29 January 2010

iPads and iBooks

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:56 am

gallery-software-ibooks-20100127.jpgAs usual the whole world is in roughly equal parts delighted and outraged by Apple’s latest portable gizmo, the iPad. Much has been made of the name: I personally can’t believe how many posters and commenters have used the exact phrase “sounds like a feminine hygiene product”, all apparently believing they’re the first to have thought of it. Or maybe they don’t, maybe it’s one of those jokes-made-funny-through-repetition that the Internet loves so much. I like this article where “tech writers” forlornly predict that the jokes will simmer down soon.

There are some pretty interesting things about the iPad for readers and writers. There’s no coloured electronic ink or active-matrix organic LED display, just a 9.7″ LCD with in-plane switching for a reasonably wide viewing angle. The video geeks are up in arms (though occasionally confused) that the display is 1024 by 768 pixels in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the same as the big old TV sets we all used to have, so that the old episodes of Star Trek will fill the screen nicely but the new episodes (at 1.78:1) will have big black bars and the movies (at 2.35:1) will have even bigger black bars. This is even chubbier than the iPhone, which at 1.5:1 will leave either horizontal or vertical black bars for almost any video, but it seems reasonably well suited to reading books and magazines. It sits between the US Letter (1.29:1) and A-series (1.41:1) paper sizes and is just a bit squarer than your common B-format (1.52:1) paperback. All of this makes the iPad look slightly more like a thing for reading words than for watching videos, though it should also play videos pretty well despite the black bars.

Of course, films and videos have fixed dimensions and can’t be reformatted without making everybody fat or skinny. An electronic book can also be presented in a fixed format, like a PDF, or else in a “reflowable” format where the text is formatted to fill whatever space you have, with whatever font and pitch you choose. A fixed format is good where you have a lot of images, and also takes care of the rags, widows and orphans that typesetters and editors are so keen to control; but a reflowable format can be shared more easily across a variety of devices with different shapes and sizes, and is probably more useful for everyone but purists.

Apple has chosen not to invent its own format (as Amazon did for its Kindle) but to adopt the EPUB format developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. EPUB is a collection of open standards that Apple may or may not combine with its own proprietary digital rights management system. At the moment, music from the iTunes Store are DRM-free but movies and TV shows are DRM-laden, as are applications from the App Store. There’s no word yet on whether iBooks from the iBook Store will be restricted, but on past performance there’s a good chance. It’s not yet clear that iBooks will sync back to your computer so you can read them there, or on iPhone or iPod Touch, let alone on another non-Apple device, but I’m thinking they’ll give us that at least. And the fact that the iPad uses EPUB is a positive step as it should mean that you can read a wide variety of e-books from other sources, including the public domain, in a decent format.

EPUB is a reflowable format, which means that iBooks won’t be properly typeset like real books but will more or less fill a screen that has more or less the same dimensions as a real book. From the screenshots there’s a bit of trompe l’oeil thrown in to make it look a bit like you’ve got a stack of pages curving away from a gutter, and when you turn the page it looks a bit like you’re really turning a page. I’m not sure that I care about this at all, or that I like the mock bookshelf that holds your purchases. I love book covers but would be happy to see them just sitting there like movie posters or album covers already do. I think that typeface and layout are very important and can be adequately translated to the digital realm, but physical pages and bookshelves can’t really be reproduced on a screen and it might be better to come up with a new metaphor. However, this might be a useful intermediate step for people who are still uneasy about reading books on a screen. And it might in fact make some important psychological difference that Apple has spent way more time and money researching than I ever would.

While the Kindle comes with an international 3G wireless connection effectively built into the price of the books, the iPad comes in two series: one that only has Wi-Fi and will be available internationally at the end of March, and one with a 3G radio that will be available in the US at the end of April and elsewhere from June or July. Apple has organised an “unlimited” data plan with AT&T for $30 a month, which is a lot less of a bargain than Steve Jobs seems to think but is at least pre-paid with no contract. Steve did say that the device is unlocked so theoretically you could get a separate data plan, or even swap out the SIM card from your existing handset—apparently the iPad only accepts the “new” microSIM format, but there may be clever adapters available if the electronics are the same, which it looks like they are.

The best solution is to allow tethering between the iPad and your existing mobile device, such as an iPhone. AT&T still doesn’t offer iPhone tethering, partly because they offer “unlimited” data plans and tethering would wreck the pricing models. But many carriers in other parts of the world sell tiered or limited data plans and have chosen to offer iPhone tethering for free or for a (mostly) reasonable price, and it works seamlessly over USB or Bluetooth. The iPad has Bluetooth and could certainly be made to use the iPhone’s data connection where tethering was offered. Of course, a jailbroken iPhone can be tethered over Wi-Fi, which the iPad would treat like any other Wi-Fi network. I’d say Apple would be doing the non-AT&T carriers a favour by encouraging us to pay the extra for official tethering, rather than forcing us to jailbreak and get it for free.

Outside of the US most of us spend a lot of time out of Wi-Fi range, so cellular wireless is pretty important for a device aimed not only at books but at magazines, regularly-updated news sources and general browsing—especially when, as I suggested earlier, having a live Internet connection could be a big part of what makes electronic books competitive with paper books. But it seems stupid to have multiple data plans when you could easily share the one. We’ll have to wait and see what the international carriers are offering, but I dearly hope they see the sense in tethering. If I do buy an iPad I don’t think it’ll be a 3G-enabled one; and if tethering is supported then I think I’ll buy one.

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