Read an eBook on my mobile phone? I'll admit I was skeptical at first. Although I've been reading books on a Palm OS PDA for years it has a relatively large 3 inch screen. I thought downgrading to the mobile's 1.9" screen would make reading impossibly painful. I quickly discovered that I was wrong. I found that I could read just as fast and with as much enjoyment on the smaller screen as with the PDA or even a printed book. Sounds impossible, but I think having a limited amount of text on the screen helps me focus. With a larger screen or a real book, I would frequently skip back to re-read something and then have to search to find my place again. The small screen discourages back-skipping which I discovered I didn't really need to do for good comprehension. Because the small screen holds just the right amount of text (around 240 characters) to read at a single glance I never loose my place. One of the techniques taught in speed reading classes is to pace yourself by following the text with your finger. The small screen seems to have a similar effect for me.
Reading mobile eBooks hasn't really caught on yet in the West but it's very big in Japan where mobile eBook sales totaled $58 million US dollars last year. By way of comparison, eBook sales of all kinds in the US in 2005 were only $12 million and I'm sure mobile sales amounted to only a small percentage of that total.
So how does one go about reading eBooks on a phone? Palm, Windows Mobile and Symbian users have a number of free readers to choose from. Two of the best are Mobipocket and eReader which both support DRM'ed books meaning that you can purchase and read current best sellers. Mobipocket also has a reader for most recent Blackberrys. Some good smartphone readers for unprotected content are Plucker (Palm) and readM (S60). Almost all the smartphone readers support a full range of formating like bold, italic, images and multiple fonts in the same document and they can read books in many formats without conversion.
Don't have a smartphone? Java ME based readers work on almost any phone. There are at least two mobile websites that offer free Java eBooks for download. Manybooks ( m.manybooks.net) has over 17,000 classic and Creative Commons licensed books and Wattpad (m.wattpad.com) has about 1700 books and documents uploaded by users. I tried both these sites but neither really worked for me. Most books from Manybooks were too large (over 180KB) to load on my phone. Wattpad offers the option to split books into 64 or 128 KB chunks which should have worked but I got a "VM Class Loading Error" trying to run the books on both a Motorola i855 and a Z8. An old Nokia 3650 at least loaded the books but the Wattpad reader only let me read the first pages before it refused to page down any more! I know that books from both these sites do work on many phones so I recommend trying them first. Downloading books OTA is certainly the easiest way to get books on a phone.
Update 6-July-2011: The Avast virus scanner on my PC is reporting that the TequilaCat.org web site is currently infected and distributing malicious software. I've removed the links to the site from this post and posted a scanned and verified clean copy of the TequilaCat Reader and Desktop Shell here: wapreview.com/dwnld/TequilaCat BookReaderConverter.zip
Eventually I found TCBR (tequilacat.org/dev/br/index-en.html) which stands for TequilaCat Book Reader. It worked perfectly on all my phones. TCBR is a powerful and user friendly piece of software. The way it works is that you run a program called TCBR Shell on a Windows PC to create a custom Java Midlet containing one or more eBooks. The shell knows the capabilities of many popular phones so in most cases the only configration needed is picking the brand and model of your phone from a dropdown. If your phone is not listed, choosing the Generic MIDP 2 option for current phones or Generic MIDP 1 for older ones and a maximum jar size of 64 KB seems to always work. If the book you are building is larger than the maximum, TequilaCat Shell will split it up into multiple files. I think TequilaCat is the only Java app that has worked on every single phone I've tried.
Creating a book with TCBR Shell is easy. You can either drag and drop files on the TCBR window or click Add and browse for files. A preview pane lets you view the book to check formatting. Once you've selected your files, press Create to build your Midlet.
By itself, Tequilacat can only create Java books from plain text files, but the latest version (2.2.8) uses plugins to support other formats. The Tequilacat website (http://tequilacat.org/dev/br/help.html) has links to plugins handling HTML, PDF, Aportis DOC, RTF, TCR and Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents. The Shell's file browse will only show files that can be converted using the filters you have installed.
Once you've created the Midlet all that's left is to copy the .jad and .jar files to your phone using Bluetooth, a data cable or by uploading it to a mobile file sharing site like Mobango and then downloading it to your phone.
It a bit of a shame that there is no way to legally read copyrighted best sellers on non-smartphones. I think the eBook vendors are missing an opportunity by not selling eBooks in Java Midlet form. However, there is plenty of good free reading available. In the US, any book published before 1911 is out of copyright and freely distributable. More and more writers are releasing books under the various Creative Commons licenses. Lately I've enjoyed several Creative Commons books by Cory Doctorow, an excellent science fiction writer. I particularly liked his novel Down and out in the Magic Kingdom and his latest work Overclocked, a collection of short stories. Most of Cory Doctorow's books are available from Manybooks and Wattpad. They can also be found in formats compatible with TCBR on the author's site and at Project Gutenberg.