If the iPhone was the "JesusPhone," as some dubbed it in 2007 in advance of its physical manifestation, then the iPad, by comparison, is the PlaguePad: All the same biblical inevitability but none of the blessings. What, exactly, does one do with an oversized iPod Touch? Will it reduce the digital world as we know it to a withered husk, plus turn our rivers to blood for good measure?
As someone who reads books in many of their current forms (hardback, paperback, on a Kindle and an iPhone), I was curious to see what devastation the iPad would sow in the publishing department. A colleague who scampered to Buffalo to pick up a PlaguePad in the early hours of its U.S. release generously let me explore its e-reading capacity for a few hours. I also made a few phone calls and sent some canny e-mails. Here is what I found out about what Canadian e-reading fans can expect when the iPad is released here later this month.
Buying books on the iPad
The Canadian edition of Apple's iBookstore will be up and running when the iPad is released. Or, at least, that would make sense. Apple isn't saying (because Apple never says anything). It has to negotiate rights to sell books country by country, just like it had to negotiate the right to sell music country by country, which is why iTunes came to Canada two years after it launched in the U.S. Insiders in the Canadian publishing industry say three things: yes, iBookstore will be working; no, it won't be working; and I don't know, stop asking me.
If it is operational, users will be able to purchase books from iBookstore with the iBooks app.
But even if iBookstore isn't operational, iPad owners will be able to buy books from other e-vendors, most notably Kobo, the upstart launched by Indigo that appears poised to grab a huge share of the international e-book market. American iPad owners can already purchase books through Kobo, and chief executive officer Michael Serbinis says the Kobo app will be available to Canadians the day the iPad is released here.
American users can also purchase e-books from Amazon on their iPad via the Kindle app, so it is safe to assume that will be the case here too.
One caveat: When buying books through the Kobo or Kindle app, users are redirected to the companies' websites ( Amazon.com/kindle-books and kobobooks.com, respectively), where they purchase the e-book and then return to the app to start reading. You can only buy e-books directly onto your iPad through the iBooks app.
Another caveat, this time for iBooks: Kobo and Kindle currently have a much better selection than the iBookstore, as Apple has so far been unable to negotiate a deal with the world's largest English-language publisher, Random House.
Reading on the iPad
First things first - the PlaguePad is surprisingly heavy. It's the Stephen King novel of e-readers. It's more than twice as heavy as the Kindle: 24 ounces (1.5 pounds) vs. 10.2 ounces.
All three e-reading apps reviewed here - iBooks, Kobo and Kindle - allow readers to control font size, brightness and other basic features. Kobo and iBooks additionally allow users to pick between a handful of fonts for their text. They also feature "shelves" on which your purchased "books" stand, with the cover facing out, to impress anyone looking over your shoulder. On the Kindle app, the book covers just float on the screen.
iBooks: Not surprisingly, the loveliest of the three interfaces. It is extremely responsive; pages curl elegantly under your fingers by swiping to the right or left. You can also put a finger anywhere on the right side of the page and slowly drag it to the left, making the page curl slowly under your finger. Stop and the page stops in mid-curl. You can do this from left to right to go back a page too.
Tap the screen and the control settings and other commands pop up. Tap again and they disappear. Hold a finger down on a word and you can instantly find a definition in a dictionary that pops up on the screen.
When turned on its side, the iPad goes from displaying a single page to displaying two facing pages, just like a real book (but with an inflexible spine that users would be ill advised to crack). The full-colour screen is a pleasure too. Reading Winnie-the-Pooh, the famous colour drawings by Ernest Shepard are crisp, gorgeous and well laid out. You could easily imagine reading an e-book together with a child, especially in the horizontal orientation with two facing pages.
Kobo: Not as nice an interface as iBooks, but not bad. You don't swipe the screen to turn the page, you tap it. Tap once, and the page changes at a rapid pace that cannot be controlled by the user. Basically, it just jumps. Accidentally tap the glass, which happens a lot to the clumsy, and there goes the page you were in the middle of reading. To call up the control settings, you have to tap dead centre on the screen. If you're off by a centimetre, the page turns!
And when you turn the device on its side, you don't get the nice facing-page feature that iBook offers.
On the plus side, you can choose whether you want your pages to curl over, flip over, fade out or change without flourish. You can turn on "night reading," which amounts to switching to white text on a black background.
As well, Kobo automatically inserts an elaborate bookmark when you leave the e-book and return to your bookshelf. And users can control the look of their bookshelf and of their bookmarks - you can choose between a tassel, a monkey and a wiener dog, among other things.
Kindle: The Kindle iPad app basically recreates the Kindle on your iPad. The text and images are in black and white, since the Kindle is a black-and-white device, although the iPad app offers the additional option of setting the text and background to "sepia."
Instead of clicking a button to turn the page as you would with a Kindle, users swipe the iPad screen to the left or right.
As always with Kindle, the app on the iPad remembers where your last page was and transmits that information to any other Kindle-enabled device via the wireless network.
The iPad is an ecumenical device when it comes to purchasing e-books; buyers can shop around for the best deal thanks to a selection of free apps, like Kobo and Kindle. This is a nice feature that isn't available on a $259 Kindle, or even on Kobo's $149 e-reader, due out in May.
But while the iPad is commercially catholic, it is downright fundamentalist in the rights department. An e-book purchased from the iBookstore can be read only on an iPad (or, starting this summer, an iPhone). Buy an e-book from Kindle or Kobo and you can read it on all manner of device from all manner of manufacturer, as we've seen here.
And, at a minimum Canadian cost of more than $500, the iPad will be a very expensive e-reader (but only if you're buying it only as an e-reader; it's a better deal if you're into all the other things it offers, obviously). The $149 Kobo e-reader, when released, will set a new standard for low-cost e-readers; Serbinis predicts the low-end price of e-readers will drop to $99 this year.
As well, other devices will eventually come on the market that will, like the iPad, allow users to buy books from a free market of vendors.
All in all, the iPad won't change the game as much as, say, Kobo, which is determined to become the world's leading seller of e-books and plans to do so by allowing its e-books to be read on any device. It's coming at this from the right direction. Apple dominates the digital-music world with the iPod and iPhone, but the iPad will not enjoy the same omniscience with digital books.
Peter Scowen is editor of Globe Books online.