooks. Forbes magazine reported earlier this month that 395,000 copies of an ebook reading application called Stanza had been downloaded through the iTunes application store since July 2008, compared to the 380,000 Kindle units analysts predict Amazon will move throughout the whole year.

Of course there’s a deeper story behind the stats. Stanza isn’t the content, it’s the delivery system and there’s no report of the number of ebooks downloaded with it. It’s also a free application and more importantly, so are the public domain or creative commons titles available — a very different playing field from copyrighted works and the thousand dollar devices they’re read on.

The Kindle, Reader and Iliad still hold the lead in usability as they don’t need nearly as much power and the interfaces and screens are designed specifically for reading text. By comparison, anyone who’s tried to watch a movie on an iPod or iPhone knows what a cluster migraine-including experience it can be.

But the numbers don’t lie, and like in so many other areas, Apple’s world beating device is unwittingly leading the pack. If nothing else, the company has proven its mettle in moving into and taking over an industry sector — everything from the graphical user interface to the mp3 player.

And with Stanza publisher Lexcycle’s chief executive saying he’s in talks with major publishers, Apple just might be synonymous with another kind of content any day now.


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