It's easy to see why kids love mobile phones. They can take pictures with them, stream videos, listen to music, play games. And they can even use them to make phone calls. In short, they're brilliant gadgets for teenage slackers and bad news for teachers trying to get their charges interested in "old media" such as books. Girls who are busy keeping up with friends and school work can be nearly as reluctant as boys. But that could all be about to change.
One company believes mobile phones could provide a path to the teacher's holy grail: how to persuade teenagers to read more. Icue says it has come up with "the book equivalent of Apple's iPod", a Wap-based "bookshop" for mobile handsets.
Icue launched with around 500 titles at the end of 2005, including the complete works of Shakespeare (pound;4.50 a play), classics such as Gulliver's Travels and Peter Pan and a small selection of contemporary authors for teenagers. It expects to have thousands of books available to download by the summer, with a range similar to that of a traditional bookshop. The profits are shared with publishers, who are starting to be won over to Icue's belief that the downloads will make reading more attractive to busy teenagers for whom the mobile is a lifeline. Projects such as the Learning2Go initiative in Wolverhampton (http:wgfl.wolverhampton.gov.uk) suggest that girls' and boys' reading improves when they use handheld devices to read e-books.
Jane Tappuni, Icue managing director, says: "The main age group for this technology is young people aged 13-plus, because users will need to own a mobile phone, and because the cost goes on to the phone bill." However, Icue also stocks titles for children as young as 10.
To access the Icue bookshop, you need a fairly new phone (less than four years old) with a colour screen. Icue estimates that the system will work with 70 per cent of mobiles, although a number of new phones we tried out, including a Motorola, did not work. You text ICUE to 64888 and then wait a few seconds to download the software. You then have access to the Icue bookstore, which offers a free test title: such as A Christmas Carol or Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Otherwise, a downloaded book costs around pound;4.50, which compares well with the typical pound;5.99 price tag of a recently published teen paperback or a weekly ringtone subscription of around pound;3.
Once downloaded, books can be read phrase by phrase or "scrolled", but Icue believes the real possibilities lie in delivering books word by word with the speed controlled by the user. The company has based this on the tachistoscope method of speed reading developed in the early 20th century.
Ms Tappuni believes the word-by-word approach will appeal to a generation comfortable with information being presented in electronic formats.
Publishers do not pay for making their books available via Icue, although they do need the agreement of authors. Cally Poplak, director of Egmont Press, is enthusiastic, particularly about the potential for promoting new titles and writers. Egmont has just published its first novel jointly in print and with Icue, Firestarter by Catherine Forde. "I'm confident that it will work as a result of the research I've seen," says Ms Poplak. "We have given more titles to Icue than most publishers and we believe publishers should be supporting this by making titles available. It needs to have a critical mass of books for users to browse." So far the contemporary books made available have shown an emphasis on pace, comedy and girl-friendly titles (Firestarter is an exception); the list includes the Princess Diaries series and All American Girl by Meg Cabot, and Sugar Rush by Julie Burchill, all from Macmillan.
But Icue has just added a clutch of boy-friendly books including Tony Bradman's Tales of Terror (with appeal for older reluctant readers), Jenny Nimmo's Midnight For Charlie Bone (both published by Egmont) and the science bestseller Does Anything Eat Wasps? and 101 Other Questions (Profile Books).
Macmillan plans to promote another of its Icue titles, All About Rachel by Sarah Mlynowski, with free downloads through Sugar magazine this summer.
Viviane Basset, head of marketing and publicity for Macmillan Children's Books, is keen but believes it will take time for the technology to catch on. "We will have to wait and see how many young people will want to read an entire book online," she says.
Icue is also exploring the potential for downloads of revision guides and personal development books with Pearson Education, while Pearson Education works on its own plans for Vango Notes: audio study guides which can be downloaded on to MP3 players or mobile phones. Pearson's editorial director, Richard Stagg, sees this as a good starting point for working with Icue. "It would be useful for students who are revising, or for catch-up notes, although not for full textbooks," he says.
Icue plans to visit schools to explore how the technology can be used in class and with individual reading and writing. It is also talking to Booktrust and the National Literacy Trust about how to broaden access to books and has pledged to donate some of its profits to literacy charities.
Caroline Horn is director of the children's books website www.readingzone.com. Icue: www.i-cue.co.uk