Often I find it difficult to explain why reading should be done through e-books and PDFs are not supposed to be considered as books. However, when I tried to explain, people showed no patience to understand. There is an old saying, ‘while in conversation, most people are way too keen to hear the other person only to react and not to comprehend”. Therefore I will try to explain why PDF is not a recommended choice for avid reading. Before I start, here is the declaration: I still like physical, hard copy books and hence in digital world I need those functionalities and any additions for better.
What is PDF (Portable Document Format)? A simple Google search gives this answer “a file format for capturing and sending electronic documents in exactly the intended format”. One more definition, from derived straight from Wikipedia, “Portable Document Format is a file format used to present documents in a manner independent of application software, hardware, and operating systems. Each PDF file encapsulates a complete description of a fixed-layout flat document, including the text, fonts, graphics, and other information needed to display it.” Both definitions give similar functionality assessment – the format is expected to behave constantly irrespective of hardware and software. So the very objective of PDF is to retain its original format, and make sure only that is retained as far as possible, independent of devices. We have numerous screen sizes and various applications that can support PDF view. All the time it shows up the same way, except for zoom in and out, while accommodating a bit of annotation. Is that sufficient for reading? Probably yes for a few but never for me!
Let us look at couple of prominent e-book formats that are freely available on the market. One is Amzon’s Kindle which supports proprietary .mobi format, while other readers, including Apple’s iBooks application, support .epub format. Because hardcopy books preceded digital books in terms of human invention – we tend to compare everything with what we previously experienced. So we need to make short notes, highlight, underline, bookmark and so on. If we want to migrate away from hardcopy to soft copy, we should be able to retain such features and should be able add a few more. Therefore, any software (or combination of applications) that lacks such functionalities should not be called ‘book’ (rather e-book). I consider the software that can support .mobi and .epub formats – Kindle and iBooks (there are other apps which can support e-books too). File organisation has not been a problem either on PDFs or e-books. However once we open an e-book, we can browse through index pages and based on selection of the topic. The reader can reach to desired page, and topic in a single click using index page. This very function is not possible in most PDFs. Even if the index pages have links to topic title page, coming back is not one click. And this navigation becomes painful in touch devices, because of unavailability of mouse cursor/pointer based navigation.
We would like to make short notes while we read, and it often happens on hardbound books. Same can be done on PDFs through annotation capabilities of various apps. However, e-books can show all the notes in one place, and a single tap/click can take the user right on to the page where notes were written. Highlights, bookmarks and underlines are quite obvious options available on e-books and they also can show up in a summary! These are the functionalities from real world, while e-books made the navigation really convenient. iBooks can change the page orientation to two pagers, single page and even the continuous run down or scrolling view. Imagine you would like to read while lying on the bed and your spouse wants to sleep and hence switch off the light. It is the best experience to read with night mode on – and I really want to know how many apps can switch amongst multiple PDF themes (of course night mode is available in Adobe Reader). Then comes change of fonts both family and size – which is at least not a designated property of PDFs. Paragraph styles, margins and line-spacing can also be adjusted for e-books but I need to know how many apps can do these functions on PDFs. Moreover, Kindle and iBooks can offer adding dictionaries, sharing right from the app, showing remaining number of pages in the chapter, going back to previous location in the book over and over, etc. Most important of all – the skeumorphic feel of page navigation, I need to see how many apps can do that on PDFs.
Is there anything that PDF handling apps do that can not be done on e-books? That could be about saving those annotations or highlight related edits and send to someone else. This also can be done on .epub or .mobi but requires a bit of advanced skills. Next option was – OK, let us convert the PDF to either of the e-book formats. Obviously, file conversions never help and the whole (converted) e-book gets messed up with pages, index all over. You may recall the definition of PDF on second paragraph of this article. If you want to read digital format – buy original e-book and select the format based on the app available on your device. PDF is not e-book.