Are handsets suitable for e-books?

An announcement from HarperCollins, one of the world’s largest publishers, that it will offer free chapter summaries direct to consumer’s handsets in Australia started me thinking about the viability of the mobile handset as an e-book platform. The technology, of course, already exists – storing and reading large volumes of text is possible on most of today’s mid-range and high-end handsets. The real question is whether the more fundamental aspects of reading text in the mobile environment are conducive to a good user experience.

Handheld computer manufacturers have been promoting their products as e-book platforms for many years now. There are obvious similarities in form-factor between PDAs and traditional paperbacks, but early attempts fell some way short of recreating the relaxing experience of reading a ‘real’ book. There were problems with the weighting and balance of the devices, which made them uncomfortable to hold in the hand for long periods of time, the legibility of text on the screen and the ergononic aspects of locating hardware scrolling buttons for flipping the digital pages.

It is these sort of problems which pose the greatest challenge to reading e-books on a mobile device, even more so on phones than PDAs. Issues such as storage capacity, digital rights management and the download process are overcome relatively easy with the latest technology. The human factors which determine whether an experience is enjoyable are more complex.

One of the first considerations is the frame of mind in which most consumers will want to read an e-book. For most users, reading is about relaxation. You only have to look around the carriage on a commuter train at all the people with their heads buried in a novel to realise that reading is often a form of escapism, a way of passing time during an otherwise stressful period of travel.

If the process of reading an e-book on a mobile device is less relaxing than browsing a traditional book, the balance tips significantly in favour of the paper option.

Of course, there is always something a trade-off. The user may be willing to sacrifice some of the tactile qualities of a paper book for the benefits of being able to carry several volumes with them in digital format and the convenience of having all their information stored in a single device.

So why is text printed on paper a more pleasant experience for the eye than text displayed on a screen? Firstly, most mobile device displays emit light, whereas paper books reflect light. It places less strain on the eye to read from a reflected, rather than an emitted surface.

Another aspect is the actual quality of the individual letters. If you zoom into a screenshot from a mobile device, you will notice that the edges of the letters are quite jagged. From a distance the eye naturally compensates, but at a deeper level, it is working hard to refine these characters. Several font companies are developing technologies which digitally ‘smooth’ these edges, but the current text display capabilities of mobile handsets are quite basic.

A big part of the problem is to do with what isn’t shown on the screen rather than what is. White space, whether it is between characters or at the edge of the page, is one of the most important factors in determining whether a body of text is easy to read. Microsoft was an early pioneer of this approach with its Reader software for the Pocket PC platform. It realised that placing large white borders around the main text areas made viewing much more enjoyable.

For this sort of display technique to work effectively, a minimum screen resolution of 320 x 240 is required. Screens of this quality are currently only found on PDAs and high-end smartphones (some, such as Nokia’s N90 are even starting to exceed this). Without this level of resolution, there simply aren’t enough pixels on the screen to fit the borders and text.

Technology considerations, while less problematic than the human factors, also play a part. A large colour display will typically drain the battery of a mobile phone within two or three hours of constant usage. If the user is worrying what effect reading an e-book will have on their ability to make calls later in the day, they are unlikely to do it very often.

There is also the difficulty of getting the book onto the device in the first place. The HarperCollins offering in Australia is confined to free samples of just a couple of chapters. Even using the latest compression technology, a typical e-book can run to several hundred kilobytes, which translates into a painfully slow download over a GPRS network.

Steve Jobs of Apple is well known for praising the desktop discovery element of the iTunes model. According to Jobs, the ease with which music can be browsed, purchased and organises on the desktop is one of the key reasons for the success of the iPod. I suspect the same will need to be true of e-books. Companies will need to look closely at how users make their literary purchasing decisions and ensure the process is as seamless as possible.

This may mean close integration with a site like, allowing users to browse, research titles and then provision them OTA to their handset. Another idea would be to incorporate shortcode ordering in physical retail stores: the user spends an afternoon browsing books at their favourite store, but rather than purchasing the paperback, they simply input a shortcode into their handset to order the electronic version. There are a wide range of possibilities, but one thing is certain: mobile devices don’t provide a good platform for browsing a large library of potential titles.

I’m still unsure whether the primary function of mobile phones as voice communication tools will preclude them from being effective e-book readers. There are very few phones on the market today which are suitable for this purpose. I use a P900, which has several attributes to recommend it as a reader platform – such as the scroll wheel and the balance of the device in the hand when the flip is open – but even with these qualities I still struggle to read anything longer than an email or web news article.

This is another example of why better segmentation is so important. There are clearly customers who would value access to e-books on their handset, but this market is currently under-addressed. Catering to this need poses unique design challenges for handset manufacturers and a wider challenge for the whole industry to demonstrate an integrated approach to product development: from the purchasing process to the implementation of effective font technology.

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  1. 1
    steve bridges

    Hi Marek, forget about DRM and head to Project Gutenberg, who have a huge amount of classic, out-of-copyright literature in text format. This non-profit organisation is the way forward, although you won’t find the latest Jeffrey Archer in threr ( a plus point, in my opinion ). There’s a certain rightness in reading HG Wells or Jules Verne on your phone, I think…
    However, I think phones will come into their own when TTS software can deliver enough expression to match a recorded audio book, and the phone will revert to being a voice device, rather than a compromised laptop

  2. 2
    Marek Pawlowski

    I very much agree on the excellent work being conducted under the auspices of Project Gutenberg – it is great to see this content being made freely available.

    My concerns over the viability of e-books on mobile handsets are mainly related to human interaction issues rather than the legal and technology questions surrounding DRM. You make an interesting point about the possibility of using text-to-speech (TTS) to eliminate the problems of screen quality, viewing angle etc… I hadn’t considered that as a possibility in the article, but definitely something worth looking at.

  3. 4
    Mike Short

    The clear answer to your question ought to be in many cases ‘no’, although some handsets are or will be.

    However, I felt that the emphasis you were giving related mainly to works of fiction, rather than fact of perhaps reference / business books.

    Some of the advantages / disadvantages of e-books also seemed missing in your article so have added more below ….


    – lesser storage of unnecessary paperbacks
    – ability to ‚Äúsearch‚Ä? or pick out key words /phrases
    – usability benefits such as talking books or adjustable font size
    – ability to offer more ready feedback and Participation TV equivalent options – voting / audience to author feedback/ research responses + additions
    – editor feedback – errors found and spellcheck /duplication
    – opportunity to download with more ease and transfer to other viewers/players. Perhaps even re edit and add to a multimedia experience?

    Disadvantages (you had many well covered already, but a few more )

    -graphics may not be consistently shown
    -pixel count and screen size critical, as well as processor power
    -scrolling speed may be slow
    – e-book weight / prone to portable damage
    -accessories may be poor – e.g. chargers, case covers, Bluetooth to other viewers
    – DRM, storage limits and transferrability.

    It is always important to bring out that an e-book may be part of a new and wider market, rather than assume it is a direct substitute for existing books.
    When the Blackberry was conceived as a 2 way pager it was original knocked for similar reasons.

    Mike Short, Chairman, Mobile Data Association

  4. 5
    Marek Pawlowski

    The additional incentive and the additional sacrifice people are willing to make to read important business documents was something which occured to me, but didn’t make it to the final version of the article. I wonder what other challenges this would produce in terms of enterprise document policies, security considerations and how an organisation would actually go about making information available in e-book format? I suspect the consumer-led way in which most mobile devices are provisioned would provide something of a headache for the IT department if they wanted to make company reference texts available. I guess there may be a market for more mainstream business books, but presumably these could be delivered in the same way as consumer titles.

    Your points about reader interaction are interesting – I hadn’t really explored this as a two-way process in the article, but you’re absolutely right – there is no reason why this shouldn’t involve more reader participation. One possibility would be access to Wikipedia-style services. However, that really does create a usability challenge – how do you design a device suitable for communication, reading *and* text input? This was overall point I was trying to make in the article – for e-books to be viable on mobile handsets, they will require some very particular hardware characteristics and a deep understanding of the needs of individual segments.

  5. 6
    Tze-Chien Chu

    In all the digital format book.(e-book,PDF Reader ,MP3) . I use MP3 format the most. Because it is the most “comfortable” way to get the information. The only downside of MP3 is unable to search. I try many kind of e-book. PDA style to Hardware e-Book. All don’t work as good as the MP3. Because these device are not easy to read and not comfortable.

  6. 7
    PG Holmlov

    I use Mobipocket’s MobiReader on my Symbian OS Nokia 6600 smartphone to read the e-books my local library loans me. You can lend five per ten-day period, I think, and after 30 days or so you can’t access the files anymore. It’s strictly (boring) text, no images bar the cover page, but good stories do not need fancy clothing.

    I tried the Gutenberg archives, of course, but seem only to be able to view these e-books as text files on my phone, which makes it impossible to start reading where you last left off (you have to scroll down from the top). Any insights as how I should do this to get MobiReader functionality for Gutenberg e-books?

  7. 8

    I have used symbian devices like the Nokia 6600 and Nokia ngage for reading ebooks. But the joy of reading on a small screen is shortlived.First of all , the mobile phone should have a brilliant resolution to get clear text, then a fantastic processor for smooth auto scrolling.Unless the experience is lag free, it isnt going to be fun .I am really sick of reading books on small screens, now back to paper books.I can buy like a 200 paper books ,instead of buying a costly mobile phone that can read ebooks.

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