iOS 7’s iBooks: Apple, Leave The Skeuomorphism Alone

| The Back Page

Whoa boy, I have a bad feeling about this. I've been looking at the screenshots and "tours" of iBooks in OS X Mavericks (new in Developer Preview 5), and it looks great, but I've got a bad feeling. In this first version of iBooks for the Mac, it's "flat"—no book shelves, no artificial look of pages of paper, and no page turn animation.

It has me worried about what that might mean for iOS 7, the flagship operating system for Apple's new penchant for deskeuomorphism. You see, Apple hasn't yet touched iBooks in iOS 7—iBooks isn't included in the iOS developer seeds and we might not see the new version until iOS 7 is released—but it's a good bet that what we see in the Mavericks developer preview is what we'll see when Apple releases a new iBooks for iOS 7.

Ebooks

Let me be clear that I am arguing philosophy in this piece, not criticizing a developer beta as if it were a final product. I'm big on the former and have no truck with the later. Mavericks and iOS 7 both have plenty of changes to come before they are finalized for release this fall.

The Joy of Ebooks

I love books. Real books. Hardbacks and paperbacks. I love them. I own hundreds, and if I can buy a first edition—first printing, please—when it comes out, I will. I love the paper. I love the covers and the jackets. I love the back page/front flap descriptions. I love the feel of books. I even read the dedications and the prologues. I love books so much, <plug> I'm writing one </plug>.

Despite all that, I read 100 percent of my books on my iPad today, and I do so for specific reasons. The first is the most trivial. You see, I read whenever I can. I used to always have my current book with me in case I was visited with the horror of—gasp—having to wait around for a few minutes. At any moment, boredom could break out, and why waste that opportunity? Today, I carry my iPad everywhere for the same reason.

At the same time, I don't like bookmarks for real books. Never could use the darned things, and please, I do not dog-ear my books. When you're often reading in three minute stretches and you don't mark your page, a good portion of that three minutes might be spent finding the spot where you left off. Those are precious reading seconds squandered.

Not with my iPad, though. Pick it up, open iBooks, and there's the exact page I was on. No wasted time flipping through pages looking for familiar words while trying not to inadvertently give myself spoilers. It's trivial, right? But for me, it was a meaningful improvement.

I won't mark up a printed book, either. Way too OCD about my books for that. I'll highlight the heck out of an ebook, though, which is awesome when I'm doing research on who Jon Snow's mother really is.

Thirdly, it's very convenient carrying around a whole bookshelf with me wherever I go. I don't often need it, but there have been times (several, truth be told) when I wanted to search for something in a book I've already read, and I can do that with my iPad.

Lastly, I love reading in bed. For hours. Hours that I should be sleeping. Doing so with an iPad is easier than reading a hardback. The iPad is always at the best viewing angle.

Page Turning in Ebooks - Worthless Affectation or Pointless Legacy? Discuss...

Another aspect of moving to the iPad was the reading experience. I'm in my 40s. OK, fine, I'm at the tail end of my mid-40s. Satisfied?

Anyway, I've lived my life reading books where that experience includes holding the pages in my hand, and turning them one by one as the story unfolds. You sacrifice much of that experience with ebooks, and that was certainly the case with Kindle before the iPad. Reading a Kindle was closer to reading a webpage than a book. (Related: Up yours, DOJ)

But Apple introduced iBooks with a skeuomorphic interface. You couldn't hold the pages in your hand, but you could turn them just like a real book. It was familiar. It was insanely cool. It allowed us to keep some of that book experience while we transferred to the new digital reality that Amazon had already championed with Kindle.

When I read a real page turner on my iPad, I'll grab the corner of the page and start to turn it when I'm 3/4 of the way done. I'll hold it there, ready to go, ready to turn that page the second I'm done with the last word on the page so I can get to first word at the top of the next.

Pro tip: that's why they call it a page turner.

Page Turn Effect

Me, getting ready to turn the page.
(BTW, I've loving this book, The Tyrant's Law, by Daniel Abraham)

For me, that's a huge part of why I enjoy reading on my iPad so much. I like this bit of skeuomorphism. Leather stitching and reel-to-reel tapes? I couldn't care less, but Apple's page turning animation has pure utility value for me because it lets me stay in the story.

The Altar of Flatness

I fear, however, that this feature will be sacrificed on the Altar of Flatness that is Apple's future. Don't get me wrong, I am liking everything else that we're seeing. A lot. Flat bubbles in Messages? Love 'em. Clean white edge-to-edge calendars? Awesome. The different-kind-of-depth you get from translucent layers? Gorgeous!

This first version of iBooks in Mavericks is flat, too. Books in your library are presented on a plain white background. Some are complaining about that, but I think it looks good. You also get in-line notes with your highlights (which is awesome), but the pages are presented as flat white pages, like a webpage.

One "turns the page" by moving the cursor to a margin and clicking (mouse) or tapping (trackpad). When you do so, the page slides to the left or right, depending on which direction you're going.

Funny enough, even that is a physical analog, just not one that is skeuomorphic for books. Unless of course, you're kicking it old school to the days when books were collections of looseleaf parchment you could slide around.

The truth is, it doesn't bother me too much on a Mac. If I'm going to be reading a book on my Mac—and this is entirely personal and subjective—it's because I'm researching something. I need to take notes, read notes, look up stuff, study, whatever. Being immersed in the story isn't a priority under those circumstances. It won't even be relevant most of the time.

As such, I'm not freaking out because page turning isn't in Mavericks (at least not yet). Instead, I'm worried that this is a preview of what's coming in iOS 7.

As I mentioned above, Apple is pursuing this flatness in iOS 7 first. We're seeing some flatness in Mavericks, but iOS 7 is the flagship OS for moving to this flatter future. It is entirely logical to assume that the eventual iBooks update in iOS 7 will be in lockstep with the version previewed first in Mavericks.

Help Me, Ghost of Steve, You're My Only Hope

With any luck, page turning will be an option in both Mavericks and iOS 7 before all is said and done. Indeed, it would best if it was an option rather than the only choice. There are many people (younger than me) for whom "turning a page" is a meaningless figure of speech devoid of all practical context.

Like "ice box," or "turn the channel," or "pay for music."

I know I can't hold back the tides of change by shoving my iPad into the dike, and I am a fan of deskeuomorphisizing (so not a word) iOS and Mavericks both.

But for every rule there is an exception, and this is true even for Apple. This particular bit of skeuomorphism, this "turning the page" animation, has utility value for millions of book lovers.

I hope Apple sees that and gives us the option in both Mavericks and iOS 7 by the time it ships. The reality is that Apple is probably way ahead of me. The company understands this stuff far, far better than me. I hope so, and I hope I'm just fretting over nothing.

Images made with help and help from Shutterstock.

Comments

geoduck

Agree completely.

Lee Dronick

Like anything it can be overdone or underdone, there is a sweet spot in the middle of the bell curve. It is where Steve Jobs stood, at the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts. That being said my tastes are more towards skeuomorphism.

Is it possible to skin these apps? Flat for those who like that stuff and realistic looking for us?

geoduck

I doubt it. Apple has been very resistant to letting people customize the appearance of their systems, especially in iOS. There’s a bunch of things I’d change in iPhoto, iTunes, and elsewhere if I could.

DJ Raymond

Agree on the page turning. Don’t agree on the flat message bubbles or the white end-to-end being cool in iOS 7. Especially not the white. Nobody’s commenting on it, but forget the icons; forget the ugly and random color palette;  forget the buttons going away—actually, don’t forget any of that stuff. But for me the worst offense of iOS 7 is all that damn WHITE everywhere in every native app. It’s not aesthetically interesting, it’s not sophisticated, and it’s not conducive to reading. It’s just boring and bland.

seamus26

Hear, hear, my good man! I completely agree for all of the same reasons. I love my books, but my iPad definitely has filled a monumental gap in a most wonderful way. I am a fan of skeuomorphism most of the time, and I fear change, but Apple dragged me kicking and screaming away from OS9, and in hindsight it was all for the best. Skeuomorphism will go the way of Zip Disks eventually, but there is still a valuable place for the analog vs the digital.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a record to get back to listening to.

markf21

I too whole heartedly agree on keeping the page turning capability in IOS 7 iBooks and with the iBooks App in Mavericks.

Additionally, I’d love to see incorporated into both, the ability to mark an iBook as Read across the to right upper corner as in the way New is invoked on an new un-read iBook.

vpndev

Agree.

wab95

Bryan et al:

It would not be an end to skeuomorphism, but its preservation. Indeed, should it come to pass, you would be losing the newer analogue of page turning by reaching deeper back in time to the endless parchment scroll.

Lee Dronick

There is are several reasons “we” went from scrolls to codex, to books, and one of them is the ease of finding information. You can insert a book mark, or have a table of of contents and page numbers instead of rolling out several fathoms of scroll. In modern times we have digital books with hyperlinks and searches. The we can copy text and paste it into a new document. Now of course you can do all of the modern stuff in a “flat” looking book, but the experience is enhanced by the beauty of design and some of that is skeuomorphism.

As I said before you can overdo skeuomorphism, but can also underdo it.

Sometime in the future people will look at books in museums. They will be in the gallery alongside scrolls, clay tablets, and petroglyphs, hypercard stacks. People will say how quaint.

Bob Faulkner

>>>your going
you’re

>>>analog
analogy?

Paul Goodwin

Bryan. My thoughts exactly. Even when you get to the end: “The reality is that Apple is probably way ahead of me. The company understands this stuff far, far better than me. I hope so, and I hope I’m just fretting over nothing.”

I live in much more fear these days about what Apple will come up with compared to what I felt in the last three decades with Apple. Especially when it comes to design that actually helps the user. There’s only a small percentage of the designers in our digital world that are good at it. We’ve been bombarded with designs from the wrong side of the brain ever since the computing world seeped into our lives. Apple is so big now, and the job of changing our UI life is so large, that I’m not convinced that Apple “understands this stuff far, far better than me”. There’s too many interfaces for them to review with that small percentage of the population that knows what really works, what adds value, and what doesn’t. So my expectations are lower than they used to be. I’ve seen enough botched apps in recent years to have the blind faith I used to have. Look what happened to iMovie. The initial version was nearly perfect, easy to use, and great looking. Then change for change’s sake came along, and the better idea was to take their simple app and make it conform to their flagship professional product’s UI. The result was an unintuitive nightmare that still hasn’t been corrected. IMO iMovie is now, and has been for years, a terrible application that never gets fixed because why? The answer has to be that the designers think it’s the way it should be. ITunes 11 is another example of design committees blundering through a great app removing stuff that the user loved, and adding what of value? I suppose I should partially blame myself. I haven’t participated as an OS reviewer when i was invited, because I didn’t think I could afford the time to do a good job of it. So instead of helping the process, I’m relegated to being one of the complainers when things miss the mark. It makes me wonder though, what percentage of the population of those critiquing the OSs would recognize what I (and you) feel are good things. I’m guessing that their feedback system is lacking the same percentage of people with that magic balance of talent that knows not only good looking design, but helpful design as well.

Rick Hyman

Bryan, your article hilights a recent problem in the user interface community, which is the incorrect definition of skeuomorphism. Many pundits have learned this term in just the past year and then have defined it as referring to any physical analog used in a digital interface.

A better definition would refer to unnecessary mimicry. A good example is the ancient clay pots having little bits of clay around the rim mimicking the brass rivets found on more expensive pots.

While the stitched leather look of some of Apple’s apps are clearly skeuomorphic, the use of some shadowing to denote the edges of pages or help define buttons for quicker touches could be better viewed as mimicry that provides context. The same can be said of the visual page turning.

Unfortunately, Apple is removing much of the design and style of its interfaces simply because it seems to be a rage. Does this mean they have lost the ability to think different?

I must echo Paul Goodwin’s sentiments that Apple does not know far, far more than the rest of us. There seems to have been a slow decline in the quality of human interfaces from Apple ever since Next was purchased. Perhaps the human factors engineers have taken a back seat to the programmers.

I recently filed a bug report with Apple concerning the way Expose could be inadvertently triggered, even when the user isn’t trying to place the cursor in the corners of the screen. My suggestion was for a fraction of a second delay before Expose is triggered, in the case the cursor momentum causes it to bounce in and out of a corner. The bug was squashed by an Apple engineer with the explanation “nothing is wrong. It’s working as designed.” My thought from this is the current crop of Apple workers really have no idea how things should work or they no longer care about the details that make a difference to the user.

Mark Johnston

Excellent, article. Could not agree more about iBooks current emulation of the “book experience.” It’s beautiful, and it’s the reason I bought an iPad. I too fear they will abandon it in favor of the lifeless Kindle look. If they do I hope they leave us old timers a “classic” option .

I too must echo Paul’s sentiments and agree Apple does NOT know more about UI and UX than the rest of us. I also believe their UI skills are in decline, and that in their obsessive quest to be different, they are now becoming more like everyone else, if not worse.

I’m not liking what I’m seeing in iOS 7 at all. Most screens look like wireframes . In a quest to be minimalist, the interface now looks like a wireframe doc created by a project manager before the design team got to it

Mark
Software architect, UI designer, project engineer

Karen Marie

Your opinions are very close to my own.  We now have iOS 7 and I found this site by searching for why iBooks looks to be the same (wooden bookshelves etc).  I much prefer the look of newsstand and personally find it easier to see the magazines to which I have subscribed.  Side by side with Newsstand, iBooks looks “old”.  My partner, who’s not a fan of the new iOS 7 look, could see the benefit of the new design in this comparison.  However, I would be devastated if they threw away page turning animation. For me it adds greatly to the experience of reading a book on the iPad, and I too toy with the animation as I read closer to the end of a page.  Let’s hope it remains a feature!

Youssef El Baba

Couldn’t agree more ! They should also keep the sepia page color tone, much easier on the eyes !

Dustin Brothers

I agree with your sentiments about some of the “immersion” effects of the digital book: page turning animations, yes please; sepia coloring, duh yes; faux leather book edges in book mode, sure why not.
For me the skeuomorphic aspects should end there: please flatten the icon, and I could go without the faux wood shelves. I guess I’m OCD about consistency so I’d want Apple to make iBooks “bookshelves” look like Newsstand “shelves”. All for the white background to let me see the book covers of the gagillions of books I own.

Log-in to comment