iBooks: Still in third place but now only fifteen lengths behind


Be warned! Today’s blog contains a huge **!!Bombshell!!** That’s right, I’ve scooped the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, the Grudge Report and Entertainment Tonight. You will not believe what I uncovered about Barnes & Noble when I was fact checking yesterday’s blog. And I will document it with pictures. You will find out below, but only if you read the entire blog and not just the summary for bottom-line readers below.

Let’s begin with the bottom line preview for my hasty readers (I doubt I have any fans at this early date):

Apple’s iBooks app is doomed to languish in a distant third place behind the Kindle and Barnes & Noble readers unless:

  • They devise a shrewd marketing strategy that has nothing to do with the iBooks app itself (and which you will have to read the whole blog to learn about),
  • They increase the number of books available through the store, and
  • They rethink their interface.

Luckily for them, they released an upgrade while I was writing this that made me cut at least half of the the negative comments from the blog I intended to post. And iBook’s copy and paste feature for public domain text makes it the go to reader for any title no longer under copyright.

Now that iPad iBooks automatically sync with iBooks on iPhones running iOS 4, I think the app could compete head to head. Once they have more books.

iBooks and the Big 2: Candyland verses Monopoly and Risk

I figured I’d go ahead and review a lion’s share of the the iPad’s ereaders this week, since I’ve already reviewed the two that will probably grab the market share. Today we’ll look at iBooks and tomorrow I’ll round out the series by looking at some the remaining ebook readers on the market.

Jenny isn’t happy with my decision. She can’t see why I would review so many readers when they all do pretty much the same thing. She doesn’t see the point of doing that same thing, meaning reading, either. She would rather I review an app with cats, or app with things cats eat, like birds and mice. When I went ahead with this blog she lifted her tail in the air and wandered off to remind the fosters that they don’t get featured in a blog like she does.

Jenny does this by batting at them with her paws, which have more than the usual number of claws, and knocking things off the counter and dresser when we’re not looking. This way we’ll think another cat did it and yell at them. She also likes to wait until Bandit, our blind Papillon, is right behind Chutney our Neanderthal dog, and then swipes her. Chutney turns around to bark, Bandit, thinking Chutney’s barking at him, yaps back, the barking and yapping escalates, every other cat in the house panics, I tell the dogs to shut up, they get their feelings hurt and Jenny gets to prance around like she’s above all this.

I’m still going to review iBooks.

Apple’s biggest disadvantage against the Kindle and Barnes & Noble (BN) readers remains the lack of available titles. Until their offerings can compete with the other two, I think they’ll fall further and further behind. To be honest, I think it’s going to take more than a large enough listing to ever catch up.

When I was writing this blog yesterday I stated that they would need a major redesign; something like the jump from the Mac OS to OS X.

Once again, developers skunked me by posting an upgrade while Carol was proofreading. I think the latest update made a major step forward, enough to move them ahead of the Barnes & Noble Reader in features. Not available titles, and certainly not in interface design, but in terms of usefulness.

If Apple can expand their offerings, I think the Big Two conference of Kindle and Barnes & Noble will have to expand to the Big Three.

Until Monday’s upgrade, the one feature iBooks offered that its competitors don’t is the ability to copy and paste text. This only works with public domain books because publishers are going to make sure copyrighted materials stay locked inside ebooks. God forbid someone should copy an entire book and paste it into Word and give it away free to their friends. If they want free copies, let readers try to Xerox. Oh, wait, that costs money too.

Now iBooks has full note taking capabilities plus the ability to sync with iBooks on your iPhone. This, of course, assumes you have an iPhone. But I can’t for the life of me imagine a Verizon or Sprint customer being attracted to a product as useful and exciting as the iPad. And if you are, then you should probably ditch your smart phone for an iPhone.

This also assumes you have an iPhone 3G or later than can upgrade to iOS 4.0. And trust me, if you have a 3G generation iPhone, the new system is so sluggish you’ll trade in at the first opportunity.

Nonetheless, even with the release of the iBooks upgrade and iPhone iBooks, iBooks’ market share won’t expand that quickly. Apple will have to reach way outside the box.

Apple needs exclusive ebook contracts

Suck it up, Steve. You’re going to have boatloads of cash between the iPad and iPhone 4G (provide people can get online to order). You need to spend some serious cash and get JK Rowling to write the Harry Potter series sequel exclusively for iBooks. That’s right, the series wouldn’t be available in print. People will have to buy iPads to read them, and then only through the iBooks store.

Okay, they might download them for their iPhones, but reading books as long as Rowling writes on an iPhone will be plenty of incentive to send readers out for an iPad. Or, and I wouldn’t put this past you, Apple, restrict purchases so that readers have to buy the Harry Potter HD version before they can download to their iPhones.

Better yet, commission Rowling to write two Harry Potter series for two demographics. One series can start with Harry Potter and the Ungrateful Teen, where he and Jenny face life with a teenage wizard who thinks dad’s a loser, listens to the heavy wizard metal band the Voldermorts and dates a skank sporting skull head tattoos and a magic Harley. That could be followed with Harry Potter and the Slacker Siblings, where Harry and Jenny’s twins turn fifteen and make the eldest look like a role model.

For the child in all of us, she can release the parallel series, Harry Potter Jr and the Loser Wizard Dad. You can see where this is going. Best of all, the movies could only be offered through iTunes.

Then give Miley Cyrus an advance for her exclusive bio, Living up to the Standards of Lindsay and Britney. Readers can also download the accompanying tracks exclusively from iTunes. Hey, if the Stones can sell an album exclusively through Walmart, this marketing gimmick is a no-brainer.

Before you know it you’ll have Steven King, Jackie Collins, James Patterson and Dean Koontz knocking on your door. Then you could go for the international market by recruiting the Swedish guy Stig Larsen who wrote the “Girl” series.1 At that point, it wouldn’t matter how many regular books the other guys sell. Apple would own the market share. Provided, of course, that you also fix the interface.

Cluttered interface

The reason I used the Candyland and Monopoly metaphors in the main head is because iBooks interface feels more like a cute kid’s interface than something for adults. Even the new note taking feature uses a handwriting font and PostIt for the notes.

The look and feel is lifted almost directly from the iPhone’s Classics app, which was pretty phenomenal. For an app on a cute device like the iPhone.2

The iPad is a different machine and not every cute iPhone app ports well to the larger screen. This is the problem with interface design. Not every interface metaphor works well on every device and not every metaphor has to be literal. Too many developers think as though they should be.

An ebook doesn’t have to look like a real book. Apple seemed to realize that on the iPhone version because they at least eliminated the book covers.

No book covers in iPhone iBooks. Just page.

Compared to the Kindle and BN reader, the iBook’s book metaphor looks gimmicky. It works just fine when you read the free book, Winnie the Pooh or an illustrated childrens’ book like Alice in Wonderland. But after a while it begins to feel like the Christmas tree that’s still up in May (or the dreidel still in the middle of the floor after you’ve stumbled over it twice).

Left to right: The Kindle, iBooks and BN Reader opening to the novel Anathem in landscape format.
Neither the iBooks of BN Reader look great, but notice how much more cluttered the iBook looks.

This is why iTune’s interface doesn’t look like a musical staff and the iPhone interface doesn’t pretend to open with a flip cover. The reproduction of reality has it’s limits.

In addition, the default view is to have all of the page numbers, menus and book data visible. They don’t disappear as you read. You have to tap just right on the screen to hide them. But you have to tap just right so iBooks doesn’t think you want to turn the page.`

Finally, there’s the page curl. Most readers with page curl have the option to turn the feature off. If iBooks does, the option isn’t documented. Once again, the page curl feature was precious in Classics on the iPhone. But that app actually warped the page as you turned it. You could see the text bending at the page’s center. And to be truthful, even on the iPhone it got to be pretty wearing.

New reading and navigation tools and note taking

Until Monday iBooks lacked any of the advantages unique to its competitors. Like Kindle, it didn’t distinguish notes from bookmarks. Oh wait, that’s because you couldn’t take notes. Like BN Reader, it didn’t synch with books on your iPhone. Oh wait, that’s because there was no iBooks for iPhone.

The newest release fixes both.

iBooks now allows you to add notes to your text. It distinguishes notes from highlights with a tiny PostIt icon visible both on the page and in your bookmarks list.

You can now add notes

The note appears as a dated PostIt icon both on the page

and in the Bookmarks Listing

With the new update you can also sync your notes, bookmarks and even reading location with your copy on iPhone iBooks.

To be honest, however, iPhone iBooks requires iOS 4 and feels sluggish on 3G series iPhones.

A synced notes list on my iPhone

iBooks highlights with crooked lines and space between them. People who have studied reading comprehension and page design would probably agree that this is the most visually distracting approach to highlighting. It might be compared to all caps type in bold face italic. The eye can scan the text, but it has to process more visual information to recognize the text.

On the bright side, you can now choose your highlight color. They are even the same highlight colors I remember from college in the early seventies. And back then those colors reminded me of the choices available for appliances from Sears. The avocado ( it could be pea) green seems particularly annoying. Maybe that’s why I still use a pencil.

Quite frankly, iBooks looks like a student project in an introduction to interface design class. And this project wouldn’t get an A unless the instructor’s performance review depended on it.

Just to show you can take a metaphor too far:
iBooks highlights like you did back in school.

Navigation runs halfway between Kindle and BN Reader. You have to physically leave the page to search the Table of Contents or bookmarks, but iBooks will remember your place. You will still have to bookmark the page you’re reading if you actually want to follow the link to a different page. iBooks won’t remember your way back from there.

iBooks at least holds your place while you check the contents page.

On the plus side (for some) Bibles are easy to find

One good feature of the iBooks store that I would like to see integrated into the Big Two is the fact that you never actually have to leave iBooks to search for titles. Rather than launching the store in a browser, typing in your search string and having to pore through several pages with pictures and descriptions, iBooks does it on a single search page.

Possible title matches show up in a pop up dialogue and books matching the search phrase you select show up in an easy to scan window very much like the Apps store.

Simple searching for book titles

If you actually pay attention to the illustration above you may have noticed I searched for Bibles. This is because I discussed the availability of Bibles and the relative ease of finding them for the Big Two, so it’s only appropriate to discuss them here.

Notice how I simply typed “bible” into the search string and a variety of options let me refine my search to a list of titles that actually were Bibles. This is so not the case with Barnes & Noble and even better than Kindle.

Yesterday, I also made some comments about Barnes & Noble’s left wing liberal tendencies, but the truth is, as I’m sure readers may have guessed, I can be a bit of a comedian. Carol uses a different word. So when I was pulling Barnes & Noble’s leg about being a haven of sympathizers for secular humanists, it was all in good fun.

Until last night. I was researching iBooks’ store searches and I decided to look at some of the Bibles I found easily in iBooks to see if Barnes & Noble actually did sell them and simply made them much harder to find.

That’s when I discovered the horrible truth. I wasn’t joking, even though I thought I was. Barnes & Noble doesn’t want you to read their Bibles.

The shocking revelation

That’s right. I found a title in iBooks called NIV Revolution: The Bible for Teen Guys. At first I thought it was a joke. I mean, I never knew there was a bible just for male teens. Second, I was insulted. The word “guys” is latent sexist thinking. We’re men, not guys, hunks, studs or beefcake.

Still, I figured, I would see if Barnes & Noble carries it, and, lo and behold, it does. You just have to look harder. Much, much, much harder. In fact you have to know the title to find it.

But the iBooks version is $15. The BN Reader version is listed at $22, $26 and almost $40 as well.

There must be a mistake, I thought to myself. Apple offering a BIble cheaper than Barnes & Noble? They’re only second behind Bill Gates in the plot to digitize the world and enter everyone’s name in Obama/Satan’s database.

So I checked the KIndle Reader. It too sold the NIV Revolution for $15. Here are the screenshots to prove it:

NIV Revolution at Apple

And at Barnes & Noble.
Clear evidence of the Liberal bias at Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble clearly doesn’t want you to buy that Bible. And even if you’re inclined to pay their discouraging inflated price, you don’t know which inflated price to pay.

But wait, some readers might say (as Carol did when she proofread this blog), “Those prices aren’t for the digital books. Those are for the printed version.”

Is my face red? Of course not. My answer is, this makes it worse. Barnes & Noble doesn’t even sell the ereader version. If your child wants this BIble, they have to earn their drivers’ licenses, take your car, waste gasoline that will no doubt make the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico even worse and drive to Barnes & Noble to buy a copy. Probably with your money.

Now let’s put our cards on the table. I’m no bleeding heart liberal. I haven’t been that conservative since I voted for McGovern and thought he had a chance to win. I voted for Ralph Nader twice, and “none of the above” when Clinton ran. But this is wrong.

Then I discovered something more shocking. There’s a different Bible for girls now. It’s called NIV True Images: The Bible for Teen Girls.

What is going on here? Is this a secret plot by secular humanist feminists or a blatant attempt by Bill O’Reilly types to harden gender stereotypes? Did you catch the subtle use of “girls” in the title? We’re just “guys” in the NIV Revolution, young teenaged pre-women at least get elevated to“girls.” What’s more frightening is the message. According to the book description the girls’ Bible is to encourage “life, dreams and relationships.” The description in the boys’ Bible says guys are in a war with a battle raging around them.

Did you catch the hidden message? Girls get to have dreams and relationships. Boys are only good for shipping off to Afghanistan. This is worse than gender stereotyping. The NIV Revelation seems aimed to lower male self-esteem and reduce us to cannon fodder so they can take over as CEOs and housewives.

So I don’t really know what’s going on here, or who’s at fault, but it must be pretty bad or Barnes & Noble wouldn’t be trying so hard to keep it out of their digital reader. But, really, Barnes & Noble. If you’re trying to protect us, just be like real liberals and stick a warning label on it: “This version of Christianity could be hazardous to your sons’ health. And possibly his future.“ Don’t refuse to publish a digital version altogether. From a liberal perspective, that’s censoring freedom of the press. From a conservative perspective it’s restricting the free market. Either way, it’s just wrong.

And, whatever it is that’s going on, you read it first here.

In the meantime, Apple needs to go back and rethink iBooks so it looks like a real app, and not like a children’s book. Even so, I am far more psyched about it now that I’ve seen my notes transfer over to my iPhone.

When you sign that exclusive contract with J.K. Rowling, you’ll have it made.

Or with me. I have a novel I’d be perfectly willing to offer you on an exclusive contract.

Jenny rates iBooks

Jenny Manytoes is off playing with a slinky because she could care less which ereader I use. Teddy Bear doesn’t seem to like it because he keeps jumping on my shoulder and pushing my iPad away. With the new release I would have to give it 4 stars, which would be the equivalent of a purr for Jenny.

If Apple carries the book I want, I will now buy it for iBooks. I wouldn’t have said that Sunday. Until Sunday, I only bought books that I could only find in the Apple Store. I think that came to a grand total of one. The rest came from the public domain.

1I just got the corrections back from Carol and she informed me that guy died. She suggested Henning Mankell, but I’ve never heard of him, so he can’t be that popular. Since I don’t have time to research bestselling Swedish authors, I figured I’d just note my faux pas in the footnotes where no one will notice it, and remind the few who do that my point is a good one even if this particular author has a different kind of exclusive contract.back
2Speaking of Classics, did you ever wonder if Steve Jobs can come up with original software? Sure, he’s spearheaded the development of some brilliant devices, but he stole the Mac OS from SPARC and the postscript printer software is really John Warnock’s (which, ironically, he also took with him from SPARC). Now iBooks is a direct spin-off of Classics.
I hope Apple at least paid these guys.

The Jenny Manytoes Rating System

Jenny Manytoes, our polydactyl cat
  • When Jenny makes biscuits on a product she thinks she’s in heaven.
  • When Jenny purrs over a product she’s very happy.
  • When Jenny naps next to a product it’s okay with her.
  • When Jenny bunches her tail she can live with a product, but she has higher expectations.
  • When Jenny leaves it in the litter box….I don’t think I need to explain this one.

iPad Envy is created entirely using apps from my iPad
iPad Envy.


About Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T. Stephens disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle twenty years before he was born, creating a time travel paradox so confusing it remains unspoken between physicists and sci-fi writers to this day. Follow @stephens_pt
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