Friday, June 25, 2010

Apple Makes Full Justification Worse in iBooks 1.1

One of the big complaints about iBooks 1.0 was that books were automatically full-justified, that is, spacing was added between words—with no help from a hyphenation dictionary—so that the margins on both side would be even. Honestly, it looked pretty gross, with rivers of white space running down the center of text.

Thankfully, for all involved, it was pretty easy for a book designer to remedy the situation. eBooks are written in XHTML and CSS, and CSS is quite handy at specifying left-justification: text-align: left. Problem solved.

Enter iBooks 1.1 last Monday. Apple hid a switch deep in the bowels of the general Settings that lets readers turn off Full Justification, which is still on by default. Perhaps the idea was to give readers more control, but then why hide it? Who knows how many people will find that switch, my guess is about 14.

Meanwhile, the real damage is that with iBooks 1.1 Apple took away the book designer's power to choose left-justification for their books. Designers can choose centered text, and even right-aligned text, but left alignment is totally ignored (even with !important) It makes absolutely no sense at all. It's bad enough for a paragraph of text, but short lines (poetry or lists) look particularly awful.

Apple's Full Justification is UGLY

And to all those who would trumpet the rights of readers, you should know that the upshot is that MORE readers and not less will have to contend with those rivers of white space running through their books. It's pretty ironic that a company so careful about its own design should have screwed this up so completely. It really does beg the question of whether any iBooks programmer has ever read a book on screen.

Here's what Apple should have done. First, they should make the defaults be anything they want, that's their prerogative. Second, they should let book designers override the defaults so that we can design beautiful books for those readers who are not inclined to design their own. Finally, if they want the reader to have more control, Apple should offer an easily accessible switch to human readers to override both Apple's and the book designer's style choices and, if desired, choose their own. While they're at it, maybe Apple could look into the hyphenation dictionary.


  1. I actually like what Apple did, I like the idea that reader has full control as to how his book should look.

    I don't like how Apple implemented, though. It should have been changeable from within iBooks like the font size and font face. What if someone wants to read one book justified and another left aligned. Why should he/she have to go every time to the system preferences?

  2. @Fred: Sure, readers can have final say, as I describe in the last paragraph. But why not let designers offer a choice? Because, honestly, I don't really believe that readers want to format their own books. And full justification as a default is really ugly.

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  5. Liz, I agree with you 100% that the justification setting should be more accessible. But after that, I lose you. You seem to be saying that Apple should let the designer override the user setting unless the user says, "Um, I really did mean that I want it the way I have in my settings, so I'm going to set it again and hope it stays that way this time."

    If it's a user setting, no matter where it is and no matter how many people know it's there, then it becomes the user's default, not just Apple's. And the truth is, most users wouldn't know enough to toggle it even if it was displayed on the book page.

    Also, I have to say that your example shows a worse case, with a large font size and a double-page view. In normal reading, the wordspacing is certainly a bit excessive, but nowhere near what you're showing.

    By the way, I note that, on my wife's iPod touch, the initial iBooks default is for NO justification, as it should be for such a narrow screen. And here is where Apple's approach really starts to make sense. If a designer set up justification because of how it looked on the iPad, it would look truly horrible on the iPhone or iPod touch. And CSS would not allow a different approach for different devices. So, I don't see how this could be left in the hands of the designer.

  6. Aaron, thats actually good reasoning. I just tested on my iPhone, and youre absolutely right: no right justification.

    The best thing Apple could do would clearly be to improve their hyphenation algorithms.

    Or maybe designers could include the hyphenator javascript, if such a thing is allowed in the iBookstore? (see: )

  7. There are media queries that let designers use different CSS for different size screens. What Apple should do is make sure that its devices support the standard. I'm also totally fine with the reader being able to override the designer's settings, right inside of iBooks (and not in some faraway general Settings panel).

  8. Has a solution ever been found for this?


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