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Bookselling with Apple's iPhone 3G

Taking It to the Next Level?

by Craig Stark

#131, 5 January 2009

Apple's hot, hot, hot iPhone 3G has been out for some months now, but because of an existing Sprint contract, it wasn't until recently that I had the opportunity to add this to my bookselling toolbox. Now that I have it, my Sprint Pocket PC looks like a dinosaur - and acts like one. (And it's for sale!)

Some basic information on the iPhone 3G is here.

And just about anywhere else you turn, for that matter. I'm not going to go over ground that's been competently plowed by many others. The purpose of this article is to evaluate this amazing phone for bookselling purposes. Did I say amazing? I did - and for good reason.

The iPhone is actually three devices in one - a phone, an iPod and an Internet browser, but my focus here is necessarily on its Internet capabilities.

First, if you've used Windows Mobile, the operating system found on many non-Apple phones, you know that it presents significant limitations to web browsing (though not so long ago it was much better than what preceded it). It frequently alters the format of web pages, transforming many of them into distorted, often abbreviated versions of their former selves. Worse, many of the functions available on desktop or laptop versions of Windows, like logging into and managing accounts, are inaccessible or so difficult to access on Windows Mobile that it makes no sense to bother with them.

Speed is another factor. When I first purchased my Pocket PC, I wasn't expecting broadband speed, but I was relatively pleased with what I encountered. I could search, say, Abebooks for something I came across at a sale, and from start to finish, typing included, it would typically deliver results in less than a minute. Not bad, and certainly better than nothing.

So, my Pocket PC was a reasonably valuable tool for several years, but I'm here to tell you that the iPhone 3G doesn't just simulate your desktop browsing experience; it all but duplicates it. Web pages come up as original web pages - and fast. Of course, since you're looking at a 3.5" (3" x 2") display, though large by cell phone standards, many pages are initially difficult to read. This is readily solved, however, by placing the tips of two fingers on an area of interest and swiping them out. Instant zoom. Even if you typically wear reading glasses to read, the zoom function allows you to see what you're doing without them.

Typing could hardly be easier. Say you want to login to your eBay account. You simply touch the login box with a finger and two things happen: The box is automatically zoomed into, and a large virtual keyboard pops up that consumes approximately half of the display. Unlike my Pocket PC, which required typing via a stylus (or typing on the pull-out keyboard) and had a much smaller display, the iPhone keyboard responds to the heat in your fingers, not pressure. For me, the typing experience is both more accurate and significantly faster. Also, if you misspell a word, a suggested correction pops up, which you can accept or not. Moreover, once logged into your account, you can actually do things besides searching.

Speed? It can vary depending on where you are, but if you're in a Wi-Fi hot spot, you'll experience a browsing speed comparable to what you experience at home. No kidding. And video quality is astonishingly good. If Wi-Fi is unavailable, the next network to kick in is the 3G (and video quality degrades some). This is widely accessible and, though not as brisk as Wi-Fi, still much faster than anything I've experienced on Windows Mobile. A search that might have taken most of a minute on the Pocket PC, for example, will consume perhaps 15 seconds on the iPhone.

If 3G is unavailable, the Edge Network is the next possibility. This, sorry to say, is slow, perhaps on the order of dialup, but in outlying areas it at least offers better-than-nothing connectivity.

Investigate 3G and Edge coverage in your area here

I'm going to make a bold prediction: In relatively short order, I see the iPhone becoming a very popular, perhaps the most popular field tool of choice for booksellers, not only because it nearly replicates the desktop/laptop experience but also because of its massive potential for third-party developers to create software (and perhaps hardware) that will enhance its use for many things, including scanning ISBNs. Third-party applications (or apps) for this phone are already abundant, and new ones pop up daily. Many are free or can be had for a buck or two. The download/installation process is entirely automated and can often be accomplished in seconds.

Though developers create apps for other phones as well, more and more of them are directing their efforts at the iPhone because Apple is so far out in front with sales, at least for now.

I've already stumbled upon three intriguing apps that have promise for booksellers:


Take a snapshot of the cover of a book, and an Amazon search is performed. Time consumed from start to finish is about 15 or 20 seconds, and it's pretty accurate. This also works for DVDs, CDs and video games. Cost: free. The limitation, of course, is that it will only deliver results based on photos available on Amazon.


You may be aware that Google recently launched voice-recognition capability for iPhones - that is, you just hold your phone up to your ear and speak in words or numbers. As soon as you stop speaking a Google search is performed automatically. As you might expect, this is fraught with the same limitations as, for example, the desktop application Dragon NaturallySpeaking: Unusual words aren't always recognized, and if you have a heavy accent, forget it. Also, this doesn't have the training capability that DNS does. But one thing that both do remarkably well is recognize spoken numbers. Yes, like ISBNs! Unfortunately - this really bummed me at first - Google doesn't recognize a 10-digit string as a 10-digit string but two 5-digit strings separated by a space. I'm guessing it's interpreting the number as two zip codes? Who knows, but no matter what I tried, I couldn't make it work. And it's no good with 13-digit strings either. Something even goofier comes up.

Fortunately, there's a solution - vlingo. This app will indeed recognize 10-digit strings as 10-digit strings, and it additionally offers the option of using either Google or Yahoo Search. Unlike Google's voice recognition, you have to press and hold an area of your display while you're speaking - it isn't activated automatically - but this is no biggie. Cost: free. Accuracy for speaking numbers is exceptional, and results are delivered quickly.

Also, you can target a particular venue by speaking, say, the word "eBay" after your ISBN, and most of the delivered results will feature links directly to eBay listings. This works for Alibris as well, but I couldn't get it to work for Abebooks unless I said, "Advanced Book Exchange." I'm still working on BookFinder and a few others.

Finally - and this (or more likely something like it) is potentially the most valuable one of the three - allows users to focus the iPhone camera on bar codes, snap a picture, and view results. Warning: This app will not work at all without a Griffin Clarifi Case (or an appropriate magnifying glass held against the camera lens) for your phone.

The Griffin case allows you to do a close-up focus on bar codes, which the installed iPhone camera will not do. I just ordered one of these cases for my phone, so I haven't tested it yet, but I'll post an update when I have. is also free, but frankly, it's clear that the existing app is considerably slower than the two above apps for retrieving product information. However, this is an area of great potential. Look for a developer to come up with something that will use the iPhone camera perhaps with a virtual laser beam to read bar codes and deliver information quickly. And it's just a matter of time before socket scanner hardware will become available for the iPhone too, though this still won't eliminate monthly charges for database access. What I'm looking for is something that will be lightning fast at live lookups and save us all a bunch of money.

Find out more about these apps and others here.

Presently, iPhone service is available only from AT&T.

There are four plans available. I signed up for the cheapest one. For $69.99 a month, I get 450 anytime minutes, 5000 night and weekend minutes - note that calls to other AT&T users do not count against your minutes - and, most importantly, unlimited web access. You can add 200 text messages to this for an additional $5

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