Stanza for iPad: Could have been a contender?

Posted by | June 18, 2010

Stanza is a name familiar to a large part of the iPhone/iPod Touch owning population, having been one of the first to really drive eBook reading to the mainstream. The name inspires nostalgia for the single app that made your iPhone into a Kindle, when the only alternative was to actually buy a Kindle.

In combination with the desktop application of the same name, Stanza was a powerful platform that allowed you to easily enjoy books on the go – and its uniqueness, in combination with excellent app design won the creators the 2008 Apple Design Award.

In 2009, Stanza was doing so well that Amazon took notice and swallowed whole the owner Lexcycle and their Stanza application. Supporters of the app immediately (and justifiably) thought Stanza had met its end, in the face of Amazon’s aggressively-pushed Kindle platform. But with the release of Stanza on iPad it appears Amazon still believes in this product enough to resuscitate it for one more frolic in the eBook fjords.

With some positive first impressions floating around, I decided to give it a shot. But in a world of iBooks and Kindle, I’m not entirely sure where Stanza fits nowadays. Put simply: why should we care anymore?

Rubbing shoulders with titans

Let’s get it out of the way. Stanza’s book reader is easily as capable, if not more so than that of Kindle or iBooks.

Where Kindle and iBooks offer a modest array of settings to tweak, Stanza offers a smorgasbord of tiny settings to satisfy even the most rabid config-tweakers.

From adjusting the margins and line-spacing of text to the justification and paragraph spacing and indentation on any book, even to adjusting the behaviours of tapping various parts of the screen. If you can’t adjust Stanza to your liking, then no eBook reader will suffice.

There are some genuinely useful features amongst this jungle of dials and switches, including a table of contents, full book searches and very tastefully done annotations and bookmarks.

To annotate, simply press and hold the paragraph you wish to annotate. To bookmark, it’s a matter of pressing the top right hand corner, bending the virtual page in. This is taking the ‘real-object interaction’ metaphor that Apple hopes developers will use to new heights.

Who’s right, who’s wrong? Open vs Closed platforms

The biggest advantage, however, of Stanza is the openness of the application. Supported are a dizzying array of book file formats including: ePub, LIT, Mobi, Palm, Amazon Kindle, HTML, PDF, RTF and Word, as well as CBR, CBZ and DjVu which may be of interest to comic/anime enthusiasts, among others. (The comic book support is actually a relatively new addition – part of the June 2010 Update.)

You can import your own books using the desktop application (available for PC and Mac) and download them directly onto the device. This is a refreshing alternate path to getting content to read – instead of being forced to buy through associated iBooks and Kindle stores, you can BYO.

However, it’s just as well you can bring your own content because where Stanza excels at letting you get at every conceivable format, it fails somewhat in providing a smooth path to paid content. In a world of proprietary delivery mechanisms and vendor lock-in, Stanza takes an alternative approach, with varying degrees of success.

How Bazaar – Stanza and the free market model

(Above: the book store is not much to look at)

Instead of providing a single store, there are multiple sellers available to purchase from, contained within a book ‘marketplace’. There is both free and paid content and the overall approach is refreshingly democratic.

However, the benefits of Apple’s tyrannical approach to controlling their iBooks platform become increasingly obvious as you move around the store. The range is small and segmented. Moving between stores is often confusing: publishers determine navigation of their stores so store usability varies wildly from excellent to downright irritating.

With so many fragmented islands and navigation schemes, it’s also difficult to get the full picture of what content is available for purchase. Even if there were millions of books available, many customers may simply never see them.

For the average reader, who is simply interested in sitting down to read without hassle, iBooks and Kindle offer a polished experience that gives you just this. For those who like to fiddle, read an obscure format or want to have a more hands on approach to getting your books – Stanza will give it to you, but if you’re buying content you won’t have an easy time of it.

So why is Stanza on the iPad? Because it still fills an important niche. For those with self-assembled collections of eBooks, pieced together in a patchwork of odd formats, Stanza is your go-to. For those who would like more power and configurability, Stanza delivers.

For such a (relatively) old application, the core features of Stanza still hold up remarkably well against the new hotness of iBooks and Kindle for iPad. The mere fact that Amazon continues to support it in tandem with Kindle is a ringing endorsement for the power-user niche that Stanza fulfils.

And with a pricetag of free, Stanza is a worthy addition to almost any app collection.

Stanza is available from the App Store for free.

Power user rating: 4 1/2 out of 5
Normal user rating: 2 1/2 out of 5

  • http://twitter.com/robskillington Rob Skillington

    *doublepost* =[

  • http://twitter.com/robskillington Rob Skillington

    wow, great article James!!

    stanza clearly punching above its weight, can't wait to try it first hand myself!!!!

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