Last month, with virtually no fanfare, Apple released a new app for the Apple TV that brings ebooks to your TV screen. However, don’t expect to read David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton,” or most of the other books in your iBooks library on your 52-inch HDTV. Dubbed iBooks StoryTime, the app is designed for one particular type of ebook: a Read-Aloud book.
A technology used mostly for children’s books, Read-Aloud is one of the names used to describe an ebook that employs “media overlays” as outlined in the EPUB 3 specification. (If you are curious, Alberto Pettarin’s detailed blog post on the format can provide all the geeky details you desire.)
Such ebooks include not only text and pictures but also a recorded audio soundtrack that’s synchronized to the words on the page, turning the book’s pages as it goes. Most Read-Aloud books highlight the text being read, either word-by-word or line-by-line.
Apple sells a variety of Read-Aloud books in the iBooks Store and targets just about all of them at young readers. Note that if you already have purchased such books from Apple, they automatically appear in the iBooks StoryTime collection in the app — Apple has been selling such titles for a while now. If you don’t have any yet, don’t worry, Apple will offer you a free Dora the Explorer book when you first open the app.
As an app designed for young readers, iBooks StoryTime has an exceedingly simple interface. You click to open a book from your iBooks StoryTime library and click to have the app start reading. Depending on the app’s settings, the app reads the book aloud and you just sit back and let it play. A press on the Siri Remote’s Play/Pause button starts or stops playback; a swipe or tap on the Siri Remote’s touchpad turns pages back or forward. For a quieter experience, the app’s settings menu (to see it, swipe down on the touchpad while reading a book) lets you disable the Read-Aloud feature.
Such a minimal interface might still be too much for some young readers, and many parents might be reluctant to put a fragile $79 Siri Remote in the hands of someone who could decide to chew on it, throw it across the room, or drop it in the aquarium so the neon tetras can enjoy the book too. Apple understands such concerns and assumes that enjoying a Read-Aloud book will be a shared experience between child and parent: the marketing line for iBooks StoryTime in the Apple TV App Store says “Experience your kids’ favorite Read-Aloud books together on a large screen.”
Regardless, parental concerns remain. Those who are already concerned about screen time will likely want to avoid increasing that total by adding Read-Aloud books to it. Not many parents have the time or patience to sit with their beloved child for the eleventh trip of the day through “Green Eggs and Ham” — not even with a fox, not even in a box. But is letting iBooks StoryTime take over a parental responsibility a good idea? Is it then just another digital babysitter?
When he learned about iBooks StoryTime, TidBITS publisher Adam Engst expressed some degree of horror about the concept, having spent years reading books to his son (who is now a high school senior applying to college). Adam pointed out that merely having words be visible and read out loud is only the most mechanical aspect of reading to one’s children. Other advantages of doing the reading yourself include the physical closeness of having a kid on your lap, turning the pages together, discussing what’s going on in the book, and varying things like tone, volume, and reading speed. Plus, Adam said he and Tonya read hundreds of different books to Tristan, and although they still have shelves of such books, many more were borrowed from the public library rather than purchased.
It seems that the release of iBooks StoryTime is, first and foremost, yet another way for Apple to sell more media online, this time to young children… and just in time for the holidays, too! Nonetheless, some parents may welcome anything that can help their child learn to read, and as a digital babysitter, iBooks StoryTime may be a better option than many videos or game-like apps on even-more-breakable iPads or iPhones.
iBooks StoryTime could become a hit, but it’s far more likely that it will be just another ebook-related initiative that captures Apple’s attention for a few months before being relegated to a shelf in the back.