Sunday, 3 May 2009

Apparently, reading really is outdated

The requirements for an ebook reader for a mobile phone would appear to be fairly simple:
  • It can read plain text files, html, and the old Palm pdb/prc would be nice. The ability to read zipped files would be nice, as well. Other formats, like mobi and lit, have more options but can all be converted into plain text, which is how files from places like Project Gutenberg tend to come.
  • It can remember where you were in the file from session to session.
  • Bookmarks.
  • A find utility would be nice.
  • A file browser, possibly with a library management feature.
And that's about it, really. Other, flashy stuff like putting a clock on the screen, or full-screen, or control of the phone's backlight, are all nice extras but none of them are core functionality compared to that little list above (unless you've got a touch-screen phone, like S60 5th edition, where the UI needs to be a little more clever).

So why the hell is it so hard to find a decent reader, when there are at least two already available for the comparative babe-in-arms iPhone?

The main poster-child is Mobipocket reader, or Mobireader, which hasn't been developed since 2007 and, because they've been purchased by Amazon, may never be developed again. It doesn't have a find feature, and it can't handle directories, so if you categorise your ebooks on your phone (or memory card) using nice, handy, convenient subdirectories, Mobireader will still present you with a huge list of everything under ebooks/.

For S60 phones, there is also Qreader, but it has been saying "will be updated soon" for about two years now, is nice but looks dated and has problems with different file formats.

The situation has become so bad for so long that Symbian Guru has started distributing a beta version of Mobireader which was released to testers in June 2007 and has never gone anywhere since.

Others have commented on how bad this situation now is.

So let's review what else we've got:
  • eReader: The interface is frankly awful, and Steve Litchfield couldn't even get it to find his test files, let alone open them.
  • iSilo: Commercial software, with their own format and a 30-day trial version so crippled that it's hard to tell if it would be any good if you bothered buying a licence.
  • Shortcovers: Developing a Symbian client, apparently. Already have iPhone, Blackberry & Android clients, all free. Promising, but no beta release yet, and I can't see if their client can handle multiple formats, or just theirs (whatever that might be).
  • Mobile Bookshelf: J2ME. Development has been "Suspended indefinitely" since 2005.
  • ReadManiac: J2ME. Development suspended due to lack of interest. The interface is incredibly crude-looking, which would be fine, but it asks for permission so many times when attempting to access the phone's file system that I got fed up and deleted it.
  • Book Reader by Tequilacat: J2ME. You have to create a JAR file containing the text of the ebook, and then put that on your phone. That is way too much like hard work.
  • ReadM: The home page appears to have disappeared, and although there are numerous download sites, development seems to have stopped sometime in 2006(?)
  • Wattpad: Free, but can only read files downloaded from the wattpad website, although the installed software can search the wattpad catalogue itself. Some books are from Gutenberg, most are pirated copies of commercial ebooks. Nice software, but only their files? Sod that!
  • Dedit. Technically, this is a text editor, but if you only want to read plain text files, it can be told to remember its position in the file. May as well use this, it is at least under development!
So. One powerful text editor, a bunch of java programs which haven't been touched in years, the best of the bunch hasn't been touched in years anyway, and a couple of limited and commecial programs which aren't worth the price over Mobireader which is, we have already established, ageing badly.

If Shortcovers ever do release a Symbian program (I've emailed them to express interest in beta testing, which they do invite people to do), it will be interesting to see how flexible it is.

Otherwise, the future looks rather bleak. You can play a thousand different games on an S60 handset, but try reading one book.

Edit: For what it's worth, I use a Nokia N95 - Symbian with S60 3rd edition, Feature Pack 1. Not the biggest screen, but not the smallest, and a good quality screen.

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