When I'm not burying my head in electronics and scouring the pages of my favourite VCR manual I do enjoy reading non-tech fiction, so when I saw that book retail chain Borders have launched a mobile chapter sampler service I thought I'd give it a try. And since nothing we do has any meaning or significance unless we share it with the internet, you get to come along for the ride.
Basically, Borders will send you the first chapter from a selection of books direct to your cellphone; it's free, but if you want the rest you need to actually buy the book. To sweeten the deal the download comes with a discount voucher that, by showing it in-store, saves you at the tills. The service is run in collaboration with mobile eBook retailer ICUE, who provide the technology behind the scenes.
Out of the list of 33 currently offered titles (Borders are promising a new thirty every month) I picked William Gibson's Spook Country; the website gives you a short synopsis and the SMS keyword - in this case SPOOK - which you send in an otherwise blank message to 64888. Unlike many premium-rate SMS services neither Borders nor ICUE charge for the system; you pay the standard text message fee to your operator, and the WAP message you receive (which has a link to the download site) is free.
Click on the link and you're prompted to register your mobile phone number on the Bango WAP site; I was reluctant to do so, given the growing amount of spam you find yourself getting these days, but was relieved to see an "opt-out" page after re-confirming the book I wanted to download. It would have been reassuring to have had a link to the terms & conditions on the page demanding your mobile number.
The eBook itself - on the Nokia N80 I tried it with - comes as a standalone programme, which could be a little intimidating to a tech novice. You not only have to download and install it, but accept the warning that unsigned programmes could cause damage to your handset. There's no mention of this in the Borders FAQ.
A quick 59kb download later and I had a new icon in the "My Own" menu (it was only because I guessed to look there that I found it; once the installation is complete you're left on your own to search out where the eBook has been put). Select it, and you have a choice of Read/Resume, Select Chapter (which of course only has the first), Settings, Instructions, Book Store Soon (selecting which does nothing) and Send to a Friend (which prompts for your friend's mobile number to send the first chapter to).
The standard font size was, to my eyes, quite large, but can be reduced down to something more readable (or increased if you find yourself squinting). There's also a "Page" option in the settings, which I presume adjusts the length of each page (you click 'next' to move between them); the programme remembers where you're up to between reading sessions. As for the discount, with the Gibson book I would save 20% in-store.
Having access to the first few pages of books isn't a new concept - Amazon have been doing it for a few years now, albeit on selected titles only - but releasing them in eBook format is a bold step for a traditional bricks'n'mortar store. Okay, so right now you need to go to your local Borders to actually buy the book, but the discount should hopefully offset that inconvenience. What's key, then, is the range of titles available to sample. If Borders can keep up with (and hopefully extend) their promised thirty a month then that, together with the savings available (which brings prices in line with online stores) could see the service succeed. Before then, however, I'd like to see a little more clarity for first-time and novice users, who have been exposed to so much "fear the internet!" melodrama that they might not get past the first download warning.
Borders Mobile Chapter Sampler (see our full gallery of screenshots here)