Walt Mossberg

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Personal Technology

Shortcovers, Iceberg Put Latest e-Books On Your Cellphone

Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader has been a solid success. The device can access a catalog of over 200,000 digital books, including most current best sellers, according to Amazon (AMZN). Its sharp screen, built-in downloading and long battery life have overcome a relatively high price and some poor hardware-design features.

However, most people aren’t likely to carry a Kindle everywhere — it’s too large to fit in a pocket and hogs space in a handbag. Yet they do tote their cellphones everywhere. So, for years, a dedicated minority of folks have been reading books on smart phones and other pocket devices with relatively large screens.

In recent months, e-book offerings have especially exploded on the Apple (AAPL) iPhone and iPod Touch, which, like the Kindle, have excellent screens and an easy and well-organized system for directly downloading content. Apple’s App Store, which carries everything from games to business software, has hundreds of e-book offerings (in addition to the audio books available through the iTunes store).

Some of these e-book apps, or programs, constitute just a single book, while others are digital-reading portals that can access anywhere from a handful of e-book titles, like the collected works of Shakespeare or the Sherlock Holmes tales, to many thousands of titles.

Two of the most popular e-book apps for the iPhone and the Touch are Stanza and eReader. They are pretty basic and straightforward, with little in the way of fancy formatting. But they get the job done, allowing you to download tens of thousands of titles from a variety of sources.

Latest e-Books on Your Cellphone

But, as with past cellphone or PDA e-book systems, most of those on the iPhone and Touch focus primarily on older, classic, or out-of-copyright titles, rather than on the sort of current, in-demand titles available on the Kindle. Some fresher titles are available, but the selection of popular books is relatively thin.

Now, two companies are launching new e-book apps that aim to bring current and popular titles from major publishers to the iPhone and Touch. And they add interesting features, including fancy formatting and community tools. I’ve been testing both.

One, called Shortcovers, is from the large Canadian bookseller Indigo Books & Music. Due to show up in the App Store in the next few weeks, Shortcovers is a portal to sampling, buying and reading books, and will have a companion Web site. It will allow readers to get free samples of blogs, magazines and books — say, the first chapter — and then buy either the entire work or other individual chapters or sections, which the company calls “shortcovers.”

The second, called Iceberg, is from an iPhone application developer called ScrollMotion. Already available, Iceberg offers each book packaged as an individual stand-alone app, with rich navigation features.

I found that reading books from these two services was OK, but not nearly as satisfying as reading them on a dedicated, large-screen device like the Kindle, which also offers free excerpts. But it was more convenient. I was able to knock off a chapter or a few pages while commuting or waiting in line. The apps use the iPhone’s touch features to allow you to navigate.

Shortcovers is the more ambitious and creative of the two. At launch, it expects to have 200,000 shortcovers — chapters or other free excerpts — available. About 50,000 of these also will be available for purchase as full digital titles; the rest can be ordered as physical books. Of the digital titles, roughly 15,000 to 20,000 will be older or public-domain books, and the rest commercial books. Typical book prices will be between $10 and $20. If you want to buy paid shortcovers — say a chapter of a business or travel book — the typical price will be 99 cents.

The key aim of Shortcovers is to get people to discover new works. So it emphasizes community features such as rating, tagging and sharing. It even allows people to make “mixes” of their favorite works and to upload their own writing. The Shortcovers catalog is a riotous mix of classics like “The Three Musketeers,” current titles like Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” and blog posts and magazine articles.

Iceberg’s claim to fame is its handsome appearance. It has just 14 titles available now, including the “Eragon” fantasy trilogy, and each must be downloaded as a separate app, which risks cluttering your iPhone with icons. The company is promising thousands of titles eventually, and has signed deals with major publishers. Prices hover around $10 or $11, but range to $27.

Books by Iceberg try to preserve the formatting and pagination of the printed title, and stress easy skimming to any page, searching and annotating. Pages are tinted and flip with a visual effect that apes a physical page-turn.

But there are missing features in both. Iceberg doesn’t allow bookmarking and Shortcovers lacks annotation. Neither app allows highlighting, or looking up words.

The iPhone isn’t primarily an e-book reader, and these new apps still can’t match Kindle’s full catalog. But they add yet another dimension to a very versatile gadget.