iBooks and The Best User Interface Ever

Aug 12, 2011 | Discussion

I have long maintained (with more than a hint of irony) that “The Best User Interface Ever Invented” is the book. That’s right, just the humble book. To be clear, I am not referring to The Book (or any Book that might be considered of religious significance). I just mean a plain old paperback novel, or a coffee table showpiece, or anything in between, regardless of content.

I know – it’s not even on a computer, how can it be in the running for “The Best Interface Ever”. Simple – it’s tried and true, and it works so well that after a very short while you don’t even know it’s there. Obviously, I am using a pretty broad definition of interface here, but bear with me. Books convey information and ideas in a way that was revolutionary when they started and evolved reasonably quickly into something so slim and elegant, so suitable to its intended purpose, that it has eluded competition ever since. I mean, scrolls are great, but they aren’t exactly handy, are they? Can you think of anything else that does what a book does half as well?

Well, actually, for the first time in my knowledge, there is a competitor. Not websites, even though they technically can do the job. Web sites have never quite displaced books as the best way to read a novel or non-fiction or scholarly work – that was much discussed and well agreed in the last century. Even laptops never made it to the same level of enjoyability and comfort and straight-up usability (not to be confused with features, which are sometimes the enemy of pure usability). I am talking about iBooks, on iPad. And, I suppose, to a lesser degree on the iPhone.

It seems to me that Apple have finally broken the barrier of book enjoyability and ease of use, and in fact taken it one step further. This is not an Apple puff piece, as you will see in a moment, I just think they got this one kinda right. At least, for me. Let me explain:

I have recently been travelling a lot for work, so my new iPad 2 has been a constant companion. As has iBooks. For the first time, I have paid real actual money for an e-book (which have been around about 20 years, in different forms, by the way) and enjoyed it so much that I bought several more to accompany me on my various travels. And for the first time ever, I haven’t taken any “real” books with me whatsoever. OK, I had one other book in my suitcase, but it was a complete waste of space in my carry-on – I never cracked it.

The iBooks bookshelf adds a nice element of the original – every book lover loves a bookcase!

I found the actual interface of the iBook attractive, useful and unintrusive enough to enjoy the book and not feel the nagging urge to print it all out and relax somewhere that I always have when reading on my computer.  And, what’s more, I found that the store on iBooks was extremely easy to use since I was already signed up to iTunes, and I had access to a bunch of free and pay books any time I had wi-fi. This is super cool when you’re bored in the airport, believe me.

But is it the perfect reading experience? No, not by a long shot. Sure, you can scrub through the book in almost the same way you would flip through the pages of paper book, and you can bookmark and change the font size and the brightness, and the colour (sepia, or white – what else is there?). But that’s it. E-books are delivered (even through iBooks super-slick interface) as plain text with a fairly rough JPG attached so you have a rough idea of what the paper book cover looks like.  Just like they have always been. This is of course so that they can be delivered to every reading device on the planet, and produced quickly and cheaply for pro bono projects like the Gutenberg Project (whom I would personally like to thank for cranking out all those ebooks for all these years). But, when all is said and done, I think this kind of misses the point.

Sure, I can get the book to display reasonably well on any device, but as a user this is irrelevant to my enjoyment of the book. I am not likely to read the same book on multiple devices, after all, unless I was some kind of ebook gadget collector. So, the benefit of e-books being cross platform is lost on users. They don’t care. And it means that the every e-book looks and feels basically the same, with the same lame typeface choices and badly reproduced graphics from the original book (if any!). Boring!

As every book lover will tell you, at least half of the joy of the book is the wrapper – the presentation. In short, the interface. Each book you have ever encountered was designed and produced (badly or beautifully) to convey an experience. Sometimes the book doesn’t even have to be about very much – just the experience of enjoying the experience of the design (the glossy cover, fine paper, refined typeface – even the chapter headings and end plates). People who love books don’t just love the contents of the book – they love the physical thing. Why else is my house crammed with bookshelves stuffed with books I have already read?

My latest iBook – looks pretty right? Problem is, every single iBook looks this way. All of the interface polish is courtesy of iBooks, not eBooks.

So, my point at long last is this: why do e-books have to suck? Why can’t my e-book take advantage of all of the cool things my iPad can do, like show gorgeous photos and animations (picture enhanced maps, info graphics, even video sequences), play music to accompany the book, or even just look every bit as good as the paper version? If I am going to pay $15 for an e-book, it should have glossy cover art, eye-popping graphics and a bunch of add-ons that a paper book never even thought of.

I know, this will increase the cost of production and limit the cross-pltform potential of the e-book, but I don’t care. If publishers need to cut into their nearly total profit on a digital version of a printed book in order to make it the best experience it can be, then that’s what they will have to do. $15 for a basic text only e-book is an unconscionable rip-off anyway. Publishers need to take this format more seriously, and the one that does so first will dominate the industry.

But will they? Not likely. Publishers and book sellers in general are terrified of digital books and have only been dragged onto your iPad or Kindle or Kobo kicking and screaming. If they had their way, you’d be stuck with reading the collected work of Mark Twain in Project Gutenberg format. Not the worst thing in the world, but it doesn’t hold a candle to curling up with the printed edition – no matter how dog-eared and pencil-scratched the old Twain tome may be.