Mobipocket Reader faces unlikely future - and will leave a vacuum

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There's a nice piece by Chris Meadows here talking about the future for Mobipocket and its previously ubiquitous ebook reader software, now that Amazon have not only bought Mobipocket but are competing against it vigorously with its own Kindle hardware and software. In fact, it's looking increasingly as if Amazon bought Mobipocket simply to put paid to a competitor. Yet there's nothing else decent to fill the vacuum on S60 and Symbian. Read on for some thoughts and links.

Mobipocket Reader has been a feature of the PDA and smartphone world for years - hey, I even switched to it years ago as the de facto format for distributing my own Trivopaedia - but things have been increasingly on hold ever since the buyout of Mobipocket by Amazon in April 2005. The version for S60 3rd Edition has been essentially the same since early in 2006 and there's no sign at all of a beta for S60 5th Edition. Meanwhile the number of grumbling users is growing.

And it's not as if Mobipocket Reader was perfect as-is. There's not even a basic 'Find' function, which is, frankly, unbelievable after all this time. The problem is Amazon's takeover, of course, with precious little resources plied in Mobipocket's direction. And I'm starting to agree with Chris that action after all this time isn't at all likely.

It's not as if we're all demanding that an ebook reader should be free - far from it, I and countless others would no doubt be happy to pay £10 for something that worked and was still being actively developed. But, curiously, there's a complete vacuum of development in this software genre. It's as if noone's at all serious.

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I do believe that ebooks are a wonderful resource, especially DRM-free, public domain texts (reference works, older fiction, etc) - and it's terrifically useful to roll your own, bundling up large amounts of reference text or translations. But just because the books (and creating your own books) are free doesn't mean that the reader software has to be. And yet there are no challengers to take on the task of handling anything other than the most trivial ebooks.

Other than Mobipocket Reader, there are a few possibilities, claimed to work for S60 3rd Edition phones at least. I copied three '.prc' format ebooks onto my memory card on the Nokia N95 and tried opening them in a variety of readers. One was a plain text affair, one was password-protected and one had embedded hyperlinks. A fairly typical (if moderately challenging) set of files.

eReader Pro has been in 'beta' for ages and flatly refused to show my ebooks, wherever I put them, let alone open them.

QReader has been promising to 'update soon' for years and, while it would happily show my three ebooks, it also couldn't open any of them, popping up the unhelpful 'unknown file open error'.

eBook Mobile also seems somewhat abandoned, with the developers admitting that it only handles the most vanilla of files and that there's no touch/S60 5th Edition version planned anyway. The opening file manager screen let me see all my ebooks, but opening all of them gave 'eBook Mobile Invalid format!'

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I'm somewhat appalled that these tools are so flaky, that they're so lacking in development and that they don't work most of the time, it seems. It doesn't say a lot for the ebook scene that the three year old build of a long bought-out product is still by far the best application for the job.

There seems to be a big gap in the market here for an enterprising young developer. Something that has good file compatibility and which will work happily on the new breed of large screened, touch-enabled Symbian-powered phones.

Can you suggest a candidate? Or have I missed an obvious software contender?

Steve Litchfield, AAS

PS. it's worth noting in this context that there's no sign of a 'Kindle' application for Symbian, along the lines of the client for the iPhone - but any insiders at Amazon are welcome to drop us a line if there's news of development in this area. The Kindle ecosystem seems to also be USA-only at the moment, though doubtless it will appear in other markets in time.