iBooks and the iBookstore: A Walkthrough

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When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad several weeks ago, one of the key announcements was that the new tablet device would feature an e-reader that would compete directly with the Amazon Kindle and would also have a built-in electronic bookstore. I have spent the last week with a new iPad using the iBooks app and shopping in the iBookstore to see how it works. In my short experience with the iPad, I can say that I like iBooks but I am not sure if this app will be the revolution in publishing that iTunes was for the music industry.

iBooks

The Library

iBooks is an e-reader app for the iPad that you use to manage and read electronic books. You are first greeted by a wood-grained bookshelf where thumbnail images of the covers of your e-books reside. You can also use a list view where you can sort the books by title, author, category or the sorting used on the bookshelf.

These sorting options are the source of my first complaint. Sorting is not available in the bookshelf view. Instead, books are arranged by the order in which they were added to your library. The lack of sorting and search options makes the bookshelf view very limited, even though it is visually appealing.

Reading

Tapping a cover opens up the book to either the first page or the previous spot where you were reading. Pages appear side by side in landscape view or a single page at a time in portrait view. You switch pages by swiping left or right, or simply tapping on the edge of the page. The controls will fade after a moment to let you concentrate on the material, but reappear quickly with a tap to the middle of the page. You can adjust the font size and the font face as well as the brightness of the screen by using the controls at the top right of the screen.

Turning pages by grabbing the corner and pulling your finger across reveals a pleasant attention to detail. You can just make out the faint impression of the reverse side of the page as it flips over. However, this is really just eye candy because tapping at the edge of the screen with your thumbs is much easier when holding the iPad as a book. The little animation that flips the page over with the tap is nice and fast and improves the experience

Searching & Bookmarking

While I have some emotional attachment to books (I love the smell of new bindings and leather covers), there are some real advantages to electronic books that just cannot be matched with paper. You can search the e-book by word or phrase by tapping and holding over a word to select it and then choosing from the options in the pop-up dialog, which includes an option to look up the word in the built-in dictionary.

Full-text search is a little slow in longer books, but fast enough that the few seconds wait is not unbearable. The search dialog provides additional options to look for the word or phrase with Google or Wikipedia.

Selections can be saved to Bookmarks that are saved and then made accessible from the Table of Contents view. They appear on the page with yellow highlighting as if you had used a pen to mark the word of passage.

Eyestrain

One concern about the iPad as a reading device is that the bright, LED-backlit, IPS LCD screen may induce more eyestrain than the reflective e-ink display used in the Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers. While there are no clinical studies yet that have measured increased eyestrain with LCD displays compared to e-ink screens, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people prefer e-ink. One reason suggested by ophthalmologists interviewed in the LA Times, NY Times, and the Wall Street Journal may be that screen brightness is the primary cause of discomfort on LCD screens. Having a brightness control available in the app, in addition to the auto-adjusting feature that responds to changes in ambient light, is a nice step towards providing comfort for extended reading.

Once you move outside, the glare on the glossy iPad screen makes reading difficult and I suspect that glare causes additional eyestrain just from trying to focus your eyes past the distracting mirror images on the glass.

In my own reading, I found that stretches of up to an hour were perfectly comfortable, including time this last weekend driving through twisty mountain roads, as long as I positioned the iPad out of direct sunlight. I read a lot of books in my (precious little) spare time and I think I still prefer the heft, feel, and look of paper books for many uses. I imagine that different people will have a different reaction, but you should not be scared of the iPad for reading.

iBookstore

The iBookstore is reached by clicking on the “Store” button inside the iBooks app. The five major publishers announced at the iPad debut in January are selling titles alongside thousands of free books from the Gutenberg Project. Prices vary widely for the paid content. I saw everything from $6.99 to $14.99 in a quick scan.

Searching for titles or authors will helpfully suggest possible matches as you type, but browsing is a bit frustrating due to the limited options. You can browse the featured, new and bestselling books, the top 25 New York Times Bestsellers, and the top 50 paid and free books in the iBookstore. You can also browse the categories to see the top sellers in that section.

Browsing by category is frustrating. There are only 21 categories and no sub-categories to drill down and explore. The iBookstore will only display the top 50 paid and free books. Some categories do not list free books and then show the top 60 paid books as a small concession.

As the number of titles grows in the store, I really want Apple to add some additional options for discovering content. In addition, I found that the selection is a bit limited at this time. Several titles that I have been wanting to read, which are available in the Kindle store, were not listed in the iBookstore.

Revolutionary?

I do not think that iBooks will revolutionize the book publishing industry, at least not in its current form. Printed books are still great for reading at the beach (sun and sand are not iPad friendly) and can be lent out, shared or donated after you are done with them.

The advantages of e-books (searching, bookmarking) are really apparent with reference books like software programming titles. Some technical publishers like O’Reilly have made at least part of their catalog available in ePub, but through their own online store, not the iBookstore. Textbooks are the other area where e-books would be fantastic. Kids today routinely carry 30-40 pound backpacks and the iPad would probably put a few chiropractors out of business if that load could be replaced by a 1.5 pound device with all the required texts loaded on it.

iBooks will be a decent success partly for novelty and partly for the fact that the demographic that is buying the iPad is more likely to look past the limitations of e-books and appreciate the convenience.

The real revolution will come when textbooks with visually complex layouts like sidebars, graphs, charts, footnotes, are made available. I suspect that it will not happen in the current ePub format though.

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