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5 ways Apple could improve iBooks

It’s no secret that I love traditional paper books and that I think ebooks have a long way to go before they can even begin to compete with physical books. As digital books stand now, they’re as much fun to read on the iPad as is watching an IMAX movie projected against a brick wall. That being said, I’ve come up with a list of five improvements I would like Apple to make to the iBooks app which I believe could make the ebook reading experience more enjoyable. I wrote this list with the iPad in mind, but I’m sure some of these feature improvements would benefit the iPhone version of iBooks.

1. Lifelike paper stock backgrounds. Right now, iBooks lets you read a book’s text against a glaring white backdrop or an unnatural sepia backdrop. Neither of these backdrops will you find in a printed book. Since printed books are made of paper, their pages not only have a distinct feel, but they also have subtle visual variations of the paper stock the words are printed on. The visual appeal of the fibers in a paper page became apparent when I imported a book I had scanned into my iBooks library. The book was an old 1920s French cookbook whose binding had broken. A year ago I scanned all sixty pages of it into my computer and saved it as a PDF in fear of the original copy becoming lost or even more damaged. This French cookbook was the first scanned book I had ever read in iBooks and immediately I noticed how much more enjoyable it was because the pages looked real.
Adding lifelike paper stock background to iBooks wouldn’t be a hard challenge and it would give the ebooks a more comfortable feel. Also, if Apple let publishers choose from between different textures, it would be a way for publishing houses to gain back some control over the look and feel of their books. Now granted, adding textured backgrounds to ebooks probably would be pointless until Apple adds a Retina display to the iPad, as lifelike backgrounds where you could see the digital “pulp” wouldn’t be achievable until our eyes can’t distinguish individual pixels on the screen. But once Apple does add a Retina display, there’s no reason not to have ebooks look more like paper books.

2. Accurate page edges. When you read a physical book, even if the book doesn’t have page numbers, you know when you’re getting close to the end of it because the thickness on the right side of the book decreases with each page turn. Reading an ebook in iBooks always displays the same number of page edges on either side of the book — even when you’re on the last page. An accurate visual representation of the number of pages read and the number of pages left to be read on the left and right side, respectively, of the ebook would again be one of those nice little features that bring physical books and ebooks closer to parity.

3. Treat PDFs like books. When Apple introduced iBooks 1.2, they added the much-requested feature of turning iBooks into a PDF reader. Unfortunately, how they implemented iBooks’ PDF handling makes it seem like some programmer at Apple hastily added it on before running out the door at 5pm to catch the last volleyball game at the company Bar-B-Q. As it stands you can’t even view two PDF pages side by side in iBooks. That’s just baffling. Likewise, you can’t turn PDF pages with the cool page-flip eye candy that’s enabled for books. It would be awesome to be able to read a PDF front-to-back just like you can an ebook.

4. Enable interactive text in PDFs. One advantage ebooks do have over paper books, in iBooks anyway, is that you can easily markup text by highlighting it or creating digital notes. You can also select a word and look up its definition right on the page. Again though, with PDFs Apple left this functionality out. The only text interaction you have in a PDF in iBooks is searching — and even then you’re limited to using the search field, you can’t just select a word and tap “search” like you can in a book.

5. Let me see the front and back covers of a book. The only places you can see the cover of a book is when you are viewing it on your iBooks bookshelf, and sometimes within the first few pages of the book, depending on how the publisher assembled the ebook. That’s a shame. A lot of hardworking people in the art department put in a lot of time and effort into designing the front and back covers. When I tap on a book, I should have the option of seeing its cover full screen, as if the book were closed. I should also be able to “flip” the book over and read its back cover. And no, of course you can’t judge a book by its cover, but its still nice to be able to see the the covers as you would if you were holding an actual book.
Those are my suggestions. I’d love to hear what other bibliophiles would love to see in future version of the iBooks app. Leave your suggestions in the comments!