Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iBooks 2.0

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Announced in January 2010 alongside the iPad—but deliberately offered as a standalone download—Apple’s iBooks has grown from being a simple e-Reader application to include support for PDF files, more interactive elements, and even compatibility with the iPad’s smaller siblings. Today, Apple redefined what’s possible from iBooks content with the release of iBooks 2.0. Joined by a new Textbooks section of the iBookstore and a new, free iBooks Author application for Macs that aims to make creating an interactive book as easy as a making a stunning slide presentation in Keynote, iBooks 2.0 has started to blur the boundaries between eBooks and dedicated apps. Here’s a look at the new features you’ll find in iBooks.

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Upon first launch, users are greeted with the same wooden bookshelf view as before, with the same buttons at the top for accessing the iBookstore, navigating between standard book and PDF collections, toggling between bookshelf and list views, and editing their list of titles. The iBookstore is similarly unchanged, save for the addition of the new Textbooks section.


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Likewise, the PDF viewer appears to have remained the same between iBooks 2.0 and prior versions, leaving the bulk of the new features hidden within those aforementioned interactive textbooks, which are currently iPad-only.


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Perhaps inspired in part by the release of Push Pop Press’ impressive app translation of Al Gore’s Our Choice, the new interactive books feature a horizontally swipe-able interface in landscape mode, with each chapter receiving a large graphic, and each page being represented at the bottom with its own individual thumbnail. These elements can be made to appear with a bottom of screen tap, or disappear by tapping elsewhere.


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Tapping on any individual page brings it full-screen while hiding the bottom row of thumbnails; users can then swipe between individual pages, or pinch to return to the main thumbnail view. In portrait orientation, the behavior is slightly different; a slightly plain text-based list of chapters and their components is displayed below a large header; tapping on an individual page again loads a full screen view. Users may then navigate between the individual pages by swiping up and down, and again, a pinch gesture will return them to the main table of contents. Pages automatically reflow for landscape and portrait orientations.


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In addition to the new navigation structure, the new textbooks offer another important suite of features: the integration of mixed media, including videos, images, and interactive graphics. Videos can be placed nearly anywhere within the text, and can also be used as first-launch introductions, which are then placed to the left of all chapters in horizontal navigation. Images can be displayed in-line, or in dedicated galleries; the galleries display differently depending on orientation.


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Interactive content ranges from slideshows to touchable 3D models, and, like the galleries, may display in-line or in full-screen mode, depending on the writers’ wishes. Swipe controls generally allow you to manipulate models or move through slides; taps on buttons can bring up different displays.


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Glossary terms can be found scattered throughout the text; tapping on one brings up the definition, as well as options for accessing a full Glossary Index—if available—or looking the term up in iOS’ built-in dictionary. Users may also highlight words or passages simply by swiping their finger over the text, and tapping on a highlighted passage provides highlight color options, as well as a built-in notation option, options for searching for the highlighted text, and for defining the selected word, should only one be selected.


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Brief review quizzes at the end of some chapters provide readers with the ability to check their comprehension of the material before moving on to the next subject, and users can tap once on individual pages to bring up the main iBooks menu, which now features a notepad-like icon for accessing their notes and highlights, as well as a built-in Study Cards feature that takes the notes, highlights, and glossary terms and turns them into a virtual stack of flash cards. Thus far, the Study Cards don’t let you do a lot, but the idea of automatically generating studying tools from a book is brilliant, and they look nice, too.


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There are only four hitches—for now. The first is device compatibility. While iBooks 2 runs on all iOS 4.2 or newer devices, the new interactive textbooks are only supported by iPads—iPhones and iPod touches will sync and display the books in their libraries, but will refuse to run them. Second is publisher support: this new textbook initiative is currently backed by several large and small publishers, but a big one—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—has nothing in the store now. The third issue is regional: these digital textbooks are only being offered to U.S. customers as of now. Fourth and finally, these new books can be large. The smallest one we’ve seen clocks in at 349MB, with the largest at 2.77GB, so huge that 16GB iPads might struggle to hold a full semester worth of books at once. Based on history, we’re confident that Apple is already taking steps to address all of these issues now, with future updates planned to remedy them.


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Taken individually, any of iBooks 2.0’s new features would be a welcome improvement, but taken as a whole, they represent an ambitious move by Apple to promote its idea of what a next-generation textbook experience might entail. The interface and transition effects found in first-generation iBooks Author-created books aren’t as dramatic as some of Push Pop Press’s ideas in Our Choice, but the overall structure of these new books takes a big step beyond what iBooks was capable of delivering only days ago. Only time will tell whether the concept takes off in such as way that iPads become as ubiquitous in schools as textbooks and laptops, and whether Apple will eventually expand support for digital textbooks to its pocket-sized devices. In any case, iBooks 2.0 is certainly an interesting starting point for what seems like an inevitable transition. We only hope that similarly robust features and authoring tools are soon offered to publishers of all kinds, so that one day a classic novel might feel just as interesting as these textbooks do now.