Apple’s daring and innovative new ebook-reading software, iBooks, which debuted on the iPad, arrived on the iPhone and iPod touch with Monday’s iOS 4 software update. I installed it on my touch, and have been impressed with its capabilities. Here are my thoughts.
Upon launching, iBooks presents a beautiful bookshelf, now standard in many of the myriad (perhaps now obsolete) book-reading iPhone applications, which might have begun with Classics. Dragging the interface beyond the search bar and shelf-list toggle that reside above the books reveals a sleek Apple logo on the textured wood. Scrolling back to the books, one can see a single cover preloaded: A. A. Milne’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh, with beautiful color illustrations. Tapping on a book opens it, swinging towards you with a slick animation. (The closing animation is similar, but pleasingly snappy.) However, I experienced a short delay (running on a second-gen touch).
Once in a book, one is presented with text and pictures on a white background, with useful controls for brightness, font, search, and bookmark along the top and a progress indicator/slider on the bottom. These controls fade away upon a screen tap. The well-known page-flipping animation is beautiful but not glaring. Viewing pages works in portrait or landscape mode: when in landscape, lines are a more realistic length, but pages, on the other hand, grow shorter. This also changes the page count, which can be somewhat confusing. The bookshelf also runs in landscape, but not the iBookstore; the app awkwardly readjusts upon clicking the Store button.
That button presents another elegant animation. The wooden bookshelf, which we now observe is thicker than it appeared, spins around and reveals on its back a more standard iPhone interface. The iBookstore, of course, looks similar to the iPhone versions of the App Store and iTunes Store. The familiar five-item tab bar lies along the bottom, and the actual store interface, finding and exploring items, is much the same as in Apple’s other two marketplaces. One difference is the ever-present Library button along the top, which takes you back to your bookshelf with a tap.
The version of iBooks available on for iPhones is 1.1, which came simultaneously to the iPad. Its most notable feature (along with note-taking, bookmarking, and syncing across devices) is the oft-requested ability to read PDFs. This have a bookshelf to themselves, and appear with the familiar plastic binding from the Mac OS. They open in an entirely different interface, with page previews along the bottom, less realistic-looking overlays, and a simple sliding animation on a textured background. While this is fine for documents, many people have actual books in PDFs, myself included; those who wanted PDF compatibility weren’t thinking of viewing documents in iBooks. It would be nice if Apple recognized this and provided an option to use the same book interface for PDFs. They also seem like images in that text cannot be selected (or highlighted and commented on), and the font size cannot be changed, but instead the page can be zoomed.
My first download was the free, public-domain title The Hunting of the Snark. Unfortunately, the text had a major problem: in portrait mode, half of the page was cut off! The book worked fine in landscape, and indeed looked as if it had been formatted for landscape all the time. I have not experienced this problem elsewhere, nor heard of it from any other source. This was not the only error; in the sample I downloaded of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, I discovered spelling and punctuation errors I would never expect to see in a real book. This problem, however, was minor. All in all, books were high-quality and easily readable.
I also grabbed a sample of Septimus Heap: The Magykal Papers from the store. It is a companion book to the series, and is designed to look like a collection of colored, textured, realistic-looking papers and pages. The ePub format comes nowhere near the real book, with text simply as text, with no background at all. However, it features colored titles and some drawings; I would much rather read it on an iPhone than a Kindle.
All in all, iBooks is one of the finest ebook reading experiences so far. Despite the errors described above, reading books is fun and immersive. I see iBooks as only the start on a path to a more realistic, more enjoyable e-reading experience. E-books will probably not replace real books, but provide us with a convenient, pleasant alternative.