iBooks: A Second Look

Using the iPad with studentsI remember testing out iBooks when I first got my iPad, and promptly dismissing it. I didn’t plan to buy from their store (I prefer to buy DRM-free, or at least DRM-removable) and I planned to use the Kindle app for its sync feature, so I didn’t really see the need. In fact, when my aunt told me she got an iPad and had been using iBooks, I tried to talk her out of it in favor of the Kobo app, so she could share books with her Kobo-owning husband.

Well, I ‘ve had a second look at iBooks thanks to some recent events at school, and I see the use for it—both in a good way and a bad way. I think it has some nice features, and in certain situations it can be a good reading choice. But I have some caveats, especially for people who plan to use the app with kids …

1. Advantage: It’s there.

A techie like me should not underestimate the market share an app can accumulate among their less-techie colleagues just by virtue of being pre-installed. I might be able to debate with my e-book-reading friends about the virtues of the Kobo app versus the Kindle app, but the reality is, most people don’t care and will not seek out alternatives to an app that’s pre-loaded and ready to go. Most of my colleagues are unfortunately not as well-trained as my technology team co-leader and I might like them to be. And my time to go and seek out alternatives and train them is limited. iBooks is there, it’s easy and it’s ready to go. Win!

2. Advantage: It works. 

Yes, they all work, to an extent. But the combination of ‘it’s there’ and ‘a five-year-old can figure it out pretty quick’ is a compelling one. I was supervising a small group of kids in an after-school program, and I had one of them reading a beginner book out loud to me within five minutes while his stunned teacher looked on. When she expressed interest in loading further readers for silent reading time, I had some kids’ comic books on there by the time the kids were picked up to go home. Sure, there are bells and whistles that aren’t there—like cross-device syncing. But for what we were doing—just sitting and reading simple books together—we didn’t need it. We were good. It was easy. Sometimes, that’s enough.

3. Advantage: E-Books save space—and labor!

This is an obvious one, but it applies to kids books just as much as to adult books. Library space is limited. Time for shelving and sorting and organizing is all the more precious. One of the support teachers just spent the better part of a week organizing a set of leveled readers into bins. It was work evaluating each book, deciding what bin to put it in, labeling it with the appropriate sticker, and so on. And the bins take up an entire wall! I found at least one complete set of readers on the iBooks store for $1.99 per book. Each book had an index page at the end that listed the whole set in order. And best of all, through iCloud syncing, you could load them onto one iPad and have them automatically download to all the other ones. And then you don’t have to worry about stickering them, and getting them into bins, and making sure the kids put them back into the right bins …

4. Disadvantage: Browsing and sorting options in the store are limited.

I was so pleased with the success of my little reading time that I went looking for more of the same. Unfortunately, the iBooks store—like the app store—is a bit of a jumbled mess. I could narrow the categories from all books down to children’s books, then fiction or non-fiction. But that was it! What I wanted were more sub-categories so I could browse for leveled readers, or graphic stories, or comic books. It was tough slogging. They really need to refine the sub-categories and make it easier for people to find similar content to what they’ve been enjoying already. I appreciated the ease of having the book store built into the app. Apple blocks that feature in the Kobo and Kindle apps. But unless you know what you’re looking for, it can be hard to find new stuff.

5. Disadvantage: Kids need more supervision with e-books than with paper books.

Unfortunately, my colleague learned the hard way that you can’t just spring an iPad onto a first-grader and let them have at it. There are too many buttons to touch! Several kids found the ‘store’ button a little too easily and went crazy downloading samples (they can’t buy books—or anything—without an admin password). From what I saw, they weren’t even good samples. It wasn’t like there was a certain book they wanted and they tried to find it; it was more like they just went crazy pressing all sorts of buttons for the sake of pressing them. There were some adult books in there. There were some Spanish ones. It was just ‘whee, buttons! Tap tap tap!’ Another iPad was returned to me with over 100 pictures on it of the user’s shoe. It was time and effort removing that.

I think that Apple (and Amazon, and Kobo, and all of them, really) do need to look further at the parental controls issue and start bringing in mechanisms to hide the store and allow adults to filter content better. But I also think there’s a fine line there, and part of our job as grown-ups involves teaching them how to use their tools safely and appropriately. So I’ll need to do some training with my fellow teachers on how to guide their lessons a little more, to set a task and keep them focused on it rather than just handing them the iPad and telling them ‘here you go.’

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I do think that our in-school iPad program will be finding some cool things to do with iBooks, and I hadn’t anticipated that. Even our most reluctant readers were captivated by the easy readers I found for them to use during tech time. But I’d like to see better parental controls and content refinement options from the vendors, and I’d like to see better-trained teachers who know how to run with this once they hook the kids in. There is work to be done, from all the grown-ups here!

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10 Comments on iBooks: A Second Look

  1. Another good thing: You can side load your own ePub books. Also, ePub metadata is easily edited in iTunes (on the computer, can’t edit it in iOS.)

    Bad things:
    – There isn’t a “Recently read” list
    – No easy way to quickly navigate the mass of titles (Stanza has the alphabet along the right hand side, and you can tap a letter to jump to titles/authors that start with that letter.)

  2. Like you, I’ve got mixed feelings about my iPad. I love the screen on the latest model, but the weight makes it too heavy to hold up for long unlike a featherweight epaper Kindle. I only really enjoy using it sitting up with it in my lap or on a table.

    There is a fix for your ‘hard to find’ problem, if Apple only had the sense to implement it. Amazon’s books get described, mentioned, listed and reviewed lots of places because Amazon gives those who do that a small slice of the income. Apple could do that with both its ebooks and its apps. People could host sites recommending good iPad books for children and get a modest sum for their efforts. Increased sales would probably more than cover the cost.

  3. IBooks is not pre-loaded.

  4. I’m surprised at how long its taken to get parental controls to readers and tablets;
    TVs and PCs had that stuff last century and the original XBOX had it at release.
    It is most definitely not brain surgery to implement, either.
    The good news is both Kindle and Nook now have fine-grained parental controls so it should pressure the rest of the industry to follow suit.

  5. Just a note,
    1.iBooks does sync across other iDevices ( you have to turn the feature on each device)
    2. While there is not s recently read feature, collection can be mad for categories including currently reading and books read. If you sort the shelf by bookshelf iBooks shows you the most recent books read. If all of you books are in one category, then it’s easy to tell what book you last read.
    3 I agree the iBookstore could use a snappier navigation.
    4. My suggestion for kids and iPads is to fund all purvhases with. Gift card and before IOS6 a password was required in order to complete a purchase.

    I used to use stanza because of is ability to let me customize my library, but after it was sold and became unusable I switched to iBooks.

  6. Felix, I agree. But even with Amazon, there is some tunnel vision: it’s either ‘it’s blocked!’ or ‘it’s open!’ What about blocking purchases but letting them add to a wishlist? What about letting them browse, but only kid-friendly stuff? For instance, Netflix on the Xbox just launched a ‘for Kids; interface that we experimented with when we had a kid over. It was, as you might expect, Netflix—but only the kids shows. Very handy!

  7. @Joanna, I agree that a checklist of controls is better than a kill switch. Even better is what XBOX itself does, which is a lot like Netflix for Kids. Once you identify an Xbox user account as a kid account, the parental settings determine what content the kid sees in the way of free demos, videos, and even online movies and TV shows. It even controls what DVDs the XBOX will play. The kid never even knows there is anything else on LIVE.
    Hopefully both Kindle and Nook will keep enhancing the granularity of the controls and maybe Kobo will join in.
    Apple? if the baby unicorn is real, I suspect the Oct 23 dog and pony show will bring an iBooks update with halfway decent parental controls, too. Just a guess but the rumor mill says the have hopes about getting the baby unicorn into the school systems, though with WhisperCast raising the bar they’ve got their work cut out for them there.
    Which reminds me; what do *you* think of WhisperCast? :)

  8. Felix, I just spent an entire Friday afternoon updating the ten school iPads to iOS6 so that the Grade 1 teacher could run a writing app she wanted, so I would welcome any functionality like Whispercast which would enable me to streamline the process :) I did not have ANY afternoon classes on Friday because 3 of my classes were on a field trip and I literally started the updates at 1 pm and went straight through until 4. Some of it could be run in the background while I did other work, but then I had to make sure every icon was in the right little grouping so that all the iPads looked the same, and I had to check the language settings on a few apps, and adjust some preferences in others. How nice would it be to have a single interface where I could set it all up to my liking, click ‘apply to all devices’ and be done?

    I also think that, as time goes on, the big content providers are going to have to adjust to a world where people might have more than an arbitrary 4 or 5 gadgets each. In my house, I am the techie toy person (in spite of my Beloved being a computer engineer) and I am in charge of setting up all the iToys. So, even if the Kobo is not intended for my use and is his Kobo, he’s going to say ‘wake me when you ahve it all set up and working.’ So I have devices registered to my account that aren’t even my devices—which means what when you add in the stuff that actually *is* mine, there may seem to be an excessive amount of devices on my account even though there is a perfectly reasonable explanation :) They need to get over this idea that anyone with more than 4 devices or 6 or 8 or some pre-set number is out to run a scam. This is why I am in favour of DRM removal and other opening-up of content. I want to be be able to run it on any device I have, and I don’t want some overlord somewhere deciding I have too many devices and have to pick only some on which to use my stuff.

  9. Sorry to hear about that afternoon of work: the rumor is that iBooks3.0 is due Oct 23.
    (ouch!)
    Anyway, I do agree that when it comes to academic ebooks the publishers and vendors are going to have to introduce the equivalent of site license accounts to go along with centralized remote management ala WhisperCast.
    BTW, reading the specifications of the in-process US State Dept contract with Amazon, there are hints that Whispercast *does* suppport ebook “site license” accounts where a given book can be distributed to an arbitrary number of readers registered to the same account.
    Hopefully, competitive pressure will force Nook Media, Rakuten, and Apple to match WhisperSync soon. :)

  10. Ebooks have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages but from the looks of it, there are more benefits than negatives. Children will eventually learn stuff because they have a brilliant mind when directed properly. These problems are easy to solve so I think using ebooks is a better option.

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