NEW YORK (AP) – Inc. has received a lot of attention and respectable sales for its Kindle e-book reader, but it’s hardly made a dent in the hardcover armor of the old-fashioned paper book.

On Wednesday, the Internet company revealed another prong of its strategy in making its gigantic e-book library available on a device already in millions of hands: the iPhone.

This is a big step for e-books, which have lingered outside the mainstream for nearly two decades even as digital media have conquered music and film distribution. Amazon’s move combines a readily available device that’s suitable for reading with a good distribution system and reasonably priced books.

That said, the first version of the iPhone application is crude, and Amazon would do well to release a software update soon to demonstrate its commitment to the iPhone.

But before we get into that, let’s take a look at how the Kindle app works. It’s free, available in Apple Inc.’s App Store for U.S. residents. Amazon says it’s working on taking it international, though I wouldn’t hold my breath because that would involve securing international publishing rights. Apart from the iPhone, it will also work on the iPod Touch.

Once you’ve loaded the app, you can buy books on Amazon’s Web store. You’ll have to use either a computer or the iPhone’s browser. Unlike some other e-book readers, including the Kindle, the app doesn’t have a built-in store. Considering that most people are familiar with the Web site, this isn’t a major shortcoming.

New books cost a few dollars less than the print versions, and some public-domain books are available for 99 cents.

Head back to the application, and it will load up the books you bought wirelessly. The Apple devices have gigabytes of storage memory, and unless you’ve filled it with music and movies, they can hold hundreds, even thousands of books.

Tap one, and its text fills the screen. Turn the page by swiping over it with your finger. If you do something else with your phone, then return to the reader app, it will show you the last page you were reading, so there’s no need to fiddle with bookmarks or bend page corners.

That’s great for reading short snatches here and there. Whip your iPhone out in the elevator, and your co-travellers won’t know that you’re ignoring them in the best way by catching up on Danielle Steel. You won’t look like a snob in the supermarket checkout line, even if you’re reading Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma.”

Since the screen is backlit, you don’t need a light source.

If you’ve already bought a book for the Kindle device, it will load on your iPhone for free, and vice versa. If you’re reading a book both on the Kindle and the iPhone, the two devices will communicate to keep track of how far you’ve read.

This sounds elegant, but the app has a mildly annoying habit of freezing when it’s trying to communicate with Amazon when your wireless connection is weak.

Most of the other shortcomings have to do with reading comfort.

E-book readers haven’t taken off in part because people don’t like reading on a computer screen. The Kindle reading device, which costs $359, tackles that by using a novel screen technology known as electronic ink. It’s not backlit, so it looks a lot more like paper, but it has numerous drawbacks, most notably that it can’t show a bright white or a really dark black. Since it doesn’t show any colors either, it looks like gray, unbleached paper printed with weak ink.

The iPhone and iPod Touch screens are nothing like that, of course. They have great contrast and color. But the Kindle app will show all books on a white background that many will find too bright, making it uncomfortable to read. You can turn down the screen brightness, but that will leave it too dark for other applications.

Other e-book readers available on the iPhone, like eReader and Stanza, let you pick a background and text color that won’t hurt your eyes. These other reading applications also let you pick the font and set the margins on the screen. The only adjustment the Amazon app offers is the font size.

I also noticed that the app cut off the ends of some indented paragraphs in Max Brooks’ “The Zombie Survival Guide,” making them impossible to read. The Kindle 2, which went on sale last week, doesn’t do this. Hopefully Amazon will fix the app before there’s a major zombie uprising.

But the Kindle on the iPhone is still the best e-book reader I’ve seen so far.

Other applications are hampered by a weak selection of books and inelegant ordering systems. You can probably find something you won’t mind reading on the eReader and Stanza, but if you have a particular book in mind from the outset, you’re likely to be disappointed. Stanza has the bad habit of freezing for nearly a minute when launched.

A third, relatively new application called Shortcovers gave me frequent connection problems, and perplexingly it seems to emphasize providing samples rather than full books, even when the books are in the public domain.

The eReader does have the virtue of being available for other cell phones, so you’re not completely left out if you don’t have an iPhone. Another alternative, Mobipocket, is available for practically every “smart” phone except the iPhone. But there are few phones out there with screens large and sharp enough to make reading pleasurable.

The Kindle 2 is four times the size of the iPhone. You might prefer Kindle’s screen, but I think most people will be fine with the phone once they get used to it. The dedicated reader has much longer battery life, but the iPhone will last for a domestic flight, and you need a charge the phone every other day or so anyway.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the Kindle 2 is that it can subscribe to newspapers, which load wirelessly every day. The iPhone makes up for this to some extent through free news applications.

The iPhone costs less to buy than the Kindle, but the monthly wireless service fees quickly make up the difference, so don’t get an iPhone just as an e-book reader. For that, get an iPod Touch for $229. It doesn’t have any monthly fees.

Try the app. With an engrossing book and the brightness turned down, you’ll forget after a little while that you’re not reading on paper, and your surroundings will fade as your mind is sucked into that little screen.

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