Apple iPad: E-Book Reading, Kindle-Killing, Business-Saving Product of the Century?

by | Jan 28, 2010

I have to say that watching today’s launch by Apple of the new iPad was quite entertaining.

I picked Gizmodo which had a team of four or five people live blogging from the hall and taking photos of the visuals Steve Jobs was using in his presentation. You really have to admire not only the showmanship of these launches, but the way Apple has the whole package thought out before they go public.

As you might have expected, the iPad is sexy, hip, fast, gorgeous, and possibly game-changing in the way the iPod and iTunes store changed the music business.

But rather than dive into the “gee-whiz” technology that will be the latest and greatest thing for the next few months (my iPhone 3GS suddenly looks like the second coolest hardware now), I wanted to take a look at the ebook reading software, at least in this early release.

Fonts and “Typesetting”

Apple iPad

Font menu - Click to enlarge

Here’s a photo that came out of the launch that shows the font menu in the e-reader program. It’s interesting on a few levels.

First, note the fonts included here. We don’t know how the iPad will deal with fonts embedded in the ePub files it will use for books, but other readers using ePub often ignore the fonts embedded in the files, from what I understand. The fonts on this menu are an odd lot:

  1. Baskerville—a good long document font, widely used today.
  2. Cochin—a lovely display font that would be very hard to read in text for long.
  3. Palatino—a beautiful oldstyle text font utterly ruined by the overexposure of being included in every single “desktop publishing” program, font list and operating system starting 25 years ago.
  4. Times Roman—a wonderful font for newspapers and office reports.
  5. Verdana—a san-serif font specifically designed for display on screens, used widely online.

But look at the piece of a page you can see behind the font menu. You’ll see big “rivers” of blank paper running through the type. Apparently, the miraculous iPad doesn’t hyphenate or justify text any better than the existing e-readers, that is to say, quite poorly. No real typesetter could have produced copy this bad, because they would have been fired long ago.

It’s Almost Like Reality TV

It’s also interesting that the designers at Apple have taken the idea of making the expeirience “book-like” to an entirely new level. They’ve put a “book cover with a book jacket” behind the “book” and created very realistic looking “pages” that diminish as you read through the book.

Here’s a 55-second video that gives you more information about the how this e-reader was imagined:

You probably noticed around the 30-second mark the round of applause. It was for the terrific animation of turning “pages.” I laughed so hard when I saw this I almost stained my keyboard. The audience appreciates how skillfully the programmers have imitated an ancient artifact—the printed book—with their code.

Of course, you also noticed that the “back” of all the “pages” are blank, so it’s not all that realistic. You almost have to remind yourself that you are looking at an amazing, digital representation of a real physical object, and not a photo of the object itself. In essence, one reads a picture of a book, not a book itself.

Book Publishing, or Text Publishing, or Media Publishing?

Look, this is an amazing device, and it may well have a huge impact on publishing. We just don’t know yet. The allure of “books” with links to video, maps, sound files, GPS coordinates is strong. One can be absolutely certain we will start seeing products like this for the iPad in the very near future.

The anticipation for this digital switch is palpable. Here’s what Dev Ganesan, President and CEO of Aptara, an e-book conversion and digital publishing company, had to say on the Digital Book World site:

Today’s content consumers are voracious digital omnivores, desiring to feed on all types of electronic content — from Twitter tweets to YouTube videos, from iPhone apps to Facebook updates, from mp3s to eBooks. Yet traditional publishers, particularly trade book publishers, are not prepared to serve digitally savvy audiences the variety of electronic products they demand. That’s because their production processes are traditionally rooted in outdated print publishing practices that are severely inadequate for tackling today’s publishing challenges.

I suppose it was the “outdated print publishing practices” with its lovely alliteration that stopped me. When I finish this article, I will get up from my desk as usual, pick up the copy of The American Book of the Dead that I’m reading, and head for bed for a good read. I’m not sure which part of that scenario is “outdated” but I plan to enjoy myself.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to the interior designs I’m working on for the three books I have in hand at the moment. One is a lovely inspirational photography book, another is a useful self-help book, and the third is a memoir of a Vietnam veteran. Each has a unique and interesting quality, something I hope to evoke with the designs. For better or worse, they will be printed on real paper in fonts that the reader will not be able to switch for Palatino or Cochin. The design will remain an intrinsic part of the book.

We are at a change time in publishing. We can marvel at the transformations happening around us while still appreciating the cultural history that has landed us in this place, at this time.

What do you think of it all?

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Harold

    magnificent post, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite experts of this sector do not realize this. You should proceed your writing. I’m
    sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!

  2. Ian Whiteman

    I put a comment here a couple of years ago before I owned an Ipad about my concerns. Now have one I can confirm pdfs are great to read in it as I had doubts that they would work. I now store all my pdfs in Ibooks so I can preview work I am doing sitting on a sofa at home. In fact it has replaced the laptop as favoured home computer….pity flash doesn’t work but that is not important. What I do like is long battery life; lightweight; no hot lap syndrome; compact. It’s not for creating stuff but good for just viewing at ease. Also many good free useful apps like the complete Mathnawi of Rumi and some excellent audio software for live recording. As for ebooks…they are a disaster.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Ian,

      Thanks for the update. I agree that the iPad is fantastic as a PDF viewer, and I now use mine regularly to show designs etc. which I keep in a Dropbox folder. Also thanks for the tip about the Mathnawi, didn’t know about that one.

  3. Mac-user

    How about now, two years later and another generation iPad?
    I was thinking two years ago exactly on the same way and today I buy always two versions of the same book – paper and eBook. Honestly I did not touch the paper books yet, but have my iPad with me everywhere with all kind of literature. I can search and find any page within seconds when preparing lectures – but have to spend sometimes hours to find a particular information in my library. Before I carried dozens of books with me on travel and have to pay extra on Airport – today i carry 100s of books with me on iPad and can read where and when I have some spare time.
    Beside I got the same reaction when the CD was introduced, the DVD, the digital camera, the cellphone and all of it is pretty ‘normal’ around the world today. Waiting a week for pictures i the photoshop was normally, and paying in the store also for my unsharp pictures, ‘cutting-head-off’ pictures is history now. And Kodak – before one of the world largest companies is bankrupt this days, shows how the game is changing.
    I think only people who have the ability to adapt real changes fast, will always win the Game. Not the ones spending years with resistance, and when they finally see the light, the whole marked is already shared by others. I did read an article from this english engineer written around 1900 – about the new railway system. He was sure the horse will never disappear from the road and our cities. He was also sure, when people moving faster then 20 mph, they get mental ill. Our generation can’t imagine just horses in the cities…

    I think it’s part of our nature when growing up with a set of fix points , all of this can’t and will never change. But we are just a part of the change, whether we like it or not. Pleasure readings Joel


  4. Sandy Jones

    Joel…I totally agree with you…My generation grew up with real books that you could touch and take to bed and read as you fell asleep. I think the world is going too fast and missing the experience of actually reading a real book. You can see it with the kids nowadays…they are on information overload being bombarded with technology at every turn. The acronyms alone are enough to drive you crazy…you have iPod iPAD Nook Kindle ISBN numbers…LLCN numbers…fed ID numbers…ebooks…ereaders…and so on! The writer needs a helper to allow the writer to actually write. My husband and I are finding that out. We are having alot of fun self-publishing…but it is a job for two people in order to keep the book moving to market! Thanks for all of your knowledge!

  5. chairman bill

    I have dyslexia, and I’m an academic; not an overly happy combination. I struggle with papers & other texts, written in serif fonts & justified across the page (introduces anomalous spacing, making it harder to read). Devices such as the iPad have the potential to change this situation, by allowing the reader to choose the font style, choose the font colour, align text left, change the background colour, and so on. Unfortunately, this seems to be a potential so far unrealised. The iPad could be a real game-changer for people with dyslexia.

  6. MyName

    I’m glad to say I waited for an iPad 2 to come out which meant having a larger support available than would have been last year. It’s much more usable than I expected and it’s freed me from having to sit at my computer for a number of tasks. Especially web browsing.

    There are a few things that come to mind as far as the original topic goes. First, as someone pointed out on the web, it seems that ebook readers are geared more towards the text centric works and the current standard isn’t able to replace the coffee table type of book (or the National Geographic type of magazine) just yet.

    PDFs can replace them up to a point, but the screen isn’t a good size for many of those books. I think the plan is that, since the ePub standard is basically a wrapper around XHTML, simply wait for HTML 5 to come out with its improved layout tools and then incorporate that into the next generation of ebooks.

    To put it simply, I think the iPad has a good niche as a way to replace the paperback and the store itself is probably a bigger achievement than the reader as it’s very easy to get new books. It’s also replaced a lot of the more formal tech documentation. And it plays videos and sings and dances and all that jazz.

  7. Jay Rutherford

    I just counted 111 font cuts on my iPad, including the various “foreign” faces. The early laser printers included only the so-called “LaserWriter 35” (including the various family cuts). You could of course buy and install additional fonts, but the built-in ones printed quite a bit faster.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, the problem is that although there are many fonts on the iPad quite a few applications (like iBooks) restrict which fonts the user has access to. Odd but true. Thanks for the additional info.


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