iBooks: From Love to Hate

On July 7, 2015, in Uncategorized, by Rob Levandowski

I’m an avid reader. In large part, I justified my first iPad purchase because it can be used to read e-books. I own thousands of paper books, but since getting the iPad, I have purchased few paper books. E-books are just easier to deal with, and they don’t pile up and consume space in the house.

iBooks started off as a decent e-reader, and it still outstrips the competition—Amazon’s Kindle app and Barnes and Noble’s Nook app—in two big ways: typography, and ease of purchase. I’m not going to talk about Nook here, because it’s a dead man walking.

iBooks has always produced a screen that is easy to read and uses traditional fonts that are comfortable for reading books. The Kindle app, until very recently, used a font that was optimized for early e-ink screens and not for typographic beauty. It was functional, and that was the best you could say about it. Likewise, until recently the Kindle app didn’t handle hyphenation well at all. iBooks still looks better when it comes to line spacing, ligatures, and other small bits of the typographical art learned over thousands of years that make books easier to read. It also handles page turning and screen dimming better than the competition.

Also, iBooks is the only iOS app that allows you to purchase books. But this is Apple’s fault. Apple won’t let competing e-book applications include purchasing functionality unless they give Apple a substantial cut of the purchase. As a result, to buy books for the Kindle app, you have to go to Amazon’s web site. Apple’s rules mean that you can’t even use the Amazon shopping app to buy e-books—you have to use the website, and that’s clunky. In my opinion, Apple should be facing antitrust charges for this.

So why do I hate iBooks lately?

Well, like so many other Apple programs, in the last two years it has started breaking, first in small ways, and then in larger ways.

The iBookstore

The biggest annoyance is one that’s really stupid on Apple’s part. I love reading, and I buy lots of books. Apple makes it really difficult for me to give them money, because they make it hard to discover books.

The iBookstore interface has been “streamlined.” That means that you can’t actually browse all of the books in the bookstore. If the book you want isn’t in a top-sales list or an indifferently-curated list, you’ll only find it if you use the search function to go looking for it.

There once was a button that purported to notify you when an author had a new release. It never worked for me, and it seems to be missing now.

It used to be that you could see all books by release date, and search out the new releases in a category. That’s now limited to about 25 books, so you’ll miss books if you don’t check often. That’s especially true when Apple uploads a new dump of shovelware self-published books into a category. These books are treated the same as major author releases from publishing houses, so you have to wade through the crap to find a good book. Apple offers no way to sort out self-published books from the big-league stuff.

They also don’t offer any way to filter out foreign-language books. Your search results for an author will be littered with translations for every language available. In some cases, the title may be the same for the foreign edition; hopefully you notice this before you click Buy Book, or you’ll wind up with a book you can’t read.

Sometimes, new releases in a given genre don’t even appear in the iBookstore interface. If you don’t go searching for them, you won’t find them. I’ve had this problem repeatedly with book series: I will miss a new book because iBookstore never offered me the opportunity to buy it, even though I own every other e-book in the series.

The iBookstore is so terrible at book discovery that I have used all of the following methods to find a new book before searching for it in iBookstore:

  • Walking through a Barnes and Noble and looking at the new release section
  • Surfing a publisher’s new-releases website
  • Surfing Amazon’s website (which sometimes results in Amazon getting a purchase because the paperback or Kindle edition is cheaper than Apple’s artificially supported price tag)
  • Surfing third-party websites that track genre new releases

The end result is that it is very difficult to discover new books in the iBookstore, and Apple is leaving money on the table by not letting me know that there are books I would willingly and instantly pay them to access.

Actually Downloading Purchases

Since Apple got rid of the faux-book appearance of iBooks, it seems like the download functionality has been broken. That’s especially true for book updates and books purchased using iBooks for Mac OS.

It’s very rare that I can get a book update to actually load. For months after iOS 8 came out, pushing the update buttons seemed to do absolutely nothing. Now, with 8.4, they seem to work, but they don’t always actually download. When they do, the updated book is marked “new” and pushed to the head of your reading list.

On the other hand, sometimes when you buy a brand-new book, it doesn’t appear on your reading list. It’s there, but buried somewhere in your grid of books. But more about that later.

Buying books in iBooks for Mac was, briefly, of benefit. There was a time that the Mac bookstore interface was slightly better for discovery. That’s not currently true; right now, it’s the same nerfed interface. Worse, iCloud loading of books to the iPad is broken in 8.4. A spinner appears in your book list, suggesting that something is downloading, and the Purchased list shows the books as “DOWNLOADING” and offers no button to stop or restart the process—but the books never load, even if you force-quit iBooks. The only workaround I’ve found is to find the book’s store listing, as if you were purchasing it on the iPad, and then tap the “stop download” progress button that’s visible only in that listing. You can then tap the iCloud icon to download the book. Of course, the UI doesn’t update to reflect a successful download.

Since iBooks got the Jony Ive-approved interface, downloading has been broken to one degree or another.

Finding Your Book

I think that the original author of iBooks never considered people like me, who might have hundreds or even thousands of books on their iPad. The list can get unwieldy.

But Apple’s solution to the problem is worse. In recent editions, books automatically stack by author or series—I’m not sure which, and there’s no indication or control over how it happens. There’s also no way to turn it off or adjust it. So, to find an older book, you need to use text search, switch to list view, or hope that you find the right stack where it’s hidden.

That’s not as big a problem as when you buy a new book and, for unknown reasons, iBooks decides to sort it somewhere into the middle of your book list. From the start, iBooks organized its book covers in order of purchase or import, with the newest books at the top. As you bought books, they appeared at the start of the list. Lately, sometimes you will buy a book and it’s not there. The store shows that it’s purchased and downloaded, but it’s not where you expect it. You have to search for it to find it. It’s like iBooks is playing keep-away with you.

At least iBooks 8.4 seems to have addressed the issue where you buy a book and it never actually downloads until you tap the get-from-iCloud icon in Purchased a few times.

Instead, as with the last few versions, iCloud apparently has a habit of deleting your books from your device at random, based on inscrutable criteria. It aggressively removes your books, flagging them with a “download from iCloud” icon. There doesn’t seem to be any way to mark a book so that it stays put and won’t get magically deleted. That makes the iPad utterly unreliable for reading offline. Apple has apparently assumed that you will have cellular or Wi-Fi access when you want to read another book, even if it’s the one you just read last week.

Apple’s Way Or The Highway

That’s an ongoing theme in Apple software in the past three years: You will do things Apple’s way, or you won’t do it at all. Yes, Apple has always encouraged a “walled garden” experience, but previously it didn’t completely mandate it for all users. To the extent Apple did, the experience actually worked.

Now, Apple has gone on an oversimplification kick, removing all hints of customization from their apps, even to the point of eliminating the ability to change the sort order of lists. You will use iBooks and Photos the way that the program author likes to use it. You will adapt to Apple’s way of doing things, even if it’s radically different and less useful than the way Apple did things six months ago.

Us old Apple fans used to ridicule Microsoft for that sort of thing. Now it’s Apple forcing it down people’s throats. Awkward and broken software? OS X and iOS are quickly becoming no better than Windows—and in many and increasing ways, worse than Windows.


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