More Shortcovers: The Portal and the iPhone

It’s only been a couple of hours for the “Kindle-killer”, and already my TweetDeck #shortcovers feed is sizzling away. Here are some first-look thoughts on Shortcovers. (Sadly, no unboxing shotsit’s the one downside of software reviews.) I’ll split into two parts: the Shortcovers web portal and the iPhone reading experience.

First, let me say that pushing anything like this out the door is no mean feat. We had a pretty clear sense from talking to publishers that the timeline for content acquisition has been quite tight, so it’s great to see this up and running with the understanding there are going to be some hiccups. At the same time, first impressions count, especially in the nasty-brutish-and-short world of iPhone app lifespans. (i.e.

The Shortcovers Website

The Good

  • It’s beautifully designed. After the Design ‘99 experience of fictionwise and eReader, it’s nice to see someone develop a site you actually want to look at.
  • The social side: Kindle, Stanza, et al have all more-or-less ignored one of the aspects of reading that keeps things interestingthe sharing, passing around, and word-of-mouth communication that makes books something other than a solitary experience. The ability to share, tweet, and create lists on the fly is quick and seamless and most welcome
  • Reading times: it’s great to know whether a chapter is something you’ll be able to knock off in the next few streetcar stops or will take some more investment.

The Bad

  • Selection. It’s not Shortcovers fault particularly, just the state of all eReading platforms at the moment. Why all major publishers don’t have their top 1,000 titles prepped and ready to go for any company wanting to expand this market is beyond me. I’m guessing there are also some process flow issues. Shortcovers has been in a mad dash for launch, so I’d expect more titles imminently.
  • Browsability. It’s tough to get a list of “All Categories”. The topic tag-cloud metaphor is great, and very welcome in the book-browsing environment, but if I’m looking for something that isn’t in the cloud, I’m right into keyword searching. “Business” brings back search results including “Life of Pi”, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, and “When the Earth Moves: Women and Orgasm”. There’s a Flight of the Conchords joke there somewhere, but I won’t be the one to make it.
  • Metadata: Almost everything seems to be listed as “Sample ChapterFiction”, including Camus & Sartre and Artisanal Cooking.

On the iPhone

The Good

  • The app itself is slick and polished. Layout makes sense and it follows enough of the standard iPhone UI conventions that you can find your way around easily.
  • Tweeting about books. Love it. Flips right over to Twitterific and away I go. A great idea, again, melding the social with the reading experience.
  • Always-on connection to selected titles. No downloading, authorizing, or sync’ing, at least for chapters.
  • Keeps login activehaven’t had to re-authenticate since I set up my profile.

The Bad

  • I cannot give anyone my money! Chapters, chapters everywhere, but not a book to buy. Of the 10 chapters I’ve bookmarked, I can’t act on my “that’s fantasticgive me more!” impulse, either for a next chapter or a whole book. The little ($) icon at the bottom of the screen remains dimmed in all cases. Some communication up-front about what shortcovers currently can or can’t do would help set expectations. This may even be a territorial issue, but I can’t tell.
  • Vertical scroll to read. I know this is probably a taste thing, and the Shortcovers folks said their feedback showed a 50/50 split in preference between scrolling and paging. But for those who are already accustomed to erReader and Stanza, it’s tough, requiring more thought and motion than a paging metaphor. I’m hoping they’ll get to it later.
  • The browsing available via the web can’t be accessed through the app. It’s “Featured”, “Popular” or “Search” only. No tag clouds, category lists or other browsing modes.
  • Some general UX issuessigning on gives you buttons for “Forgot Password” and “Register” but not to submit your login. When looking at a book, it’s tough to figure out how to start reading the chapter rather than looking at more information on the book.

On the whole, a solid Version 1.0. They are going to have to move fast to meet their “Kindle Killer” expectations and the blogosphere will not be kind if they miss. I imagine they’re going to be torn by the desire to stay true to their name and keep the focus on chapters-for-readers-on-the-go, and what I perceive to be a widespread (or at least well-distributed) desire to get the selection and immediacy of the Kindlefull books, blogs, newspapers, etc.via the iPhone. It’s great to see them in the mix. The race is on!