The Changing World of Digital Rights & Publishing Agreements
Porous Paywalls and Book Publishing

In Search of Smart E-Reader Apps

Why are e-reader apps so dumb? They pretty much let you read the content, make a few highlights/notes and that's about it. Btw, by "e-reader apps" I'm talking about dedicated devices (e.g., Kindles, Nooks, iPads) as well as apps on other platforms (e.g., Kindle apps on Windows, Mac, iPad, etc.). I feel like these apps and devices are at the same stage the mobile phone was prior to the iPhone's release. They're not as smart and powerful as they could be. Let me give you a few examples:

Automatically gathering collections. Let's start simple here. The original Kindle just placed all your content in one place. It was a huge step forward when Amazon finally enabled collections. Why do they have to be done manaully though? For example, I download a Kindle sample or two every week and I've quickly forgotten about ones from a few months ago. Why doesn't the Kindle allow me to have all samples automatically drop into a "Samples" collection? Or how about enabling auto-collections based on category? I read a lot of baseball and WWII books. How about automatically dropping those new purchases into category folders with those names for me? Make it user-configurable so that anyone who likes having everything plopped into one enormous, unmanaged home folder can continue doing so. (Btw, I'll bet those are the same people who leave everything in their email inboxes and never use folders there either.)

Be more aware of what else is on my device. This is a big one for me. For example, the Kindle app on my iPad is like a silo that has no intention of communicating with other apps or content on the device. Let's say I'm reading a book about The Eagles and I also happen to have a number of their albums on my iPad. I'm at a point in the book where Don Felder talks about how he came up with the riff for the title track of Hotel California. How about letting me touch the name of that song on my screen (in the Kindle app) and give me an option to play the track while I read? The e-reader app just needs to discover what other content is on the device and make the connection to it in the book I'm reading. Pretty simple stuff. In fact, there's a cool iPad app called This Day in Led Zeppelin that does it, so why can't e-reader apps do it too?

Leverage the capabilities of the device. My iPhone and iPad both have map apps so why can't their respective e-reader apps add map links to every location named in a book? So anytime New York, London, Yankee Stadium or any other location appears in a book I could simply touch it on the screen and a map of that location pops up. I could then either look at it from an aerial view, street view or whatever other option is available. No coding is required by the author/publisher; it just happens automatically in the e-reader app as it parses the content it's displaying.

Give me reminders. I recently rediscovered an ebook I started reading many months ago. Thanks to all those samples I download this one eventually got pushed off my home screen and was buried several screens in. I had completely forgotten about it. How about another user-configurable option where the app tracks my reading habits, recognizes that I had been reading that book for a few weeks then completely stopped and so it nudges me with a message like, "Remember such-and-such book? Have you forgotten about it?" This isn't the first time this has happened to me and I've got to believe others have run into the same problem as well.

Let me know about related books I might be interested in. Yes, Amazon does a fine job emailing me throughout the week based on my purchase habits. Those messages are starting to feel like white noise though and I rarely open them anymore. I know this isn't for everyone, but I'm OK with Amazon nudging me with in-app or in-book suggestions. Heck, isn't that what the whole "Kindle with Special Offers" device is all about? I don't think they should limit those deals to a particular device though. Why not open it up to any Kindle customer, regardless of whether they're reading on a Kindle or just through a Kindle app? As a consumer I'm telling them it's OK to advertise to me! I sometimes miss a new release or other product I might be interested in, so feel free to tell me about it in the app, not just via email. Again, this is obviously a feature some people won't want, so make it user-configurable.

I'm sure I'm just scratching the surface here on the type of functionality that will eventually find its way into all e-reader apps. I just wish it would happen sooner rather than later. All the e-reader apps I use are moving forward at a glacial pace. That's why I suggested earlier that Amazon should open source their e-reader apps. Let the community help add these features and they'll appear sooner. I'd still love to see that happen.


Ted Summerfield

Mapping locations in an ebook could be problematic if city in story is from another time. How would app differentiate between 1859 NY, 2312 NY, or 2009 NY?

Joe Wikert

Great question, Ted. One option is for all maps to default to today but allow the publisher to override that by inserting a map from yesterday or tomorrow. That adds to the complexity of what I originally suggested, of course, but it's not an unsolvable problem.

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