image How big a screen do you need to read E, especially e-books, and what does this mean in the escalating Kindle-vs.-iPhone debate?

The larger-display faction: My wife, a baby boomer like me, favors big fonts. When Carly is in the mood for an e-book, she hates the idea of reading off a PDA-sized screen such as the iPhone‘s. The UberReview feels likewise. And some older people in publishing seem much more focused on the Kindle than on PDA-type gizmos and cellphones as a saviors of E. What’s more, certain eye doctors and librarians correctly think of  Kindle-type machines as the new large print. The six-inch screens on the Kindle and Sony Reader are spacious enough for many boomers, not all, even with a larger font in use. Now if E Ink display-makers can improve the contrast sufficiently between text and background—an issue for many older people!

In the middle: I’m doing a Switzerland act in the Kindle-iPhone debate. My extra-close-up vision is still good, and in the most literal sense, I see a place for both PDAs and Kindle-sized tablets. I can just stuff my Nokia 770 or Palm TX into my pocket for use at the dentist’s or the Department of Motor Vehicles. Even at home I read off the Nokia or Palm when I don’t want to bother firing up my OLPC laptop, which is convertible to a tablet.

The smaller-screen, pro-iPhone crowd: Many pro-iPhoners are younger with good eyes, a fondness for mobility and a desire to keep down the number of gadgets to tote. But not all who see The Phone as an iPhone-killer are twenty-five. "We need e-books to save writers," says Mike Cane, no 20-something (I’m not either). And as he see it, the iPhone is better suited than the Kindle. Like me, Mike’s also excited about Google’s Android platform for ePub e-books. "I’ve read close to 20 books on my Palm Pilot TX," says Greg Sandoval, another iPhone believer, "and its 3.8-inch screen is plenty big enough," especially with resolution of 480 by 320.

Beyond screen sizes and contrast issues: That still leaves open other issues such as DRM nd eBabel. Like Sony, Apple traditionally has been fond of the proprietary approach. If it can throw Amazon a loop and go with ePub, then, yes, that would help in the iPhone’s joust with the Kindle. Or at least Apple would do well to encourage third party providers such as Mobipocket—yes, a branch of Amazon—to use ePub. Backing off from DRM, in line with Steve Jobs’ rhetoric in an MP3 context, would help as well.

Yet other issues are hardware cost and the expense and availability of books. The iPhone hardware over the long run is much more expensive than the Kindle and Sony Reader (of course I’ll be interested in the cost of the latest Touch incarnation). Books? You hear a lot of talk of Kindle discounts on books. But in many cases, others are either matching them or coming close. Availability? That one’s too early to call. Amazon’s inventory of books in E is still tiny compared to the number of books in print. I just hope that publishers settle on non-DRMed ePub as a standard and that all retailers, Amazon, included, respect these wishes. Be careful, Amazon, if you’re counting on being the inventory champ forever. What happens when Google finally catches on to the glories of cellphones for reading E?

The ultimate outcome: As I’ve written in the past, I can easily envision mobile phones with big pop-out screens using E Ink or other technology. Yes, with a sufficiently imaginative designer, the screens could be as large or bigger than the Kindle’s.

Image: CC-licensed photo from alexhung.

Related: Could Apple’s iPhone smoke the Kindle, in MobileRead.

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  1. My aging eyes need E-Ink while my husband’s far less compromised eyes are perfectly happy with his PDA. So maybe, as you suggest, e-reading avenues are in the eye of the beholder.

    I can easily understand the desire for gadget consolidation, but my Sony Reader fits into my small purse just fine. And, given the choice, I’d rather have a small cell phone in my handbag than a larger, multi-functioned phone. It really comes down to priorities, I suppose, and my reader’s far more beloved than my cell phone.

    That said, I’m certainly open to your vision of a future cell phone that incorporates e-ink into its mix. But I gotta tell ya, the purchase price will have to be low because the device will have to chance my perspective on the cell phone. Which is what? That it’s just a basic necessity, no bells and whistles needed.

  2. Hey, Debra, thanks for your thoughtful comments, especially the “in the beholder” one. Not scientifically, just informally, I’ve reached the conclusion that older people as a group may have more problems with E Ink’s contrast or lack thereof. But there’d be many departures from the norm as I perceive it. Furthermore, we know that E Ink contrast is going to get much better. As for what features and how many features on future cellphones/readers, let’s hope that many choices will be available! Thanks. David

  3. Last night Karen and I visited the local Apple store to study the current iPhone and consider if we would be willing to replace our Verizon phones with, um, AT&T.

    I verified that using iPhone on Project Gutenberg files in HTML or Text was disfunctional. However, properly formatted or flowable text should be readable–at least by young whippersnappers with young eyeballs.

    The Apple salesman couldn’t tell me anything about potential e-book software coming through the third-party program. Perhaps on July 11 we will learn everything we need to know.

    Meanwhile, as a certifiably Old guy, I have to agree that the iPhone text is too small; but I’m hoping that flowable, size-changeable text will be usable, with or without reading glasses or the old hold-it-up-right next-to-your-immensely-nearsighted-eyes trick.

  4. Use Stanza on Iphone, you can modify the font to make it GIANT. You can alter contrast, use different colours (my fave is white on blue background – easier to read). Portability is awesome with the Iphone. All-in-one is the way to go, at least until Kindle/Sony can make a worthy product. The technology they brought out seems sooooo 1990s! Not a good choice for the price.

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