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First Look: Apple's new iBooks Author

Working with iBooks Author sections and pages

Laying out new pages of a new iBook works like iWork's Pages, where you must edit the content to rearrange its position within a chapter or section. You can't simply drag around individual pages because your text repaginates across pages.

As you type text into the flow of the book (or import existing text from Word or Pages, one chapter at a time), new pages are automatically created. You can also add arbitrary text blocks anywhere in the page, but this text isn't connected to the text flow of the book. Conversely, you don't have to manually create text blocks that flow the main content of the book from one page to the next; that's done automatically.

Individual chapters and sections behave like Keynote slides, allowing you to freely drag them around the rearrange their order. As you create and rearrange chapters and sections, the Table of Contents automatically updates. Each template provides a selection of chapter and section layout types, also similar to Keynote.

In the classic template, a chapter layout can be a Preface or a Chapter, while the section layouts offer a basic design for a Section, Section Text, Copyright, Forward or a Dedication page. Within a section, a page template can offer one, two or three columns of text.

Embellishing pages

From the basic page template, authors can add arbitrary text boxes, shapes (which may also contain text), tables and charts, all in the same way these elements are added within Keynote or Pages; just drag the item into the page, customize its attributes, define it as inline, floating or anchored with the type of text wrap desired and set a level of opacity, shadow and other features.

Like other iWork apps, it's easy to drop in photos, videos and audio using the standard Media Browser.

Something new in iBooks Author is support for Widgets, an idea taken from iWeb for adding a self-contained bit of interactive content. In iBooks Author, there are a half dozen provided Widgets, including:

Gallery (adds a sequence of graphics with captions that users can swipe between).

Media (embeds an AAC audio or H.264 video the reader can play)

Review (adds an interactive multiple choice or drag to match question for readers to review the material presented)

Keynote (embeds a presentation presented as HTML)

Interactive Image (creates an image with "callout" labels and supporting zooming in for detail)

3D (embeds a COLLADA 3D model that the reader can rotate). Apple says the first-generation iPad "is optimized for viewing 3D objects with fewer than 20,000 moderately textured polygons" while iPad 2 "supports viewing 3D objects in a completed book with up to 50,000 moderately textured polygons." Objects can be set to auto rotate in the finished book, but aren't animated in iBooks Author.

HTML (adds an interactive Dashboard widget to the book).

After a Widget is dropped in the page, you can add accessibility text via the Inspector, which identifies the content when users activate VoiceOver when using the digital book. Other attributes of the widget can similarly be set from the Inspector.

iBooks Author in review

Overall, the new iBooks Author app feels like a natural part of iWork, and what iWeb "should have been." The difference with iWeb is that iBooks Author now targets the iPad with what is essentially a rich, self contained web app that has a lot in common with iTunes Extras and iTunes LP, but extremely easy to create (rather than generating fancy web pages like iWeb, some features of which many browsers had trouble rendering properly).

Just using the built in functionality, iBooks Authors allows anyone to create interactive books, with a focus on creating immersive textbooks. By incorporating standards-based Dashboard Widgets, which are created from HTML, CSS and JavaScript (and can be built using Apple's Dashcode development tool), authors and publishers can develop their own novel types of interactivity.

The new app opens up lots of opportunities for anyone wanting to publish professional looking material with automated reference features (including an indexed Glossary of terms and an easily searchable Table of Contents) and learning tools, and promised to make iPads in education even more useful and customizable.