I recently posted a quick overview of Apple’s iBooks platform and wanted to follow up with some further thoughts and specifically address the question of how it stacks up as an alternative to developing a native app.

The quick answer is that there’s no comparison at all — iBooks and apps are entirely different creatures. As anyone with a smartphone knows, an app can be anything: a simple tool such as a calculator or to-do list manager; a high-performance immersive 3D game; a way to find nearby restaurants, bars, or other services. An iBook is one thing, and one thing only: a book (surprise!).

What this means is that content in an iBook is organized under chapters, sections, and pages (you’re free to disregard “sections” and only use chapters and pages, if that’s all you need). The format also comes with a preset UI for navigating the content, so you can’t customize the menu system. Some may view this UI limitation as a reason to go the native app route, but the huge upside to this setup is that you don’t have to consider the costs of the programming hours that always go in to developing a native app.

The first thing to ask when contemplating the iBook vs native app question is, what is the nature of the content? If it’s essentially reference materials made up of texts, images, and audio/video assets, then an iBook is immediately an excellent candidate for delivering a dynamic, engaging, interactive experience on the iPad. Even though Apple launched the platform targeting the education market, it’s very well suited to other industries.

Corporations and NGOs could create historical overviews of their companies. Large organizations that have equipped their teams with iPads might use iBooks for sales or promotional materials. Hotels could create elegant brochures for their business. The interactive elements of the format mean that it’s very well-suited to simple kids books. On the very day Apple made the announcement, Matt Gemmell posted a great list of ideas for iBooks projects which should help anyone see the potential for the format beyond the academic market.

We continue to dive a little more into iBooks here at Plank, learning about some of the specific challenges of working with the format. I’ll aim to post again next week and share some of what we’re discovering. If you’ve got an iPad and want to get an initial feel for what it’s like to browse though an iBook, we made a demo you can download for free, here.

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