How Apple could make e-books work

Since the iPhone App Store opened, a nonnegotiable part of my day is devoted to safely guiding cartoon animals around a go-kart track. And I’ve yet to encounter someone who finds PhoneSaber as funny as I do, but every new person I meet is a new opportunity to prove every last friend and family member wrong.

Yes, these new iPhone apps have finally delivered on a promise only hinted at when the iPhone arrived a year ago. Today, the ability to evade productive work and avoid rational, linear sequences of thought during those idle moments in line at the post office is no farther away than your shirt pocket.

But what about e-books?

Still, as much as I like burning brain cells … I like to read. And I wonder why Apple hasn’t done for electronic books what it has done for other creative arts such as music, movies, and TV shows. Why hasn’t Apple crafted a top-notch shopping and viewing experience for books, and then slapped the greatest works of our most honored writers in copy-protected chains? Why is it that the basic concept of reading hasn’t been perverted into yet another massive, glorious, fire-belching engine that makes money for Apple?

“Because I hate e-books,” you protest. “And so does everybody else.”

OK, I hear you. But this dislike of e-books probably exists for the same reason that so many people hated digital music before the iPod and the iTunes Store came along. While the concept itself is good, the problem is that, to date, nobody has implemented it in a way that doesn’t suck.

The closest we’ve come to nonsuckage so far is Amazon.com’s Kindle. And even there, plenty of work remains to be done. When the Kindle was released last year, I was pretty skeptical about the thing. If you presented hardware this ugly to Steve Jobs as a proposed Apple product design, you’d be lucky if he only threw it at you, instead of inserting it into you. And for a bunch of reasons related to its physical shortcomings, I felt that reading a book on the Kindle wasn’t any better than reading one on an iPhone.

Yet the Kindle has become the way I buy and read books—for many of the same reasons that the iPod and iTunes became the way I buy and listen to music. Shopping for new stuff is just so easy. And my trim little Kindle always contains at least two shelves’ worth of books. Whether I’m anticipating a half hour in a burrito joint or a week in Kauai, my reading needs are covered.

See? Amazon took an existing concept that for years had been flailing at gaining mainstream acceptance, and built a total experience around it that makes this form of digital media suddenly seem practical and relevant.

Come on … that’s Apple’s shtick, isn’t it?

Crazy billionaires

E-books would be a natural extension of the iTunes Store. They would instantly extend the reach and credibility of the entire iPhone and iPod lines. And we wouldn’t have to spend $359 for a funky, stinky-looking mutt of a reader.

And talk about killer apps! College students love three things: iPods, that M.C. Escher poster of the bearded guy holding a mirrored ball, and griping about the insane cost of textbooks. If Apple added a “Books and Textbooks” wing to the iTunes Store and released a larger version of the iPod touch that could display a credible, book-size page, it would almost instantly become a standard-issue item on every campus.

I’m still pretty sure that Amazon’s Kindle only made it to the market at all because it’s the pet project of Amazon’s crazy, iconoclastic billionaire CEO. Apple’s own iconoclastic CEO might not be bankrolling his own private space fleet, but still, I’m confident that Steve Jobs can match Jeff Bezos, crazy for crazy. Steve also tends to combine Being Crazy with Making Crazy Seem Perfectly Sane, which is something Jeff still seems to be struggling with.

I realize that the idea of putting a thousand-year-old tradition of book publishing out to pasture with a free iPhone book reader app is completely crazy. But it could be done. And even better than Apple competing against Amazon: what if the two companies worked together? Let Amazon build and fortify relationships with publishers. Let Apple create the relationships with the consumer. Add a Kindle-compatible reader to the App Store. The result could be a revolution.

Andy Ihnatko is a technology columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of numerous books, including iPhone Fully Loaded (Wiley, 2007).

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