iBooks Thoughts

Reflections on the pros and cons of Apple's iBook format.

by Alan Porter
August 13, 2010

Since the launch of ePublisher 2010.2, which included the new ePub format, I have been spending time with the iBooks app to see how I like it. That's what I want to talk about in this article. What are my impressions, prejudices, likes, dislikes, and so on.

First of all, I come to the iBooks app with a little bit of baggage. In the eight years that I have been a Quadralay employee, we have delivered content optimized for mobile devices in the Microsoft Reader and Palm eReader offerings. I personally spent some time using the eReader on my Palm Treo a number of years ago. I liked it fine. However, based on the small number of inquiries about these portable reader formats and the lack of any Support cases associated with them, I assumed that while useful, the portable reader platform was little more than a novelty. Also, I should note that in October of 1999 I went to work for the “since-2001-defunct” ibooks.com. This company was venture-capital-funded company whose corporate vision was to be a library for print books online, not at all unlike the iBooks idea.

My first impression was apathy. The “new” format appeared to do much of the same types of things that the eReader did, and honestly, I wasn't sure that I would ever be into reading books online. I've wondered if the effects of spending so much mental energy in a hyper (meaning a non-linear, storybook, literary world) world would mean that I'd never really read “books” again, in the way I did pre-2000.

Then I got an iPhone 4. So, now I had hardware that would run the iBooks app, the first order of business was to install the app and put some ePublisher output onto my iPhone 4. Hmmm... How to do that? Turns out that this can be accomplished by taking the *.epub file that ePublisher generates and drag it into the “Books” tag of the iPhone in iTunes, then Sync the iPhone.

Once I had done this, I was able to view the ePublisher ePub output on the iPhone and it looked good. It looked fine. It looked how I expected it to look, but I confess that it wasn't of much interest to me because I used content that I had read and reread many times. I didn't feel compelled to actually spend time in the app. I noted that the formatting was rendering correctly and briefly familiarized myself with the Table of Contents and other navigation features. There was not too much there which impressed me. Many of these same features were available in the other portable device formats ePublisher has been long shipping.

Then, a few days ago, I decided that it might be worthwhile to actually buy a book from the iTunes store, do the whole user experience. I sort of did this, in the end opting to “purchase” the free short story Shatterboy by Scott William Carter. While it was a very short read, the experience was not terrible enough for me to wonder how I might feel about reading something longer. So I “purchased” the freely available “The Winter's Tale” and I'm into Act IV.

Now, for the denouement: iBooks is very well done and because it is delivered on a device which is imminently useful, at least to me, I feel very positive about iBooks. Shakespeare is chock-full of arcane allusions and archaic vocabulary. iBooks' easy linking to a dictionary and web search offer the next best thing to a fully annotated Shakespeare volume. Also the note and highlight facilities, again, while not necessarily revolutionary, are put together in such a way that I feel I could manage all of my textbooks on my phone, were I still a student. I have long lamented my inability to bookmark or search PDFs on the iPhone. The fact that all of these features are also available for any PDF is a huge boon.

Finally, as an experience, there is the potential that this platform could become a viable collaboration client. This is generically of interest to me and Quadralay.