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

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.


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.