The sorry state of ebooks on Windows 10 Mobile

Mark Coppock

The so-called “app gap” that separates Windows-based smartphones from their iOS and Android counterparts is very real. There are simply far more apps available in every category on the other two major platforms, and in many cases the equivalent apps are simply better. No matter how good Windows 10 Mobile becomes (it’s still in pretty rough shape at the moment), the platform will suffer until the app gap is closed.

Even so, there are actually only a handful of areas where it’s simply impossible to use a Windows phone. Social media is partly covered, for example, with a usable (but not terribly great) Microsoft-written Facebook app and plenty of decent Twitter apps. Instagram and Pinterest are covered as well, with third-party options of varying quality. Of the major social media platforms, in fact, only Snapchat is entirely missing in action (by Snapchat’s choice, of course).

Productivity apps are covered with Office Mobile, naturally. The Mail and Calendar app is decent enough, albeit lacking in some important features (e.g., creating folders). Microsoft’s Wunderlist is an excellent task manager that runs on every platform known to humankind. For the most part, you can get your work done on a Windows phone.

You can game on a Windows phone as well, even if the most popular iOS titles aren’t always available. Media consumption is a bit limited, with decent enough Netflix and Microsoft Movies and TV  apps, but neither Amazon Video nor Google Play Video apps. You can access your RSS feeds with the excellent NextGen Reader app (although the developer is currently on personal hiatus), and Microsoft’s own News app and Flipboard have that category covered.

In addition, Microsoft is taking some important steps to close the app gap. Universal apps, that is, apps that are written once to run on every Windows 10 device, will become more important now that Windows 10 is running on well over 110 million machines. In addition, Microsoft has new tools that will allow developers to port Android and iOS apps to Windows 10 Mobile. Finally, Microsoft is working more closely with independent software vendors (ISVs) to convince them to build apps for Windows phones, and to help them along the way.

Yes, but can you read ebooks on Windows phones?

One area where Windows 10 Mobile really falls flat, however, is in support for the various ebook ecosystems. This might not be quite so important to some people, but I’m an avid ebook reader. I’ve been a fan of science fiction and epic fantasy since I was a kid, and have accumulated literally hundreds of novels in those two genres alone. I’m a writer, and so of course reading is a natural — and vital — extension of my profession. Finally, I’m a science and philosophy geek, and have purchased some important tomes over the years. Taken together, and given that I read a number of ebooks concurrently, these attributes add up to making ebook support as important to me as just about anything else I can do with a smartphone.

Furthermore, for a variety of reasons, I possess hundreds of ebooks scattered across each of the major ebook platforms. I have ebooks on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Google Play, Kobo Books, and Apple iBooks. While each of those platforms has excellent clients for iOS and Android (with the exception of Apple, which of course is iOS-only), Amazon and Kobo are the only platforms with clients for Windows phones. And, to add insult to injury, those clients are atrocious.

Today’s ebook experiences include a number of key features in addition to simple reading, all of which I utilize on a consistent basis:

  • Annotating: I add copious notes to my ebooks, even fiction. Therefore, an ebook client should support annotation, and preferably it’s easy to access on every device that I use.
  • Highlights: I also highlight important information in my ebooks, and a good ebook client allows me to highlight in different colors and with ease.
  • Bookmarks: Sometimes I just want to remember specific spots in books, to come back later and review. Accordingly, a good ebook client allows me to add multiple bookmarks, and to easily locate them later.
  • Syncing: At a minimum, an ebook client needs to support syncing the last page read across platforms, and preferably bookmarks, notes, and highlights also sync. Also, syncing must be reliable and fast–I read on a number of different devices, from PCs to tablets to smartphones, and continuously switch among them at a moment’s notice.

Each of the major ebook platforms support all of this functionality at a minimum, along with the basics such as changing fonts, adjusting lighting and backgrounds, and sorting book lists. In addition, each platform has its own unique features, such as Amazon’s Kindle X-Ray feature, collections, and personal books. As we’ll see, Windows Phone support for basic and advanced ebook features (where a Windows phone client exists at all) is severely limited, enough so that the platform is essentially worthless for anyone but the most basic ebook user.

Amazon Kindle
Amazon’s Kindle is the dominant player in ebooks, and for the most part provides excellent clients for every major platform. Amazon has added a number of interesting features to their ebooks as well, such as X-Ray that scans (some) ebooks and provides information on wherever characters, ideas, places, etc. are mentioned. As we’ll see below, Amazon’s Windows phone Kindle app is severely limited compared to the iOS and Android versions. I’ve highlighted some of the features that are most important to me, but note that beyond simply reading a book, there’s not much you can do with the Windows phone version of the Amazon Kindle client.

Book sorting
The iOS and Android apps support more options for viewing the list of available books (such as grid vs. list views), but the Windows phone app doesn’t even support sorting your cloud collection by most recent. This makes selecting new books from within your complete library unnecessarily difficult.

iOS, Android, and Windows phone book list options.
iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app book list options.

App commands
Clearly, the Windows phone app is sadly limited in functionality compared to the iOS and Android versions.

iOS, Android, and Windows phone available app commands.
iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app available app commands.

Full page reading
The reading experience, at least, is similar across all of the Kindle apps.

iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app full-page reading views.
iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app full-page reading views.

Font options
Setting fonts, background colors, and brightness is a similar experience across all Kindle apps.

iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app font options.
iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app font options.

Reading options
The Windows phone Kindle app allows changing the font and setting a bookmark. That’s it. The iOS and Android apps, on the other hand, enable sharing, annotating, connecting with Goodreads (iOS) — generally, enabling access to a host of features and functionality that the Windows phone app simply does not possess.

iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app reading options.
iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app reading options.

About This Book
The iOS and Android apps provide some valuable information on the book currently being read, including how much reading time remains before the book is finished. The Windows phone app has no equivalent functionality.

iOS and Android Kindle app "About This Book" info.
iOS and Android Kindle app “About This Book” info.

Selection menu
Selecting text in the iOS and Android Kindle apps pulls up a menu that includes the ability to highlight, annotate, copy, and share. Text cannot be selected in the Windows phone Kindle app, and of course none of this functionality is present.

iOS and Android Kindle app text selection menus.
iOS and Android Kindle app text selection menus.

Creating a note
Both the iOS and Android Kindle apps allow taking notes. The Windows phone client does not.

iOS and Android Kindle app note screens.
iOS and Android Kindle app note screens.

Annotations list
Although the Windows phone Kindle app doesn’t allow highlighting or annotating, it does show a list of notes and highlights created in other clients.

iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app annotations lists.
iOS, Android, and Windows phone Kindle app annotations lists.

The bottom line with the Kindle app is this: if all you need to do is read your Kindle ebooks and perhaps view the annotations you’ve made in other clients, then the Windows phone Kindle app can work for you. You’ll give up some of the more exciting and useful Kindle features, but at least you can keep up with your reading.

Unfortunately for me, I actually use those missing features, and so Kindle on Windows phone is a non-starter.

Barnes & Noble Nook
B&N has run into some serious challenges across the board in competing with Amazon, and its ebooks business is no exception. Nevertheless, Nook remains a viable platform, and I started out with Nook years ago before switching to Kindle as my primary platform.

Unfortunately, there’s no Nook client for Windows phones, in spite of the fact that Microsoft and Barnes & Noble were essentially partners in the ebook space for years. While Barnes & Noble made a Windows 8.1 app that’s still available in the Windows Store (but is now defunct, for all intents and purposes), they never saw fit to make an app for Windows phones. And it’s looking like a universal Windows 10 app is highly unlikely.

Google Play Books
Google has a solid selection of books and generally good client support — except, of course, for Windows phones. Given the utter lack of Google support for Windows in general, it should come as no surprise that there’s no Play Books client. And, try as I might, I simply could not get the Web reader working well enough to be usable. So, Google Play Books is another platform that I can’t use on my Lumia 830.

Kobo Books
Kobo is an interesting ebook player, chugging away with a strong selection of ebooks and relatively little market share. Kobo makes its own often excellent line of ebook readers, and the company also makes ebook clients for all of the major players. Interestingly, they do have a Windows phone Kobo client, but much like the Kindle app, it’s severely limited in functionality.

iOS and Android Kobo apps are far more full-featured than the Windows phone version.
iOS and Android Kobo apps are far more full-featured than the Windows phone version, mimicking the Kindle experience.

I was going to show more screenshots to demonstrate what’s missing in the Kobo app, but that would be an exercise in redundancy. Ultimately, Kobo is a replay of Kindle- – you can read Kobo ebooks on their Windows phone client, but that’s about it. You can’t highlight, annotate, share, copy, or look anything up. And so if all you need to do is read Kobo ebooks, then you’re all set. If you need to do anything else, as do I, you’re out of luck.

Apple iBooks
I mention Apple only because they’re a major player in the ebook market. Of course, you can only read iBooks on Apple devices, and so it’s not terribly meaningful to discuss the lack of a Windows Phone client.

Non-DRM ebook support
There are likely some excellent ebook apps available on Windows Phone for people with large collections of non-DRM ebooks. I wouldn’t know, however, because I’ve generally bought my books through one of the major booksellers, and I typically convert whatever independent and/or non-DRM ebooks I collect to Kindle. As I’ve indicated, I need to sync my reading status (and notes, highlights, and bookmarks) across all of my various devices, which include iOS and Android, and Kindle seems to be the best platform for doing so when it comes to non-DRM titles. Therefore, no matter how good the non-DRM ebook clients might (or might not) be on Windows phone, they’re not a viable solution for me.

I’m looking forward to picking up my Lumia 950XL as soon as it arrives at my local Microsoft Store. And, I’ll likely use it extensively, primarily because I write about Windows 10 Mobile and Microsoft devices and need to remain familiar with the platform. I don’t know, however, if I’ll be carrying the 950XL as my daily driver, no matter how good it is. Instead, those duties will likely be divvied up between my iPhone 6 and my Nexus 5, as they are today.

The biggest reason Windows 10 Mobile won’t serve as my primary platform will likely be the lack of even passable ebook support for Windows phones. Now, I could be angry at Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo for refusing to release ebook apps that are on par with their iOS and Android clients. However, I actually think that the onus of responsibility for cleaning this mess up lies with Microsoft.

As with the lack of a Snapchat client, the relatively poor state of Microsoft’s own Windows phone apps compared to their iOS and Android versions, and the app gap in general, it is Microsoft that needs to find a way to get all of the major categories covered. Until Microsoft manages to get this done, the app gap will leave too many people unable to migrate completely to Windows 10 Mobile- – even Windows fans like myself who would love to leave iOS and Android behind.