On a recent extended trip to England, I discovered Stanza, an e-reader application for the iPhone. Not only did it demonstrate for me that the iPad will obsolete the Kindle, but that the iPhone can do a pretty good job of it already.
Surprisingly, the iPhone surpasses a threshold of usability that makes it more of a pleasure than a pain to use as an e-reader. This is due to the beautiful design and execution of Stanza. The obvious handicap of the iPhone as an e-reader is the small screen size, but Stanza does a great job of getting around this. It turns out that reading on the iPhone is quite doable, and better than a real book in several ways:
- It is an entire library in your pocket – you can have dozens of books in your iPhone, and since you have your iPhone with you in any case, they don’t take any pocket space at all.
- You can read it in low-light conditions without any additional light source.
- You can read it even when you are without your spectacles, since you can easily resize the text as big as you like.
- It doesn’t cost anything. If you enjoy fiction, there is really no need to buy a book again, since there are tens of thousands of good books in the public domain downloadable free from sites like Gutenberg.org and feedbooks.com. Almost all the best books ever written are on these sites, including all the Harvard Classics and numerous more recent works by great authors like William James, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad and Philip K. Dick.
- You can search the text in a book and instantly find the reference you are looking for.
- It has a built-in dictionary, so any word you don’t know you can look up instantly.
- It keeps your place – every time you open the app it takes you to the page you were reading.
- You can make annotations. This isn’t really better than a paper book, since you can easily write marginal notes in one of those, but with Stanza you don’t have to hunt around for a pencil in order to make a note.
- You don’t have to go to a bookstore or library to get a book. This is a mixed benefit, since it is always so enjoyable to hang out in bookstores and libraries, but when you suddenly get a hankering to take another look at a book you read a long time ago, you can just download it immediately.
All these benefits will apply equally to the iPad and the others in the 2010 crop of tablet PCs, which will also have the benefit of larger screens. But Stanza on the iPhone has showed me that good user interface design can compensate for major form factor handicaps.