A First Look at the iPad #4 - iBooks

"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."-C.S. Lewis

In the fourth installment of our ongoing examination of the Apple iPad and its accessibility with VoiceOver, we take a look at iBooks, Apple’s e-reader and e-book store application.

The Basics

iBooks is not pre-installed on the iPad. Rather, when you first launch the AppStore from the device, you are presented with a message letting you know about iBooks and giving you the opportunity to download the application. iBooks can be downloaded at any time for free from the AppStore, and will be available on iPhone and iPod touch devices in conjunction with the release of iPhone OS 4.0 later this summer.

iBooks comes with a free copy of A.A. Milne’s classic "Winnie-the-Pooh" for your enjoyment. Not a bad deal, since it’s sequel, "The House on Pooh Corner" is listed at a price of $11.99 in the iBooks store as of this writing. Oh, bother…


Reading is a highly individualized pastime. Those who are avid readers have habits that are, whether within themselves or in combination, highly unique. As a consequence, I feel it’s wise to give a brief overview of my own before getting on with the meat of this review.

I’m an avid reader. I consume books the way some people munch potato chips. I’m always reading something. Frequently it’s more like two or three titles at once. Mostly I read fiction, but I also read nonfiction, programming manuals, histories, and various other types of material that catch my interest.

I’ve always stuck more to physical Braille or audio books. I’ve never been one for reading electronic texts en masse for a variety of reasons. In the early days of electronic books, it was because I couldn’t abide sitting in front of a computer for extensive periods of time. Later, when assistive tech companies began offering portable devices for reading texts, I never felt the gadgets were worth the exorbitant price-tags, and their method of use was often clunky and unappealing. Though I came close a few times, I just never could bring myself to pay that much for something that was not closer to my taste. I’m not knocking those products. They have their place, and I know quite a few people who have and enjoy them. They just weren’t for me.

Finally, I simply did not have the patience to scan printed books. It’s a slow, tedious, mind-numbing process that I’m just not suited to. A very good friend of mine is an avid scanner, and I envy his tenacity in getting the work done.

In the Library

The iBooks application has a screen to display your library. You can arrange your books on virtual bookshelves, or have them presented in lists which can be ordered using various criteria, such as author, title, genre, and so forth. An edit mode allows you to delete titles you wish to discard, as well as move them around on the shelves. Unfortunately, moving the books around on the shelves is not possible with VOiceOver active, however if you turn VoiceOver off, you will find that the books are large enough on the iPad’s display that it is not difficult to move books to where you want them, even with no vision.

Once you have more books than can be displayed at once, the standard three-finger swipe up/down to scroll the screen gives you access to more shelves in a bookcase that is, for all practical purposes, infinite.

Being an old-fashion sort, I definitely prefer the bookshelf view, (which VoiceOver describes as "Grid View"). I like the freedom to move books around on the shelves and organize them to my heart’s content. Many will doubtless prefer the more rigid list view, which will automatically sort your collection by various criteria.

Shopping for Titles

The iBooks store behaves as you would expect. It works similarly to the iTunes stores for music, video, and applications. You can search, browse, view top charts, and download free e-book texts from the Project Gutenberg collection. (Project Gutenberg provides an enormous library of public domain books free to all.)

Best of all, you can re-download books you’ve bought previously as many times as you need to.

One problem, not related to accessibility, is that it seems many books in the iBooks store have not been provided with a "Description" of the book. In these cases, you have to download the free sample to find out what the book is all about, which is a mild annoyance.

The free samples, however, provide the reader with a significant portion from the beginning of the title in question, and are quite useful in determining if you wish to purchase the book. The length of a sample varies wildly, particularly depending on the length of the book. For example, the Star Trek novel "Unspoken Truth" provided approximately 54 pages in the sample, while "The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien included a whopping 194. (We say “approximately” because text size and iPad orientation can effect page counts. These numbers are based on the defaults in landscape orientation.)

Samples end conveniently, and dare I say tauntingly, at a button which you can click to purchase the rest of the book, and continue reading.

Story Time

Interacting with a book with VoiceOver is incredibly intuitive. Double tapping a page causes VoiceOver to read it. Three-finger swipes left or right turn the pages of the book. The VoiceOver gesture for continuous reading, a two-finger flick downward, reads continuously and automatically turns pages as needed.

One of the most useful features is the ability to run your finger down a page and have VoiceOver skim from line to line. VoiceOver will start reading each line as you touch it, giving a visually impaired user much the same experience as a sighted person skimming down a page for a particular piece of information. I found this both incredibly satisfying, and extremely efficient when searching for a specific item or location in the text.

Most epub titles, (the format used by iBooks), include a table of contents which allows you to tap on the title of a chapter or section and jump right to it. This works perfectly with VoiceOver. Additionally, a search feature will allow you to search the entire text of a book for a word or phrase, present you with results including the context of the match, and allow you to tap the desired entry to move to that section of the book. Again, this works flawlessly with VoiceOver.

Illustrations included in texts can be, and often are, captioned for accessibility. For example, the "Winnie-the-Pooh" title included with iBooks includes descriptions of all the classic illustrations, which VoiceOver reads when you come to them.

For low-vision users, the brightness of the screen and the size of the text can be easily adjusted.

A Few Quirks

While the reading experience with iBooks is excellent, there are a few quirks. Although VoiceOver’s rotor provides the options to navigate by word or character while in a book, it doesn’t always work, which appears to be a bug.

As previously noted, organizing books on the bookshelves requires temporarily disabling VoiceOver and is still quite easily accomplished, but should be made more seamless.

Touching and holding a word provides an option to look up a word’s definition for non-VoiceOver users, but appears to be impossible to accomplish with VoiceOver activated.

Finally, in books with numerous illustrations, VoiceOver will occasionally read the last line of a page twice while reading continuously. This is not the case in books with few or no illustrations at all, and so was only particularly noticeable with the A.A. Milne title.

Books From Other Sources

Visually impaired readers tend to have books from a variety of sources in accessible formats. Often, these are books that we’ve scanned and processed with optical character recognition, (OCR), ourselves, obtained from BookShare.org, and so on.

Fortunately, such titles can be converted to the appropriate epub format with relative ease. There are a variety of tools available. I used the free Stanza for Mac by Lexcycle. Stanza can convert from an impressive variety of document formats to iBooks compatible epub formatted files.

Once you have converted a document, simply add it to your iTunes library and sync your iPad. The book will show up in your iBooks library.

The Upshot

For me, iBooks provides the evoke experience I’ve always wanted. I’m reading even more thanks to the portability of the iPad and the features included in iBooks. The ability to navigate consistently by words and characters is something that I want addressed as soon as possible, and which will doubtless be of even more importance to many users. However, it did not greatly inhibit my use of the application. How much this shortcoming effects you, will be dependent upon your specific needs.

Overall, iBooks is one of the iPad’s greatest strengths, not least because of the huge catalog of books which are accessible from the iBooks store. Unlike Amazon with its Kindle device, it appears that Apple has not given publishers an "opt out" for accessibility, largely because the reading of the text is tied to the VoiceOver screen reader, and therefore unlikely to be used by the general public. To eliminate this functionality, publishers would have to come out against accessibility specifically, which would be the worst kind of PR for them.

Visually impaired readers rejoice! Mainstream ebooks are finally available and accessible out of the box. No tinkering, no scanning, no hoping that someone else has uploaded a title to BookShare. It’s going to change everything.