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.

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