Better Reading on the iPad: iBooks 1.1, VQR, & PDF
Some good things have happened since my post full of iPad grumbles. Time for an update. On Monday, Apple released iOS 4, and along with it a small but significant update to iBooks, its e-reader app. This revision addresses two of my biggest gripes about reading on the iPad.
First, ragged right alignment is now an option. As illustrated in our Pooh example, this is a huge improvement, especially when columns are narrow or fonts are large. Unfortunately, full justification is still the default, and the switch to turn it off is not within the iBooks app itself but buried in the iOS Settings app, where casual users rarely venture. Still, it's a welcome addition and it works well on all the books I've tried. Hyphenation is the next step for addressing the more ragged of rags. That's obviously a more daunting technical feat. There is the soft hyphen workaround , but really it's a task that should happen at the system level using hyphenation dictionaries. Let's hope our prayers are answered again in iBooks 1.2.
Second, Apple added Georgia to iBook's font menu. The difference in the reading experience between Matthew Carter's screen-optimized masterpiece and the other (print-optimized) fonts is stark, especially at small sizes. I don't know why you'd want to read on screen with anything else in that list, except perhaps Palatino.
The first sign that these improvements were making their way to iBooks appeared on June 8 when iPhone 4 was announced. Demo phones at WWDC revealed iBooks with ragged right text, set in Georgia. Clearly, the size of the iPhone screen demanded the changes and typographers were hopeful that they might make their way to the iPad. But it was the very next day, long before this week's iBooks 1.1 release, that I experienced unjustified text on my very own iPad. How? The first digital edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review had just shipped and it featured the best typography I'd seen in iBooks, including wrapped pull quotes, proper image captions, and ragged right text.
VQR's web editor Waldo Jaquith used various HTML techniques, including definition lists, to make an ePub doc that iBooks doesn't bludgeon. To quote Jaquith:
I don't think that we could have stomached releasing a fully justified version of the magazine. :) I mean, conceptually, sure, but the typographical rendering is just so terrible on every device out there — not just the iPad — that we couldn't bear the sight of it. We actually considered releasing a Kindle version of the magazine, earlier this year. But after borrowing a Kindle and studying some publications, we decided that it was just too horrible. We couldn't inflict it on our readers.
Indeed. But Jaquith is quick to add that their digital magazine is still a far cry from the ink-and-paper version. "Photographs are smaller, there is no hyphenation, we can't control widows and orphans (and the occasional blank page)." So if the ePub format and its devices are so limited, why not follow the lead of most magazines, including the much-ballyhooed Wired and Popular Science, and produce stand-alone iPad apps? Jaquith thinks that's a mistake:
Releasing issues of magazines as apps is bad for readers and publishers alike. True, the ePub format is not ideal for magazines, but the ePub Revision Working Group has a new release slated for next spring that will remedy that. VQR has been around for 85 years. We take the long view. The open, simple, accessible, indexable, archivable ePub format is clearly the best option for us and for our readers.
One more thing… the new iBooks can open PDFs. Once you drag them to iTunes and sync your iPad they appear on their own bookshelf in the Library. In many ways they work just like ePub docs in the app — you can search and bookmark pages, and turn them by swiping. Open a PDF again and pick up on the page where you left off. What's missing is selectable and resizable text. These aren't unimportant features, but to some a fair tradeoff for maintaining the look and feel of a printed magazine. So if PDFs are working in iBooks right now it does make one wonder: maybe that's really the most immediate, economical way for print magazines with smaller budgets to enter this space. Will Apple allow PDFs in the iBookstore? Why not?
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