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.