iBooks vs Kindle: Bring on the (books in) browser wars

Two weeks ago, Apple launched (among a few other things) iBooks 3.0.

Before the announcement, some, myself included, had hoped that an iPad-mini and iBooks-update combo would indicate a renewed vigor from Apple at competing with Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem.

Here’s why I hoped for that.

Depending on where you live, Kindle has between 50-85% of the ebook market, whilst Apple struggles to get near 10%. It’s my personal opinion that an Apple/Amazon ebook turf war, with each company seeking to out-innovate the other and gain customers though a distinctive reading experience, would be incredibly positive for digital reading. On Twitter I likened this to the Beatles / Rolling Stones rivalry in the mid-1960s, characterizing one of the most creative moments in pop musical history.

ebook reading UI is currently dominated by “skeuomorphic” interfaces that ape the printed book. This is best characterized by the page “flip”, an action that is utterly redundant in ebooks, but which provides a comforting familiarity to the printed page for people new to electronic reading. But why? When you read an email or a web page on a computer or mobile device, you don’t flip the page, you scroll. Why should books be any different? [Aside: not everyone agrees that books should scroll; the debate has run for a while]

Skeuomorphism is often seen as representing the first stage of adoption for a new technology, before it evolves out into a more natural digital interface,

“[skeuomorphs], smooth [...] the transition between one conceptual constellation and another. The Kindle is easy to use precisely because it behaves so much like a traditional print book.” Source: Wired

But now that Kindle has been around for over five years, surely the transition has been made  – and ebooks are ripe for a new interface style?

Ultimately, we didn’t see iBooks (and a war against Kindle) at the heart of the iPad mini launch. But we did see the announcement of “continuous scrolling” in iBooks. This move away from page flips alone is something to be celebrated, but then just a few days later, came the ousting of Scott Forstall (widely seen as the father of skeuomorphism) from Apple.

With Forstall’s departure, Jony Ive will be taking over the human Interface (HI) design team at Apple. This means software, and hopefully iBooks. Jony Ive is unlikely to favour much more skeuomorphism.

iBooks has a long way to go before it is as elegant or pleasurable a reading experience as something like Readmill, but my hope is that the next few months will see some of the best design talent in the world thinking hard about how books should be experienced in the age of the iPad.

3 thoughts on “iBooks vs Kindle: Bring on the (books in) browser wars

  1. I actually think there are two main reasons why any innovation won’t come from Apple v Amazon competition:

    1) Amazon is the undisputed market leader, by a wide margin—they have no need to stay on their toes.

    2) I suspect (and this is a bit of a pet theory of mine) that Apple stays in the ebook space primarily to disrupt the educational textbook market (I think that iBooks Author + iTunesU + ‘cheap’ iPad 2s = a strategy for fostering disruption in education at the grass-roots level); their presence in trade publishing is relatively incidental (this may have not been so at the start—I also suspect that launching iBooks along with iPad was initially a hedge against uncertainty about user adoption and viable use cases for the iPad. That’s turned out to be… well, not a problem). That’s why you see Apple focusing on making ‘interesting’ things happen exclusively in iBooks Author, instead of on plain EPUB.

  2. Thanks Pablo.

    On your 1) I’m hoping that Apple upping the ante with a Jon Ive-designed iBooks UI *would* make Amazon keep on their toes, and that would be good for everyone (especially readers)

    and 2) I think that’s certainly one way of looking at iBooks Author. Another is that it is an attempt to create format lock-in like Kindle has – although it’s much harder to create lock-in than to defend it. I don’t disagree with you here – what I’m hoping for is that Apple will give reading (in all forms, but including trade) some much-needed attention. For every (welcome) feature like “continuous scrolling” there is the absolutely lamentable “sharing” feature in iBooks 3, which I’m at a loss to explain.

    • It’s really very simple: if want to sell Apps, go with Apple. If you’re more interested in selling an ebook, you must be on Amazon. I really don’t see that changing. In fact, don’t be surprised if Amazon buys one of the big Publishing Companies. That will force authors to their side even more.

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