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BLOG: iBooks 2 for iOS

Lex Friedman | Jan. 25, 2012
Whenever I’m asked to review an e-reading app, my first reaction hovers around snarky amusement.

Those optimized books are so big that it sometimes takes even the iPad 2 some time to process them. When I tap Library to return to my bookshelf from a fancy textbook, iBooks takes a long moment to gather its thoughts before it takes me where I want to go. Returning to the library from War and Peace, on the other hand, is essentially instantaneous.

Beyond the handful of crashes, the missing “pages remaining” text, and the huge file sizes, the other knock against optimized books is their complete failure to work on the iPhone—it can’t be done. I’m not saying it would be easy, but Apple should be able to offer some means—likely inspired by the portrait view experience on the iPad—of fitting these books on the iPhone’s smaller screen. It’s a huge ebook advantage to be able to read another couple of pages while you’re waiting in line or somewhere else without your iPad. Sure, interactive elements might not be quite as easy to experience on the iPhone, but “not quite as easy” is far better than “not available at all.”

I said at the outset that my preference in e-reading apps is that they just get out of the way and let you read, while still packing in the advantages that their digital nature can afford. With regular books, iBooks succeeds.

With optimized books, the app succeeds too—but in a different way. It’s not at all complicated to read an optimized textbook in the app, and anyone familiar with an iOS device should mostly be able to navigate such a book without trouble. (The one gotcha is remembering the pinch gesture to get back to the Chapter view.) But you do need to examine each element on the page to know what it can do: Is this just a photo, or is it a slideshow, or a model, or an animation, or a video, or something else? Again, it’s not hard to answer such questions—you just look at the interactive element’s description to see what it does. It’s a different way of reading, and it makes the books feel much more like exquisite webpages than texts. That’s not necessarily either good or bad—but it’s undeniably different from traditional reading. Where iBooks does a superb job getting out of your way as you read regular books, it screams “THIS IS AN IMMERSIVE MULTIMEDIA EXPERIENCE” when you read fancy ones.

If iBooks were two apps, I’d give the one for reading regular books a higher rating, and the optimized experience a still favorable-though-slightly qualified recommendation. And I’d feel conflicted about it, because when it works on the iPad, the optimized reading experience really is impressive. But the limitations—the occasional crashes, massive file sizes, missing “pages remaining” feature, and lack of iPhone support—mar an otherwise great experience.


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