By Eric Freese, Solutions Architect, Aptara
First of all, a disclaimer: While I did own the only Apple ][ in my college dorm—and wish I’d bought Apple stock when it was $40 and my financial adviser didn’t think it would go much higher—I am not an Apple fanboy. Only recently did I cash in airline miles for an iPod Touch so I could hone my eReading skills (and of course, score cool points with my kids), so don’t expect a gushing “this is going to change the world” review.
My iPad arrived bright and early Saturday morning. I was running errands so it languished in its box for several extra hours after its trip from China. Once home, the unboxing was quite the attraction as my kids crowded around me begging for the opportunity to use it first. Fortunately, Dad wins in these situations, so I went about downloading free apps, books and songs to give it a good test drive. I work for an eBook production company, so I was particularly interested in the device’s eReader capabilities (which I’ll get to shortly).
For starters, the iPad just feels good in your hands.
At 1.5 pounds, it’s light enough to carry, though I wouldn’t want to hold it out in front of me for long periods of time. Steve Jobs was spot-on in describing it as “beautiful” in a geeky sort of way; I felt like Captain Picard on the bridge of the Enterprise as I walked about the house. The screen is crisp and clear, and the iPad-specific apps look terrific on the large screen. Most of the iPhone apps look pretty good as well, though some lose their clarity when expanded to fill the larger screen.
I downloaded the iBook app, as well as a set of books my company uses to demo eReader units; they all loaded as expected. The screen brightness automatically adjusts based on ambient light conditions, so the reading experience was fairly good sitting in my living room and downstairs in my office (aka man cave). Output brightness can be adjusted, which is ideal if you have a bed partner who is as sensitive to light at night as mine is. But outdoors was a different story, as predicted.
The glare and reflections from the highly reflective glass made it very difficult to see the screen on a sunny day.
The iPad’s book reading experience is very similar to most other eReader devices; ePUB-based files displayed as expected. In portrait mode, you see a single page at a time. In landscape mode, you see two pages in an “open book” layout, though it doesn’t equate to twice as much text. The animated page turn is a nice, but unnecessary, feature for a truer book-like experience. The table of contents and book scroller make navigating within an eBook simple.
My most disappointing iPad experience occurred with perhaps its most highly anticipated feature – a component of its enhanced eBook capability. When I clicked on a web link in my eBook, a message popped up asking me if I “want to leave iBooks and open this link?” Well no, I didn’t, but apparently I didn’t have a choice.
When I clicked the link (to another eBook file) the browser then asked me if I would like to open the file—IN STANZA!!!
Because the iBook app depends on iTunes to manage its content, simple access to other eBooks is not feasible. This clumsy and unexpected user interface is possibly a significant downfall in the iPad’s support for interactivity. Web links are frequently mentioned as a class of enhancements; having to acknowledge leaving a book every time a link is selected gets tiresome fast.
In an effort to run the device through all of its eReader paces, I downloaded the New York Times Editors Choice and USA Today apps. Not surprisingly, the iPad’s large, high-quality screen provided a very good newspaper reading experience—including ads, which might provide a new revenue stream for the struggling newspaper industry. Whether it’s enough to save newspapers is another story.
Next I downloaded Hachette’s Twilight graphic novel. (When did they cease being called comic books?) I was impressed with how slick it looked and worked. Many predict that the iPad will increase graphic novel sales; I look forward to following the reality, since as a kid, one of the coolest things about comic books was trading them with my buddies.
I downloaded the Kindle app for the iPad and browsed through some sample books. It felt very similar to reading on a Kindle device, except navigation through the book was done using screen swipes rather than pushing buttons (and doesn’t include the page turn animation that is in the iBook app). However, to download previously purchased Kindle books, browse the Kindle store and make purchases, the app opens the browser to the Amazon site. Assuming you have a Kindle account, you can direct the site to download your content to the iPad app.
Next to its screen size and capacity, herein is perhaps the biggest benefit of the iPad as an eReading device − its ability to purchase and download eBooks from any retailer (assuming Barnes and Noble releases their app soon).
This might actually drive prices down since the iPad enables direct head-to-head competition between eBook retailers.
Many suspected that Apple would block apps from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, abiding by their rule of not duplicating core functionality on Apple devices. But when they announced that the iBooks app would not come preinstalled on the iPad, they opened the door to other apps. The device’s interoperability with other eReader stores suggests that the iPad could replace the PC, and all other single function eReaders, as the dominant reading platform.
There is a notable difference in presentation between eBooks sold as apps and those sold through the iBookstore as EPUB-formatted books; the former are simply stunning. I downloaded the Grimm’s Fairy Tales app from Vook and the Disney Toy Story app. Although I’m not sure what the videos contributed to the stories in the Vook app, it was interesting how video could be included in-line with the text of the story.
In the Disney app, however, I was simply amazed at the graphics and use of different layers within the images to produce an almost 3D effect. My youngest child (8 years old) got the privilege of playing with the book/app; she loved being able to turn off the read-along feature, sing along with the songs from the movies, and color scenes from the book.
Since the iPad was announced, I’ve been wondering how practical it would be for activities other than reading. Turns out it’s very handy for visiting websites or checking email from anywhere. With seven children, our Sunday evening ritual is reviewing the upcoming week’s activities calendar against the family’s schedule. The iPad’s large touch screen made it quick and easy to review the school’s website while standing in the kitchen and relaying calendar updates to my wife.
The iPad has been touted as a great media player for music and videos. The music player was indeed as good as the iPod (no surprise). I checked out ABC’s app for viewing their TV line-up and the on-screen videos looked great.
I purchased the “Pages” word processing app and am writing this very article on my iPad. While I’m not the world’s fastest typist and by no means a touch typist, I’m pleased to report that I had few problems. Landscape mode makes the keyboard roomier and learning the software was quite simple. The only challenge was keeping lazy fingers from accidentally resting on the screen-based keyboard, something I expect repetitive muscle memory to solve.
One of the biggest advance criticisms of the iPad was its inability to multitask. Case in point: the iBook/browser experience. I was able to listen to music while reading a book and typing this, but there was no way to control the player. You must exit the eBook app in order to control the iPod app. It’s understandable that the device is more responsive with this sort of restriction, but in this day and age, it’s a surprising omission.
I can do it on my Android phone (hint, hint).
UPDATE: Just learned that you can control the iPod app while running other apps by hitting the Home button twice to bring up the iPod controls
Another major criticism of the iPad is its lack of Flash support. As such, many websites have been rebuilt or specially-built to reduce or eliminate the dependence on Flash; eg: NPR set up a site for the iPad that works and looks great on the device. If after this weekend’s first wave, iPad sales continue to climb, I expect we’ll see many other websites following suit.
My top three iPad takeaways after 36 hours are:
1) Its ability to access any eBook from any vendor who provides an app.
2) The added innovation and excitement to the publishing world that it has ushered in, including stunning new multi-media possibilities.
3) Mine won’t be showing up on eBay any time soon.
Am I dumping my desktop machine for it? No (and not just because I need something to run iTunes on).
Will I travel sans laptop with just my Blackberry and iPad? Maybe.
Will it save the publishing industry? Doubtful. Though, I expect it will be a much needed booster shot for the healthy and nimble publishers. But for publishers that aren’t already preparing for electronic content distribution, a single device or platform is not going to be a magic bullet.
Is it the new eTextbook? Maybe. I’ve already heard it reported that some colleges are planning to issue students iPads with eBooks pre-loaded, in place of printed textbooks.
Does the iPad represent the death of the Kindle, Amazon, the Nook, Barnes & Noble or [insert device or retailer here]? I don’t think so. At this stage, the market is still taking shape; these devices and retailers still have sandboxes to play in, either as less-expensive alternatives to the iPad, or less-expensive sources of materials for their particular device.
Will the iPad be the “world changer” so many have predicted? It’s the first step in a good direction.
Eric Freese is a Solutions Architect with Aptara, which provides digital publishing solutions that deliver significant gains in quality, time-to-market and production costs for eBook publishers.