iRead iBooks, therefore iAm?

Hmm, the last few posts here have all been on a very similar governmental theme; time to vary the tone somewhat, I think.

Last week, I bought, read and finished an Apple iBook for the very first time.

It’s not, I hasten to add, the first e-book that I’ve purchased and read on the iPad – but all the others have been through the Amazon Kindle app, whereas this was of the Apple-flavoured variety instead. I’ve preferred purchasing e-books via the Kindle for various reasons, starting with a greater range of books and generally lower prices. Initially as well I didn’t have iOS 4 on my antiquated iPhone 3G (because of early performance problems with the upgrade on that phone) which meant that I couldn’t run the Apple iBooks app on my phone and hence couldn’t take my reading out and about with me unless I took the whole iPad instead. That’s no longer an issue and the latest iOS 4 and iBooks work a treat even on my venerable hardware.

However, the Kindle still seems to me to offer a greater assurance of longevity: Amazon’s core business is still books and it had made Kindle e-readers available not just for its own hardware but also for Apple’s iOS, Android systems, Macs and PCs. Apple, by contrast, see e-books as a very, very minor outlier in their activities and the books they sell can only be read on iOS devices – not even Macs. Of the two companies, Apple is by far the more likely to suddenly decide the book market isn’t worth the trouble and make one of its autocratic decisions to pull out and take its iBooks app with it, leaving tus with books that can no longer be read. Amazon, on the other hand, would have to fold as a company before that’s likely to happen.

There’s also a matter of principle involved in my choice of Kindle over iBook: the fact that Apple are trying to extend their “30% of all in-app purchases” to “30% of anything that is sold to be consumed on the iPad.” Amazon have got around the surcharge till now by not using the Apple-run in-app purchasing system that processes payments via the iTunes Store: instead, purchases are made on the Amazon web site and then ‘delivered’ onto the iPad directly by the app’s network connection. Apple aren’t amused by that dodge and are clamping down, potentially meaning that Amazon will either have to cough up or be booted out of the App Store. As far as I’m concerned, this is a nasty, vicious move by an Apple that’s increasingly believing in its own hubris and thinking it can do whatever it likes. Presumably Apple have sought legal advice on this and have been assured that they’re not breaching monopoly or restraint of trade laws in the various countries in which it operates, based on the fact that it only affects Apple’s own iOS devices and that other mobile devices are available, hence no monopoly. But frankly I’m astounded: if it looks like restraint of trade, and smells like it, then surely that’s what it is. I’d go so far as to say it comes over like a Mafia protection racket, where a business is told to pay over a large chunk of change or be forced out of business in the gang’s territory. Apple fan I may generally be, but not when they start behaving like hoodlums.

So with all this swirling around, how come I suddenly switch from Kindle books to iBooks? Well, it’s a one off; the price was the same on both Kindle and iBooks, and I happened to have a Christmas gift voucher for the iTunes Store hanging around, so I thought I’d give it a try. Actually the real tipping point was when I initially picked up the first chapter of a iBook through the ‘get sample’ button, read it … And then, there at the end, was a simple button to buy the rest. It’s a minor thing, but it was just so easy to press the button and carry on reading there and then rather than duck out and faff around surfing over to Amazon to log on and buy it and then back to the Kindle app to download it. It’s moments like this that Apple actually merits that cut of theirs.

It’s also the little details that continually set Apple hardware and software apart and make them so damnably good even when you’re feeling mad at the company. Even though Amazon had a head start with the e-reader concept, Apple have come with a version that is just that bit classier, slicker and, well, better than anyone else. Again, the devil’s in the details and in many ways they’re superficial cosmetic details at that: the wood panelling in your ‘library’ of e-books; the way the pages of the book you’re reading actually look like the pages of a book; the animation when you ‘turn’ a page. The type is just that bit better rendered and the balance of line length and white space around the borders just perfect. It feels like it’s been designed by a book lover.

Apple also manages to put in that attention to detail in the user interface: the presence of a slider bar at the bottom tracking where you are in the book; a line telling you how many pages there are left in the current chapter; a nice search utility in case you need to go back and find and double-check that vital clue five chapters ago; and, if you do navigate away from the current page, a link pops up to return you to the previous location without your having to remember page or chapter numbers or insert a bookmark of your own.

Apple’s iBooks also has “page numbers” whereas the Kindle has previously relied on “paragraph numbers”, a less immediately friendly or helpful concept and one of those minor details that knocks you out of the “book” paradigm. After criticism that it’s impossible to cite the page number of a reference from an e-book, Amazon have recently upgraded their Kindle software so that it does now display an absolute, unchanging page number from books formatted to support it; Apple’s iBooks, on the other hand, might have ‘page numbers” but they are not absolute and will change depending on the size and style of the typeface used on the display. Technically that’s one-up to the Kindle, except that in practice most people will be fine with the more friendly “relative” page numbers of iBooks.

Having read books in both Kindle and iBooks formats, I have to say that the iBooks environment is just that bit better, more comfortable and more stylish; but that the Kindle is fine and does its job okay as well. It’s just surprising that Amazon haven’t studied the little details of the Apple app and been “inspired” to introduce their own variants in the Kindle by now.

But having spent a few days happily reading a distinctly lightweight thriller (a review is over on the Taking The Short View blog if you’re interested), when I came to the end I found that I was actually rather relieved to be able to put aside the iPad and go lo-tech for my next book selection.

The e-book route is fine when you want something immediately or if your local book stores don’t have it (and with Borders long gone and Waterstones looking shaky, finding books locally is an increasing problem) and I was pleased to make use of it in this case. E-books are also great because they takes up no storage space, and my flat is awash with physical books already. But even so, and even having had no trouble reading the e-book version (indeed, enjoyed it), when I decided I wanted to read the next one in the series I ended up picking up the second title as a paperback in an honest-to-goodness bookshop while I was still reading the first, instead of buying it as a follow-on e-book.

I’m still trying to work out why I felt that sense of relief at the thought that I could go back to proper paper-based media – I hadn’t expected it to be quite such a powerful feeling as it was. There are certain practical advantages to the paper book, such as being able to read in the bath, but that hardly explains the relief I felt, surely? At the moment I’m putting it down to the fact that so much of my time is spent looking at screens that it’s the relief of “a change is as good as a rest”. I use my iPad throughout the day to check emails, tweet, check-in with Facebook, surf and follow my RSS feeds that the addition of book reading on top just felt a little like the device was smothering me. I need the break every now and then or else like every such suffocating relationship I’ll begin to resent the iPad as a whole, and I really wouldn’t want to fall out with it.

Nor do I think it’s the iPad itself per se that I need the break away from – it’s the whole screen-based electronic media that I need time away from every now and then, so buying an Amazon Kindle doesn’t seem like it would be any help and hence is off the agenda for now (I’d been vaguely considering buying one since Christmas.) Audiobooks are a possible alternative, although I have to confess that I find it very hard to stay awake listening to an audiobook or play for longer than 15 minutes, or else I’ll get distracted by visual stimulation and forget to listen to the book.

On the whole, though, it seems that for the time being at least I just like to pick up a good old fashioned paperback book when it comes to a taking a restful break. Obviously I’m not yet as 21st century as I like to think I am.

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