According to Apple, 1.7 million iPhone 4s have been sold since last week’s much anticipated launch. The latest iteration of Apple’s device boasts several new hardware features (front-facing camera, LED flash, HD video recording, a noise-canceling microphone) and host of changes to the operating system, iOS4.
One thing that’s perhaps been lost amidst the hubbub is that not only did 1.7 million people get a new smartphone, but they now have, probably unknowingly, a slick and versatile e-reader. Several key elements have converged, somewhat serendipitously, to make the iPhone4 a surprisingly compelling mode of finding, buying, and reading e-books. And I describe this convergence as serendipitous because much of it was either out of Apple’s control (more on this in a minute) or a by-product of other initiatives.
Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle was completely out of Apple’s hands—the public awareness and interest in e-books that Amazon has spent an enormous amount of energy creating. The Kindle and its variants made e-reading not just possible, but popular. Its simple hardware, compelling selection, and relatively modest cost of entry did more than anything Apple has since done to make e-reading possibly the most important publishing development since moveable type.
Following Amazon’s heavy-lifting, Apple swooped in with the iPad, a jack of all trades device whose principle innovation was making computing more like reading a magazine—simple, intuitive, and, well, pretty. For Apple’s e-reading narrative though, the major development with the iPad wasn’t hardware, though it’s large, bright screen is alluring, but software. iBooks became really the first serious retail competitor to Amazon’s e-book dominance and has in its few short months of existence altered e-book pricing, quality, and awareness.
Still, as compelling as the iPad is as a personal computing device, it’s a luxury computing item, fitting somewhere between a laptop and a smartphone, and so iBooks was also a niche platform. Through iPhone 4 and iOS4, though, almost every iPhone carrier into an e-reader owner, since iBooks is now available as a free download. This point has been surprisingly soft-pedaled in the swirl of media coverage around iPhone 4, though it has the potential to be the most innovative feature of it. Because Apple has done something that Amazon really couldn’t do: it folded e-reading technology into a device millions and millions of people carry with them every day.
These two foundational elements, Amazon’s bleeding-edge marketing and Apple’s software accessibility, are irrelevant, though, if the actual experience of reading the iPhone4 isn’t compelling. So how is the experience? In short, mostly excellent.
Serious book readers generally don't like reading on a 3.5 inch screen for long periods of time, but the iPhone 4’s new display, which boasts a resolution in excess of 300 dpi, makes reading on the device shockingly comfortable. Text is rendered almost unbelievably well; the serifs on even the smallest text appear as sharp and fluid as a printed book. Add to that a number of customization options, including text size, font, brightness, and background color, and the iPhone has all the necessary features to provide a solid, entry-level e-reading experience—all with a bare minimum of investment on the users’ part.
Text selection in iBooks is somewhat limited, but Amazon, quite shrewdly, has made an application for iPhone that enables readers to browse, buy, and read its catalog directly on the iPhone, though the reading experience through this Kindle application is a little more basic than Apple’s own software. Still, at this point, Amazon seems willing to cede hardware sales to Apple to retain its e-book market share.
Will iPhone owners be willing to give e-reading a shot? It’s probably too soon to tell and Apple doesn’t seem terribly interested in promoting the phone’s e-text capabilities at this point, since initial advertising for the device seems focused on video calling and digital imaging. Still, this might very well be a seminal moment for the spread of e-reading as a non-enthusiast activity—and no one seems to know it.