Reviewing the new Stanza for iPad App

Much like Spad at the Kindle forum this is primarily a note of thanks for releasing Stanza. It’s not going to replace the Kindle and probably not even Kindle for iPad – However, it’s a beautiful app with so many options and so much customizability that you have to try it out.

Initially the probability of a Stanza for iPad app seemed dim – big companies usually just kill their acquisitions (Dodgeball, Lala, and so many others come to mind). To make things worse one of the Stanza guys left Amazon – a strong sign that Amazon might be ditching Stanza.

Suddenly, out of the blue, we have a new release of Stanza with iPad Support. Kudos to Amazon for keeping a great product alive. Let’s dive in.

Stanza for iPad – First Impressions

The first few moments with Stanza on the iPad are a bit overwhelming -

  1. There are far more options than you could imagine.
  2. 47 fonts to choose from including 2 that are barely readable and one that is made entirely of symbols.
  3. There are 22 font sizes. This is one of the few cases where an abundance of options makes sense.  
  4. Some of the options like being able to choose a background image are almost too much.
  5. The option to change screen brightness with a vertical swipe is really good.
  6. At the end of the entire exercise of choosing from a million options – ended up with something that was entirely unsuitable for reading.
  7. Don’t like the way the Search works. The results list is tiny and clicking one makes the others disappear.
  8. There’s Facebook, Twitter, and Email sharing included.
  9. The list of places to get books from doesn’t include Kindle Store. In fact, while the design for searching and buying books is pretty good you have no option of buying books from the Kindle Store, the B&N store, or Sony’s Reader Store.
  10. Most of the paid book stores listed have ridiculously high prices. No way to justify having them and not the top 2 (Kindle, B&N).
  11. In the Free Books Stores list – No idea why they give Random House’s 5 book free library, Harlequin, and Feedbooks priority over Project Gutenberg and Munsey’s.

This might seem harsh – However, at some level Stanza is almost more of a customization app than a reading app. If you’re very particular about what color the text ought to be and what font it should be using and how wide the margins are then Stanza is a godsent for you.

Stanza for iPad – In-depth analysis

After deciding to give up on all the customization options and go with a basic theme the reading was quite good. Stanza’s strengths and weaknesses began to make themselves clear -

  1. If you’re inclined to tinker with settings and options Stanza is a dream. 
  2. In addition to the 47 fonts and 22 font sizes mentioned above there are 19 themes, and the option to change background color, text color, and link color. 
  3. You can change the background image and its opacity. 
  4. You can choose between 4 alignment options. There is hyphenation in pretty much any European language. 
  5. You can specify what page turn effect you want, the page turn duration, change font sizes by pinching and spreading your fingers, and also choose what the left screen tap and right sreen tap do.

In many ways Stanza is the anti-Apple App – Apple cuts down the number of options and makes everything simple and restricts users to what Apple thinks is the best design. Stanza provides so many options that you couldn’t possibly accuse it of limiting users’ freedoms – at the same time it doesn’t really provide an ‘it just works’ app.

Kindle for iPhone and iBooks are very good from the perspective of making decisions for users. B&N adds custom themes and make things a bit confusing and Stanza provides so many options you might never be able to figure it out.

The two critical problems with Stanza are an overabundance of choice and a lack of access to the top ebook stores.

Stanza for iPad – How does it measure up?

We had looked at B&N’s eReader app for the iPad and also compared it with Kindle for iPad. At that time Kindle for iPad was clearly the best reading app on the iPad.

  1. Stanza comes across as a very powerful and flexible reading app that is also overwhelming and scary – even for some tech savvy users.
  2. Barnes & Noble seems comparatively simple – However, the theme customization still makes things complex and the default themes are not very good (except for 1 exception).
  3. iBooks seems to have the perfect balance – a good default theme with a decent number of settings. It is however a little too focused on looking good as opposed to being a good reading app.
  4. Kindle for iPad is the best option if you just want a reading app that’s great out of the box and works. It’s very simple – people who want to fiddle with options and settings will be disappointed and people who just want to jump into reading will love it.

We could think of it as 4 groups of users – with each reading app particularly suited to one of them.

  1. If you love Apple’s design aesthetic and don’t care much about pricing or range of books iBooks is the choice for you. It’s also pretty straightforward. Pretty much every Apple fan should get this app – it’s built specifically for you.
  2. If you want a reading app that has a great out of the box theme and font and is exceedingly simple to use Kindle for iPad is the app for you. If you like a lot of settings give it a miss. This is the best app for 80% of users – especially if you want simplicity or want the best range of new books at the best prices. Obviously this is also the app of choice for Kindle owners.
  3. Barnes & Noble is great if you own a Nook or want a mix of settings and good defaults. It provides enough flexibility that you can tinker without getting overwhelmed. It also has a pretty decent range of books.
  4. Stanza is the transformers reading app – it transforms into a million different forms. If you love options and settings and almost love them more than reading this is perfect for you. It’s also great for people who’d rather get ebooks from free book sites and the smaller ebook stores than Amazon, B&N, and Sony.

It’s hard to rationalize waiting so eagerly for Stanza and then be disappointed – After all Stanza for iPad has all the goodness that made Stanza for iPhone my choice for best reading app on the iPhone.

Why did Stanza for iPad go from #1 to middle of the pack?

Think there are a few main reasons Stanza is no longer my reading app of choice -

  1. Stanza is the best reading app for the iPhone on the iPad. It’s a very different sized device and Stanza’s team haven’t really taken that into account.  
  2. Stanza hasn’t figured out the 150 options out of their 300 options that should be removed. In fact, they could remove 75% of their options and they’d end up much better off.  
  3. Kindle for iPad and iBooks do things that take advantage of the iPad – With iBooks it’s the two pages at a time view and with Kindle for iPad it’s the way the whole app uses the extra space and focuses on a design that brings the book to the forefront. Stanza doesn’t.
  4. Kindle for iPad put all its effort into choosing one great font (Caecilia) and making three great themes and laying out things very well. iBooks put all its effort into making the app look great and animating page turns and making fancy bookshelves. Stanza, on the other hand, put all its effort into providing the user with a ton of choice – However, it missed out on providing users the option to do next to nothing and still get a very solid, very readable app.
  5. There’s not enough evolution. It’s still a great app with lots of options – However, it’s debatable whether it’s better than its previous version. In fact, it might even be a little bit worse.

Stanza is by no means a bad app – it’s just that it has lost its grasp on #1. Kindle for iPad is 1st. Stanza and B&N are a joint 2nd. iBooks is 4th unless your DNA has a strand of Apple running through it – in which case iBooks is #1 for you.

Kindle Vs Stanza – is Stanza a legitimate threat?

For all the talk of 300,000 downloads (Edit: The number is now 550,000 in 50 countries), the Stanza is as much of a threat to the Kindle as a rat to an elephant. That’s beginning to change though – Publisher’s Weekly has the scoop on Pan Macmillan signing with LexCycle (the company that makes Stanza).

 The first set of titles was made available yesterday, and, according to Lexcycle, more titles will be added over the next 12 months. Currently available Pan Macmillan authors include Clive James, Peter F. Hamilton and China Mieville. As Stanza does not currently have its own e-commerce capabilities, previews of Pan Macmillan titles are available through the Stanza application, though purchases must be made on Pan Macmillan’s own site.                                                      Edit: That’s a dealbreaker. 

Lexcycle also signed a similar agreement with Samhain publishing (romance novels). LexCycle also give away some of their future plans – 

Stanza currently has partnerships with several online retailers, including the French company Feedbooks, through which books are available directly through the Stanza application. Lexcycle plans to implement an e-commerce solution in the future. Stanza natively supports the DRM free ePub format.

Going through LexCycle’s website is painful because of claims like

  1. “the most popular electronic book reader” – No you’re not. You’re the most popular, available for free, reading software on the iPhone. 500K downloads means nothing because not a single person paid a single dollar to download your software.  
  2. ” Stanza – a revolution in reading” – I’d disagree. The Kindle’s wireless delivery (arguably), Blogging (again arguably) and Gutenberg’s Press (unarguably) are revolutions in reading. You’re a piece of free software that lets people turn their iPhone sideways and read free books at 20 words a minute.

Reading through their website makes me reconsider – If their self-delusional marketing spin is any indicator they’ll be hard pressed to be any sort of threat to the Kindle.

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