Friday, July 02, 2010

Apple Conundrum

"In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing." ~ Theodore Roosevelt
Today was supposed to be the day. The mental agony of "should-I, shouldn't-I" was finally in the past. We were prepared for bold action. I piled into the car with spouse and child and we made the half-hour drive to the promised land. We examined our proposed acquisition. We exhaustively tested its capabilities; we played with it (and discovered a must-have app called Angry Birds - you'll laugh yourself silly!). We admired it and drooled over it. Then we tried to get one of the ubiquitous blue-shirted employees to assist us in lightening our pockets to the tune of $499. Yes, we were going to buy an iPad today.

I say "were" advisedly. After futile attempts to get someone to deign to take our money, we finally lighted upon the staff member whose sole job is to take names and enter them into a digital queue for customer assistance. So we got on the list, and went back to playing with the object of our affection. My daughter played UNO, my husband played with Pages and Numbers for iPad (Apple's word processor and spreadsheet programs), and I wandered away to look at peripherals. After a while (and really, who can get too bored playing in an Apple Store?), it was our turn with an Apple Specialist. And I will say this for the customer service in Apple Stores. Every time I've been in one, we've had to wait to be helped (they're always crawling with people, even in the middle of the afternoon on a work day), but once you've finally got a Specialist to yourself, they aren't going anywhere. They will stay with you without evidencing the least sign of impatience (no matter what inane questions you ask or what tangents you go off on) until you leave the store.

We told our Specialist that we wanted to buy and iPad, and that we had a few questions about some of the functionality. She was too delighted to help us and answer any questions we might have. After playing with an iPad with her for at least half an hour, we were finally down to it. We told her we were sold, ready to buy one of the pretty shiny things - specifically, a 16GB wi-fi version for $499. And then, the letdown.

"I'm sorry," we were told. "We only have the 16GB wifi+3G ($629) or the 64GB wifi+3G (something astronomical - we didn't ask). Would you be interested in one of those, or would you like me to put you on a waiting list for the 16GB?"


After all that, after spending so much time with us and building us up, how could she dash our hopes so cruelly? And more to the point, why didn't she mention the lack of availability up front?? We missed half of the Uruguay-Ghana game hanging around in the Apple Store to buy a product they didn't even have in stock! Why isn't there a sign somewhere letting people know when they walk in exactly what they can actually buy in the silly store?

It's like the feeling that you've got a huge sneeze coming on, only for it to fade away, leaving you curiously unfulfilled. (I once read that a sneeze is the only other physical activity besides orgasm that involves your whole body - maybe that explains the disappointment...) So, our name is on a list somewhere, and we'll be notified in 3 to 30 days that we can go and pick up our new baby, with the added joy of another 50-60 minutes of driving, round-trip. (We were advised not to order through the Apple Store online, as it was likely to be much faster through the store. We'll see.) And so, we are now in the limbo of a decision made, but not acted upon, and are left feeling attenuated and annoyed. Apple really ought to be able to keep up with demand better than this. It's not like they didn't know everyone would want one...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

iBooks v. Kindle for iPhone

"Beware of the person of one book." ~ Thomas Aquinas 
I guess I'm safe as churches. Not only am I a person of more than one book, I'm a person of more than one book reader. No fear here.

But that's not quite right. Until last week, I was a devoted disciple of the Kindle for iPhone app, which finally let me access the e-book market in a meaningful way. But now Apple's iBookstore is available for iPod Touch generation 2 and higher, placing me and thousands like me at the center of the fierce battle raging for the hearts and minds of digital book readers. Fronts are open on technology and features, selection, pricing. I'll bet both Apple and Amazon are a little bit afraid of which way I and my confederates are going to spring.

After the release of iOS4, the newest version of the operating system for iPhone and iPod Touch, I installed the iBooks app, placing it right next to my Kindle icon. After launching, I delighted in the eye-friendly bookshelf GUI, so different from the Kindle library. This is what we have all come to expect from Apple - attractive, functional software that's just a little bit more fun to use than anything else out there. Also, iBooks consistently opened quickly, taking about five seconds each time to load books onto the bare shelves that serve as the app's splash screen, compared to the five to eleven seconds to open its Home screen that I counted for the Kindle in several (unscientific) tests.

I downloaded the free book that comes with the app, the ever-delightful Winnie-the-Pooh. I had read that all the charming original illustrations were included in Apple's digital version, something certainly not available for any Kindle book. Another point in Apple's favor - the iBookstore is integrated directly into the iBooks app, unlike the Kindle Store, which closes the Kindle app and opens the Safari web browser to a mobile version of Amazon's Kindle Store. So far, all the points were running Apple's way. I was ready to be an iBooks standard-bearer, despite the dozens of books I already own in Kindle format.

But then iBooks stumbled. It took me fully ten times as long to open a book in iBooks, roughly ten seconds to Kindle's one. Of course, this delay is partially explained by the more complex nature of the page interface, particularly the oh-so-fun and oh-so-pointless page curling. But there are other, more useful features that iBooks boasts, and they slow the app down compared to the light and lean Kindle app. Most of these are contained in iBooks' powerful search capabilities. Kindle includes a text search function, but compared to that of iBooks, it is clumsy, unattractive, and underpowered. Not only does iBooks search within the book's text, either through highlighting or typing, the reader is also given the option of searching either an integrated dictionary (optional free download), or searching Google or Wikipedia in Safari for the specified term, as well. Depending on your needs, these features may more than compensate for any slowness or unresponsiveness of iBooks. Or not.

Like the Kindle app, iBooks' tools icons blend in and out by tapping the middle of the screen, and offer bookmarking (with a little red bookmark, rather than a dog-ear), the ability to change font size and color scheme (b/w or sepia), a navigable table of contents (not available for every Kindle book), a link back to your library, and a sliding position search bar at the bottom. In addition, iBooks offers a choice between a half a dozen different fonts, and offers in-book screen brightness control. Like Kindle, selecting text by tapping and holding produces a context menu which offers notes and highlighting, but iBooks also provides access to its extra search and dictionary functions in the context menu. A nice additional feature of iBooks, which I particularly appreciated, is that your current page is always displayed in relation to the total number of pages - 25 of 370, for example. I hate not being able to tell how much of the book is left on my Kindle app! And if you tap the screen to bring up the tool menu, it tells you next to the page numbers how many pages are left until the next chapter.

So, iBooks had stumbled, but quickly righted itself and surged ahead once again. It gained even more in my eyes when I discovered that iBooks also functions as a fairly decent .pdf reader, and an extremely easy-to-use one, at that. Files are added either by opening them as an attachment from an e-mail, or by dragging them into the iTunes "Books" window. It beats GoodReads all hollow, both for ease of adding and for the quickness with which it resizes pages when zooming. Even if iBooks did nothing else, that would make it worthwhile.

iBooks entered the homestretch when I decided to browse the iBookstore and see how best to feed my addiction. It entered the homestretch and promptly exposed its Achilles heel. Apple may know software like nobody else, but Amazon stands second to none in e-retailing, particularly in book e-retailing. Although the integration with the iBooks app is a nice plus, that can't save the iBookstore in comparisons with the Kindle store, in any metric. The selection is a shadow of Kindle's, the navigation of the store is more cumbersome and far less intuitive, prices are not displayed in search results, and far less information is provided about each book. A point all to itself is the generally higher price of books in the iBookstore compared with those of Kindle, a result of policies and decisions taken by both Amazon and Apple that are too complex and multi-sided to delve into here. Whatever you think about Amazon's power struggle with publishers, their attempts to dictate pricing, and Apple's pricing structure deal (and there's a great deal to be said, both positive and negative), the fact is that Amazon's offerings are frequently cheaper. By several dollars, in some cases. And that's if the iBookstore even has the book you're looking for.

To add insult to injury, there is no screen rotation lock built into the iBook app itself. Apparently, the feature is available as part of iOS4 itself, but only for 3G iPhones and iPods and up (my tests were conducted on my trusty 8GB 2G iPod Touch). So I have no way to prevent my books from twisting in dizzying fashion when I read on my side in bed. This is bad news.

Thus I am unable to come to any final decision about who has earned my hard-earned e-book dollars. The iBooks app, in my opinion the far superior piece of software, is badly hobbled by both the manner and quantity of its content offerings. Kindle, which dazzles with its excellent e-store stocked with hundreds of thousands of affordable titles, falls significantly short in both the aesthetics and features of its app. And so the battle for hearts and minds rages on. I am sure that Apple will continue to add new titles all the time - Amazon has a mighty head start in this department, but it won't last forever. I wonder which will come first - a major update to the Kindle app, or a significant overhaul of the iBookstore? Until then, or until more extensive experience with iBooks gives me a better feel for the app in use and reveals a preference, the fence post is staying firmly wedged where the sun don't shine.

To see a plethora of excellent screen shots showing nearly every aspect of the new iBooks app for iPhone, visit this post at the MacStories Blog. You can find out their opinion of the program, as well.