Monday, November 22, 2010

Copia: A Frustrating Ereader Experience, but Showing Potential

I've been looking forward to this app for a few months. When I heard about The Copia and discovered its dizzying array of models to choose from, I wondered why they were focusing on hardware in this increasingly crowded ereader market when they could accomplish the same social network goals with less startup cost with apps for PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, and Android tablets. Apparently, DMC Worldwide had the same thoughts because they've discontinued their ereaders and will be focusing on the desktop and mobile experience.

Unfortunately, this app is very beta. As such, do not expect a new social network experience. Whatever Copia's potential, it isn't on display with their iPad client. In fact, my initial reactions to this app are very negative.

I spent quite a bit of time diving into the Copia ecosystem last week since I was stuck on the couch. I discovered there was a vastly different experience between Mac, web, and iPad clients. The worst of the three was the iPad version.

First of all, I could not create an account with the iPad client. It would hang upon submission. After ten minutes of failed attempts, I turned to the web and set up an account in mere moments. Once I had an account, the iPad let me in without further issue. The desktop or mobile client is needed to read the free ebooks because they use Adobe Digital Editions DRM. I would recommend you reboot your iPad once you've installed the Copia app. I could initiate no downloads of the free ebooks until I had done so.

Finding the social network within the app was difficult. The community comments are mixed in with the search and table of contents. You need to select a dual column icon to access them while in reading mode. I found the process a bit unintuitive, but that is the least of its flaws. None of the highlights, notes, bookmarks, or even last place read synced between the Mac client and the iPad client. I could find my notes from both clients on the web site, but the web site didn't sync the notes back to the clients. In practice, this means that each client features a different stream of comments unique to that client, a mind-bogglingly fractured way to begin a new social network.

Fortunately, my library of books synced between the web, Mac, and iPad clients. After importing my Goodreads collection, I was glad to see that I wouldn't have to manually import all those books again. Unfortunately, the iPad client dumped all the books into one bookshelf, ignoring any tags or bookshelfs/groups I had set up on the Mac or web client. That means the book you are currently reading is lost in the sea of books you have already read. You'll need to scroll around for it. Most ereaders on the iPad make this a trivially easy process. Not so the Copia.

I found reading to be a bit buggy and jerky; selecting text to highlight is an especially awkward experience. The standard double tap to select text will flip the pages in either direction instead. Aside from that, the reader seems functional. There are options within the ebook to change the font and visual reading experience similar to other ereaders, however.

Separate from the inline community there is a Community tab. I assume this will be filled with comments from people I follow. One can only follow friends from the website, however, because there is no way to do that within the iPad client. You can't even click on a person's name in the community annotation to get more information about that person or follow them. In addition, unlike other social network apps that can browse your list of friends and see if any are on the service, The Copia merely prompts you to mass-invite all your Facebook friends to join the service, something that is considered a no-no these days. If the social community is supposed to be the key point that makes Copia stand out, then they have failed.

The most egregious flaw in the Copia ecosystem is how they treat ebooks. They want to have all readers on the same edition, likely to encourage socializing, and they want to make money, so they force the presentation of their version of the book. Whether you manually add or automatically import books from Goodreads, you have no control over this. Incidentally, most of my books are listed in the wrong format. Hardbacks became audiobooks, and paperbacks became ebooks. This is where the problem for me lied. The moment a book was flagged as an ebook, Copia offered it for sale with a large BUY button.

As far as I can see, there is no way to tell Copia that I already own these books. If a book exists as one they have for sale, I can't even rate the book until I buy their version. Also, because Copia is so keen to upsell their ebooks, Project Gutenberg books are not available for download. If you want to read community comments about Sherlock Holmes or chat live about Pride & Prejudice with your reading club, you'll have to buy the book within Copia. Unfortunately, many Sherlock Holmes ebooks, for example, aren't available for sale, leaving you marooned on Fanboy Island with nobody to talk to.

With so much effort put into iPad, Mac, and PC clients, it is baffling that many of Copia's key features are not working. Also, I feel that many features were not implemented with the iPad in mind. The app feels very old school Windows95 to me with all the panels and menu items to tap on. I was hoping to see some razzle dazzle in the way they implemented the social community into the book. As it is, it's a bit dull.

I hope they work out these bugs, but for now the Copia ereading ecosystem is the Walled Garden of walled gardens with a few potted plants on display and a gate keeper charging you to view them. I can't recommend this iPad client as an ereader, either, until DMC Worldwide at least adds feature parity between the iPad client and their website and fixes the social experience.