Monday Ebooks: Mobile Edition


Welcome to our weekly feature on electronic books, in which the Editrix has a most harmless delight.

Google has announced a mobile edition of its Book Search, allowing users of iPhones and devices using the Android operating system (it is unclear if any other smartphones or devices are supported) to read any of the books in its archives. Since Google has amassed a very large amount of books in its service, especially out of print public domain works, potentially this could be a great service. However, as we see it, there are some issues that could prevent this service from living up to that potential.

Users of Google Book Search already know that the books are scanned, and the scanned images are served up as images. Since such images are difficult to use on mobile devices, with their small screens, the service uses Optical Character Recognition, or OCR, to convert the pictures of text into actual text. Anyone who has ever scanned text documents and used OCR to convert them to reflowable text knows that OCR is imperfect. Google admits on its own blog that there is a challenge, especially with older books that use old-fashioned fonts or oddball fonts such as handwriting fonts. Ebook enthusiast Mike Cane claims that additional errors are introduced in the conversion to the mobile product.

Another issue is that the books are not downloaded, but served up in real time over a wireless connection. That’s all very well and good, but what if your train goes into the tunnel and you want to change pages? Out of luck. What if you live somewhere that doesn’t have great wireless reception? Out of luck. And then when you can read them, they are full of OCR errors. Google says it’s still working on the product, which is good!

It seems to us that a local copy of an ebook, downloaded to your device of choice, is to be preferred to a “cloud” book, at least until the technology improves. Books that have been proofread and formatted by a human being, like Girlebooks’ free public domain books, are even more preferable! Project Gutenberg has announced a similar project, with downloaded local copies of their many public domain texts, but the project has yet to launch.

For those readers who prefer a dedicated device, Amazon will be making an announcement tomorrow. The hot rumor is that they will be announcing new Kindle hardware. MobileRead claims to have received leaked images of the device, which is sleeker and thinner than the current Kindle, though it is longer. A selection of aftermarket Kindle covers (some quite spendy) have also been announced, which rather tends to confirm the leaked photos!

ETA: Engadget liveblogs the Amazon announcement. See the Sydney Smith quotation on one screen…Austen scholars David Cecil and Irene Collins have theorized that Jane Austen met Sydney Smith in Bath in 1796 and used some aspects of his personality when creating Henry Tilney. Okay, we’re reaching for an Austen tie-in, but there you go. 🙂

However, an article in the Washington Times claims that smartphones, in particular the iPhone and its wireless companion, the iPod Touch, are the real Kindle Killers that will drive usage and adoption of ebooks. But as the article linked at the beginning of the post points out, Amazon is also working on a way to serve up its large collection of ebooks for purchase on mobile phones as well as on the Kindle, so it seems to be mitigating its risk. We think some people will certainly prefer the portability of these tiny devices as well as their many other uses–media player, calendar, etc.–but we still prefer dedicated devices with an eInk screen for extended reading.

Thanks to Alert Janeite Maria L. for the link to the New York Times article.