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 Amazon.com, 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.