January 20, 2012
For students and parents, Apple's event today was pretty huge. With the announcement of iBooks 2.0, Apple has refocused and redoubled its efforts to bring the textbook properly into this 21st century. And, while the ideas presented aren't totally new, the big win for Cupertino is the easy means by which such ideas can now be brought to life on iPad (a.k.a. iBooks Author). Check out our two-part hands-on demonstration (my apologies for the lighting conditions): "e-Textbooks" are quite a lot different than the titles we've seen on iBooks in the past. Indeed, the style and layout options of E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth demo seem heavily influenced by Al Gore's award-winning Our Choice app, but with greater interactivity, structure, and animated fluidity. Videos playback is snappy and responsive, and the high-resolution galleries scroll at your command. Navigation is simple, flowing horizontally in landscape mode and vertically in portrait orientation. Speaking of orientation, the iBooks e-textbook framework is optimized, curiously, for use in landscape mode. Considering the traditional size, shape, and aspect-ratio of textbooks, it feels like Apple should've paid a bit more attention to refining the experience in portrait mode. Most people just aren't used to reading on the iPad in landscape mode. It's counterintuitive. Hopefully, as the iBooks/iBooks Author platform matures, we'll see the issue creatively remedied. Other notable features include the ability to quickly highlight chunks of text and create virtual flash cards based on those highlights. The mechanism works well enough, although I'm not sure how many people still use such methods. I never needed to, anyways. I did, however, use the indexes and glossaries of my old schoolbooks, and iBooks makes it easier than ever to call up said sections from directly within the text in question. The biggest (only?) qualm I have with this e-textbook platform is its size. The first two chapters of E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth -- just 51 pages in total -- are a whopping 961 MB! Unless students are expected to download, study, and delete such books chapter-by-chapter, iPads are going fill up in record time. And, considering the $500/16 GB minimum cost of entry, most kids and families (and schools) are bound to have serious space-related issues. Apple simply has to develop some kind of better data compression (or introduce a sort of wi-fi streaming solution) for new and cached content. Taking everything into consideration (at least that which we can gather with our limited resources on this first day of iBooks 2.0), Apple's initiative is a good one. And, even though it's way too early to tell what will ultimately become of the new platform's place in scholarly circles and institutional bookshelves, the e-textbook is off to a strong start.