Reader Apps vs. Dedicated Book Apps

Today there are typically two ways of publishing and reading ebooks on mobile devices.  You either use a reader app, often from a device maker (e.g., Kindle, iBooks) or you use a dedicated app written on that platform for that particular work (e.g., The Elements or Solar System for iPad).  Some of those dedicated book apps are terrific but I think they're a symptom of one of the more significant problems in the world of ebook evolution.

I love it that there's so much experimentation going on now with apps, but oftentimes they're one-off's that require a reinvention of the wheel for each new product.  I also hate the fact that we're creating a bunch of book apps that don't talk to each another.  One of the simple features I've been asking for in reader apps is the ability to search across a library.  It's far more likely we'll see that implemented in the Kindle reader, for example, before we'll ever see all these individual apps communicating with each other.

What really needs to happen, IMHO, is for the reader apps to evolve much faster than they are today.  Apple just added the ability to separate your ebooks into different shelves in the iBooks app.  What a concept.  The Kindle app has been around much longer than iBooks and it still doesn't support something as simple as this.

Awhile back I suggested that Amazon ought to get out of the hardware business and focus all their efforts on making their reader app the finest on the planet.  Even though they're not taking that advice, I've got a new idea for them to consider: Turn the Kindle apps into open source projects and enlist the help of the community to enhance and improve them.  Imagine how many great new features would be implemented in this model.  Rather than being limited by the fixed (and apparently small) number of developers assigned to the internal Kindle apps dev team they'd suddently have access to as many developers as they could recruit to the open source project.  They could create a world class set of apps and quickly distance themselves from the competition.

I Want QR Code Videos, Not Assembly Manuals

Powerspin290 My wife's doctor suggested she use an exercise bike to recover from recent knee surgery.  The one we wound up buying had a QR code on the box which takes you to a promotional video (the link is embedded in the QR code shown on the left).

I didn't watch the promo video before buying the bike and I'll bet most other prospective customers don't bother with it either.  It's nice to see manufacturers using QR code technology, but I can think of a much better application than on-box advertising: enhancing or replacing the assembly manual.

When I opened the box I found it contained the typical assortment of screws, nuts, washers, all the various parts of the bike and, of course, an assembly manual.  I hate assembly manuals.  They're often too vague and sometimes even include the wrong information.

A video, on the other hand, is generally worth a thousand assembly manual words.  Rather than providing me with poorly-written assembly instructions, why not show me how each part fits together?  Manufacturers could either simply add QR codes to the written instructions or dump the print instructions completely and just have a code on the box.  For viewing purposes, my iPhone is always handy and something like this would be far more useful than most of the hundreds of thousands of App Store products.

OK, I know everyone doesn't have a smartphone and some people would prefer to read the steps, not watch them; for those people, provide a url where written (and up-to-date!) instructions can be downloaded and printed.

When I replaced the cracked screen on my daughter's iPhone awhile back I followed video instructions, not written ones.  I simply watched a step, pressed pause, did that step on my own, pressed play again, etc.  That's exactly what I'd prefer doing for any sort of assembly project.

There's another benefit to manufacturer's with this option: they could ask every customer to register on their website.  I would have gladly given my email address for access to assembly videos for that bike, enabling the manufacturer to follow-up with me later with cross-sell and up-sell messages.

This idea isn't just for assembly manuals though, of course.  QR codes could be used in owner's manuals (how do I replace a broken tailight bulb on my car?) or any sort of how-to guide (how do I fix a leaky faucet?).  Yes, there's a cost associated with creating all these videos, but it's a terrific opportunity to (a) provide more help to customers and (b) establish a direct relationship with those customers.

Extending an eReader with a Smartphone

Many ebooks can be read just fine on the surface area of your typical Kindle, iPad or other eReader.  The reading process flows sequentially from one page to the next.  No need to jump back and forth within the book or look things up in an index.  Your typical novel is consumed this way, but a how-to book or a reference guide is not; with these latter examples you're often dipping in and out, jumping to and from the index and sometimes wanting to look at pages that aren't adjacent to one another.

I ran into this problem recently with a home repair project.  Using my iPad I read a series of steps on how to replace a cracked porcelain soap dish on a tiled shower wall.  A video was also available but when I watched it I could no longer see the numbered steps on my iPad.  I needed a solution where I could could scan the numbered steps while watching the video, tying the entire process together.  And if you're holding a mallet and chisel at the same time you don't have an extra hand to keep flipping screens on the iPad.  What to do?

One solution is to show the video on my iPhone while the steps appear on my iPad.  I actually wound up doing that, but I had to find the video link separately on my iPhone.  A better solution is an eReader app that lets my devices talk to each other; touch and hold the link on my iPad screen and one of the options that pop up is, "Open link on iPhone."  Just as the Camera-A and Camera-B apps let your iPad use your iPhone's camera, there's no reason an eReader app couldn't use Bluetooth to solve the problem I'm describing.

Think of it as a way of extending the surface area of your eReader device.  In addition to the video feature I described above, here are a couple of other cool uses for a device-pairing feature like this:

Searches -- I'm reading a book and come across a phrase, location or some other item I want to learn more about.  Today I have to leave my ebook app to do the search through my brower.  I'd prefer touching the phrase on my iPad screen and having a menu option that says, "Bing search on iPhone."  I never have to leave my reader app and I can click through any of the search results on my iPhone.

Index access -- Indexes are pretty clumsy in an ebook.  And btw, please don't tell me indexes don't matter in ebooks.  Just because I can search for any phrase I want to doesn't mean I don't want access to a well-developed index that groups all the related items, includes synonyms, etc.  But thanks to the one-frame-only view in today's ebook reader apps, if I want to hop to the index I have to leave the page I'm currently reading.  So how about an option where I touch the screen and one menu option is, "Display index on iPhone"?  Then anytime I touch an index entry on the iPhone, the reader app on my iPad jumps to that page. 

If I'm reading on my iPad I always know my iPhone is close by.  That's because my iPhone is almost always clipped on my belt.  The two devices are obviously capable of talking to one another, so I'm hoping that we'll soon start seeing more apps that enable this functionality.  The two devices together are more powerful than either one individually.

QR Codes: Making Static Content Dynamic

Qrcode You've probably already seen quite a few of the funky looking graphics like the one on the left.  It's called a QR code and it's a quick and easy way to share a website link that can be decoded by a mobile app using a smartphone camera.  For example, I use the ScanLife QR code reader app on my iPhone.

We included a bunch of QR codes in our popular book, Best Android Apps; a code appeared for each app so readers could quickly find and download them from the Android Market.  Before QR codes publishers had to include urls to point readers to a related website; now they can include QR code graphics and readers simply point and shoot to get to the same location.  QR codes aren't just limited to urls though.  You can embed a simple message, a phone number or even a text message in a code.

Why should you care about QR codes?  They have the potential to dramatically enhance the user's experience with your content.  Here are a few potential applications:

A cookbook that lists the ingredients and describes the preparation process but it can also include QR codes with links to videos showing how to create the dish.

A travel guide can describe a destination and include a picture or two but it can also include QR codes featuring an entire gallery of photos and videos.  Better yet, why not have a QR code take you to a custom map showing where you are (using the smartphone's geolocation sensor) and all the great, must-see highlights around you?

You're learning German and you just bought a tutorial on the language.  At the end of each lesson, why not have QR codes that take you to a short assessment test to make sure you learned everything you need to know?

The possibilities are endless.  What I love about all this is that it takes a static print book and makes it much more dynamic.  QR codes aren't limited to print books though.  They're just as useful in an ebook.  In both situations you're simply adding a second object to the equation, your smartphone.  As such, it's important to think about the user experience; the sites your QR codes point to are most useful when they're built with the small screen in mind.

What are some of the ways you could use QR codes to enhance your content?

P.S. -- Be sure to check out the QR code at the top of this blog post -- it takes you to one of my favorite blogs. :-)

"iBookstore vs Kindle Bookstore" & "Which Device Wins?"

Here are two somewhat related questions I'm being asked a lot lately:

#1: Which bookstore experience do you prefer, Apple's iBookstore or Amazon's Kindle bookstore?

#2: Which e-reader device do you believe is going to "win"?

My answers to both of these might surprise you.

Regarding the first question, I thought when I bought my iPad I'd never buy another ebook from Amazon.  Boy, was I wrong!  I've owned an iPad for almost 5 months and all but one of my ebook purchases have been from Amazon.  And the one iBookstore purchase I made is one I'd like to take a mulligan on and buy from Amazon instead.

Why?  One (hyphenated) word: multi-platform.

Although I'm extremely down on Amazon's continued investment in the e-reader hardware space, I'm a huge fan of their ebook business.  (Well, all except for the crazy DRM they still implement...but that's more a problem with publishers than Amazon.)

Towards the end of my Kindle usage I was feeling pretty stupid for buying all those Kindle ebooks.  Now I'm glad I did.  Anything I bought from Amazon can be read on my iPad, my iPhone, my Mac, a Windows computer and pretty much any other piece of hardware I'm likely to use.  Has anyone seen Apple's iBooks app for Windows?  How about the iBooks app for the Blackberry?  Better yet, do you think there's a chance Apple will release an iBooks app for the Android platform?  No, none of these exist today and the likelihood of them ever coming about is slim to none.  Steve Jobs makes some awesome products but he's not a fan of cross-platform usage.

So although the iBooks app is nice, I refuse to paint myself into a corner and be limited to a single platform.  Gee, that sounds like what I used to say about the Kindle platform, which leads me to the second question...

I'm lumping all dedicated e-readers (e.g., Kindle) as well as multi-purpose devices (e.g., iPad) into my thinking.  Sure, eInk is great in the sun, but as I like to say, if it's a sunny day I'd rather be doing something other than sitting around reading!  With that in mind, my answer to the "which device wins" question is...Android.

Yep, that's right, I'm picking the Android platform.  And yes, I know there's no single Android "device" and as of today you can't even buy an Android tablet.  But when the Android tablets start rolling out, I'll be exploring them for my next purchase.

I have about 10 months left on my current AT&T/iPhone agreement, so next summer looks like the right time for me to make the platform jump to Android for both phone and tablet.  The Android app market is still pretty thin and that gives developers even more time to fill in all the holes.  Everyone I know who has already switched from iPhone to Android loves the latter.  I'll probably also be ready to buy a new tablet next summer and you can bet the Android prices will be attractive compared to the iPad ones.

Then there's the Google Editions release that always seems to be "a couple of months from now."  You can bet Editions will support all hardware platforms, which probably means when it hits I may need to reconsider my answer to question #1!