Dear Tim Cook: Do you even read books, bro?
Now that iOS 12 has been released in public beta, non-developers are getting their first look at the next-generation operating system for iPhone and iPad. And one of the most anticipated aspects of iOS 12, at least for an e-bibliophile like myself, is the Apple Books app, formerly known as iBooks.
Hands-on previews with Books have done the rounds already. But they all looked at Apple’s built-in library, which is minimal. I couldn’t wait to see how it handled a real reading situation, with a serious pre-existing collection — especially given that I’d had troubles with iBooks and my 1,600-plus e-book library in the recent past. So I downloaded the beta, fully aware I’d be dealing with bugs.
The good news is I found fewer bugs than expected, and that Apple Books has some usability improvements over iBooks. The bad news is when it’s working as intended, Books still seems like an app built more for show than for serious readers.
Which leads me to wonder whether the Apple CEO is genuinely invested in the literary category — or whether he’s just treating Books as another opportunity to sell stuff (the Books store is much more prominent in the new app) or as window-dressing for his big education push.
Luckily, the problem can be solved with a few crucial design tweaks. There’s still time to make Books great before iOS 12 officially launches in the fall. Here’s hoping Cook actually cares.
How to lose the e-book wars
I’ve been an iBooks booster ever since the first version of the app launched, alongside the original iPad, in 2010. Here at last was a device and an e-bookstore that could challenge the dominance of Amazon and its Kindle, which was then three years old.
We forget now how much energy Steve Jobs expended selling that groundbreaking tablet as an e-reader. The iBooks app was front and center on launch day.
Apple was going to change the e-reading game, and for a hot minute it did. It allowed you to upload EPUB files, the open format for e-books, while Amazon preferred proprietary formats like MOBI. (It was easier to strip the DRM out of Kindle books than Apple-bought books, but paradoxically that just let you read Kindle purchases on iBooks rather than the other way around.)
When iBooks 3 launched in 2012 alongside the iPad Mini, it added continuous scrolling for all books, a feature I raved about at the time. It took Amazon until March this year to add scrolling to the Kindle app, and even now it’s only available for books you buy on Amazon.
The final straw came when my iPad started deleting books
But in the post-Jobs era, iBooks fell behind. Amazon had Whispersync, a feature that let you pick up a book exactly where you left off, no matter which Kindle device or app you were using. Seems like a key feature, right? Like something Apple could manage easily with iCloud?
Nope: iBooks only ever synced bookmarks. You had to remember to bookmark the page you were on when putting down your iPad if you wanted to pick it up later on the iPhone. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
The amazing disappearing iBooks
At last, in 2016, Apple let you store your iBooks library in the cloud. But even that feature wasn’t all it was cracked up to be — as I learned when my iPad started mysteriously deleting downloaded versions of most of my iBooks, making them iCloud only.
I’d still see the titles in my library, but no matter how many times I tapped the cloud icon next to each — this was another truly annoying feature, the fact that you had to download each book literally one by one — the cloud icon would reappear next to the book a few hours or days later. They were gone from my device, again.
This was like a high-tech, no-fun game of whack-a-mole.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like to have my entire e-library actually with me at all times — for reading on a plane, or reading on a beach far from WiFi or cell service, or reading with a solar-powered charger after some future apocalypse. (And if we break our glasses we can always increase the font size. In your face, Twilight Zone!)
What was truly disturbing about the iBooks disappearances was that nobody in my local Apple Store or on the Apple Support phone line could tell me what was going on. Finally, with the help of some engineers, I discovered that this was supposed to be a feature, rather than a bug: My iPad had less than 5GB of room on it, so it was actively trying to free up space … by deleting books.
You read that right: In an unnecessary, unrequested hunt for an extra gigabyte or two, iOS considered books (which average a mere 500 kilobytes each) to be expendable. No matter how many times you would try to re-download them, they would be tossed into the memory hole.
George Orwell himself could not make this shit up.
Enter Apple Books
I’d been gravitating towards Amazon anyway, reluctantly, but the iBooks deletion situation was the last straw. This year, for the first time since 2010, Kindle became my only reading app.
Then we learned just prior to Apple’s WWDC keynote that a new version of Books would be touted. Would it hold a candle to Kindle?
The amount of time devoted to Books in the keynote was not encouraging. Apple News, Stocks, and even the Voice Memo app were deemed more important. Apple Books was literally discussed for less than a minute, much of which time was devoted to the dropping of the “i.”
Why so little attention for a major upgrade to a medium that is more important in the Trump era than ever? Were books just too unhip for the company that bought Beats, a company that is perpetually over-eager to appear on the cultural cutting edge? Was it the embarrassing legacy of a rare business defeat inflicted by Amazon, or the open wound of a lawsuit that led Apple to pay out $400 million in 2016 for colluding on prices with publishers in the iBooks store?
Regardless, I still had hope. And that hope was somewhat vindicated when I took my first look at the iOS 12 beta. (Which, by the way, has generally improved the speed and performance of my ancient iPhone 6S, as promised. Nice one, Apple!)
Open the Books app and you’re met with “Reading Now,” a neat way to have the option of diving into your current book or having a look at another. Both Kindle and iBooks load the last book you were reading automatically, which can get annoying if you read the way I do (with a dozen books on the go at any one time).
Most prominent after that is “Want to Read,” i.e. books you’ve found interesting in the Apple Book Store. Sheesh, Apple, I know you’re trying to sell books, but could you maybe be a little more subtle about it?
The Collections screen, above, offers a slightly more useful way to organize your library (collections were previously listed in a drop-down menu rather than their own screen). And it’s nice that Audiobooks get their own section for the first time, although I still wonder why Apple decided to make Audiobooks part of iBooks years ago. They used to be part of iTunes, which seems a more natural fit despite the name: It’s a thing you want to access when you feel like listening to something.
But here’s the main problem: You still have to download every book one by one. Do the math based on the “downloaded” number on the screen above and you’ll see I still have to tap more than 1,400 times before I’ve acquired and apocalypse-proofed my collection.
This is, in a word, nuts. Amazon lets you download each Kindle collection with a single tap. Apple Music, formerly iTunes, lets you download each playlist with a single tap. Why does Apple want to make it so hard for us to manage our libraries? Don’t they realize we’d be more interested in the Book Store if we were happy and secure in the thing we’d be adding those books to?
Or to put it more bluntly, is no one in an Apple executive suite a big e-book reader themselves?
In terms of the disappearing books problem, so far so good. Then again, the iPhone I’m using to test iOS 12 has way more space available, so iOS’s book-deleting instinct won’t have kicked in yet. Once the new iOS is officially launched this fall, I’ll be back with a full review of Books — and I’ll find out whether Apple has finally caught up to Amazon on the Whispersync front.
But in the meantime, there’s still time for Apple to add one more simple feature to Books — a “Download Collection” button. This would go a long way towards winning back the estranged and Kindle-loving customers, especially the ones who have filled their e-readers with hundreds of books and would be looking to port them over.
After all, Apple goes out of its way to embrace Android users and make switching systems easy. Shouldn’t they make just as much effort to grab Amazon customers?
Your move, Tim.