Thoughts on the Reading Experience with iBooks

Prompted by my reaching exploration into the iPad reading experience, let’s take a closer look at the iBooks app:

First, the basics. From Apple’s iBooks page:

“Start with the bookshelf to buy and read your books. With a tap, it flips around to reveal the iBookstore, where you’ll find over 200,000 books and counting — many of them free … With iCloud, you can have the new books you buy on your iPad automatically download to your iPhone and iPod touch, too.1 So they appear on your bookshelf everywhere you want them.”

Many users had a gripe about notes and highlighting, by which I mean the lack of, but they did eventually fix that in iOS 4.

ArsTechnica has an impressive, detailed review of iBooks (part of their exhaustive review of the iPad in general): “Reading on the iPad” —

“There’s not a whole lot about iBooks that’s surprising. The program combines a library view for organizing and searching for content to read, a book view, and a bookstore. The book view has a cheesy looking outline that’s meant to evoke a hardcover binding and some unflipped pages, but it ends up looking like something out of a bad Hypercard stack. Still, the reading experience is nice, gestures work as you’d expect, and there are in-app controls for things like screen brightness and display font. Selecting a word lets you look it up in a dictionary, bookmark it, or search for other instances of it in the book. The search function also lets you send it to Safari as a Google or Wikipedia search.

You can literally turn a book’s virtual pages, and they respond with nearly true-to-life physics. You can even see the print bleed through the back of the pages. When highlighting you can pick from four different colors, and the highlights look like real marker ink. The color of those bookmarks are preserved in the bookmarks for each book, making it easy to color code your noted passages”

One of the best things about iBooks is that, unlike the Kindle app, it is EPUB-friendly, partly mitigated by the fact that iBooks content is stuck on Apple devices, naturally. PC Mag, “Review: iBooks for iPad”) —

“iBooks uses the open EPUB format for e-books, but it doesn’t take advantage of the format’s biggest advantage: universal device interoperability. Apple applies Fairplay DRM to its EPUB books, so consumers will be unable to transfer content to non-Apple devices (you can, however, import non-DRM EPUB books into the iPad).”

Which isn’t to say iBooks is perfect, because it’s not. The Unofficial Apple Weblog, “5 Ways Apple Could Improve iBooks”, passes along some ideas. Two of the more design-oriented ideas involve subtle tweaks of the look and feel of the reading experience:

“Since printed books are made of paper, their pages not only have a distinct feel, but they also have subtle visual variations of the paper stock that the words are printed on … Adding lifelike paper stock backgrounds to iBooks wouldn’t be a hard challenge, and it would give the e-books a more comfortable feel. Also, if Apple let publishers choose from between different textures, it would be a way for publishing houses to gain back some control over the look and feel of their books.”

I’ve also noticed a lot of comments in general about the page edges. I’m ambivalent, so present the following observation without comment —

“When you read a physical book, even if the book doesn’t have page numbers, you know when you’re getting close to the end of it because the thickness on the right side of the book decreases with each page turn. Reading an e-book in iBooks always displays the same number of page edges on either side of the book — even when you’re on the last page. An accurate visual representation of the number of pages read and the number of pages left to be read on the left and right side, respectively, of the e-book would again be one of those nice little features that bring physical books and e-books closer to parity.”

Gizmodo (“Hands On: Apple iBooks”) poses a great question:

“Where’s My Genius? Truthfully, I don’t want a computer algorithm to recommend me music. But where do I really, really want group-think to point me in the way to a tailored preference list? Books. I want to type in my favorite authors and books, then I want to know what I should read. Amazon is great at suggesting purchases based upon my browsing and search histories. Go ahead, take my privacy. I just want a list of some decent cyberpunk.”

What if iBooks had a Genuis-type feature for book recommendation? Will it ever?

All that being said, iBooks is probably fine for most. And, luckily, there are plenty of other options. The obvious yet true point from the Ars Technica iBooks review:

“Don’t like iBooks? You can use someone else’s e-book reader, including Amazon’s Kindle software. Don’t think a Web browser’s the best way to get blog content? Download an RSS reader. I’ve read PDFs in five different applications without even trying very hard. The end result: you can probably find an application that will present content in a way you’re happy with, and can choose different applications for different types of content.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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