I guess I’m going to have to address this issue at some point, so here we go.
Apparently one of the more controversial decisions we made with PocketBible for the iPhone was to follow the other major eBook reader software like Kindle and eReader and present the text a page at a time rather than continuously scrolling. That is, to move through the text of a PocketBible Bible or book, you swipe right to left (or just tap on the right side of the page) to “turn the page”. The new page enters from the right.
The alternative is to present Bibles and books as a long stream of continuously scrolling text and allow you to use drags and flicks to smoothly scroll the text. This method is followed (with some variations) by some other Bible software programs.
You Only Think You’ve Seen Continuously Scrolling Text Everywhere
People tend to point to applications like Safari, which lets you flick around on a Web page to scroll up, down, left and right, and claim that “all iPhone apps let you flick to scroll”. This is true when you have a limited amount of text, but not when the text is virtually unlimited. For example, a Web page is a finite amount of text (and images and whatever). It can be rendered once into an in-memory buffer, then portions of that buffer can be moved onto the screen as needed. More importantly, the overall dimensions of the page are easily determined. The programmer can tell the iPhone “I’ll be scrolling around on a 1391- by 3287- pixel image of this page.” That way, the iPhone knows when you’ve hit the “top” or “bottom” of the page and can do that cool “bounce” animation it does when you try to go past the edges.
Even large scrolling lists — like your list of contacts or PocketBible’s search results list — have bounds that are easily determined. It’s easy to count your contacts or your PocketBible search results, multiply by the height of one contact or search result entry in the list, and tell the iPhone the result. So 25,000 search results times 80 pixels is 2,000,000 pixels. If you go past 2,000,000 the iPhone knows you’re at the end and stops asking for more (in this case it actually stops because you’re looking at the 25,000th item, but down inside the code it’s animating the end-of-list behavior based on the y-coordinate being greater than or equal to 2,000,000).
The iPhone needs to know how tall your view is going to be. The problem with the text in PocketBible is that it’s practically infinite in length, and the time it would take to calculate the height needed is probably measured in hours (or at least in minutes), not the milliseconds you expect when you open a book or change the font/size you’re using to display text. The iPhone needs to know this height and we can’t calculate it in a timely fashion.
There are ways around this, but because we can’t calculate the height in advance we’re violating a built-in assumption the iPhone has about scrolling views. So that means we have to code our own scrolling view or at a minimum do some nasty jury-rigging to fake the iPhone into believing it has a finite-length view when in fact it doesn’t.
You’ve probably run into apps like Facebook which shows you 25-50 items in a list then allows you to press a button to load more. Again, you think you’re seeing a long, continuous list but in reality you’re seeing a short, finite-length list and you have an option to see a longer, finite-length list. You just think it’s an infinitely long list.
When To Load the Text?
Because the text of the Bible or a reference book is so long, it’s impractical to load the whole thing into memory at once (both to determine its size and to have it available for continuous scrolling). So we use techniques that allow us to load the text in pieces. (In our case, one paragraph at a time.) The problem, of course, is that it takes just as long to load the whole book one paragraph at a time as it does to simply load the whole book into memory. To get around this, we make use of idle moments (such as while the view is “coasting to a stop” after a flick) to load some more text. Normally the processor isn’t doing anything during this time, so you don’t notice that we’re loading text at that time.
The problem is that it can take longer than that time to load a paragraph. And you may be furiously flicking through text, not giving us time to do any loading. In these cases, we end up using time that is normally spent to recognize your input gestures. As a result, the system seems to be slow to recognize your gestures, and the motion of the text gets jerky.
At some point, we have to draw the text to the screen, which also takes time. One option is to launch a second thread to draw text that has been loaded and decompressed. But since the iPhone has only one processor with one core, this second thread is no more efficient than the method described above (using idle time on the main thread).
Furthermore, there are limits on what kind of drawing you can do in a second thread. Because the iPhone is a relatively new OS and doesn’t have the maturity of, say, Windows Mobile (which, like iPhone OS vs. Mac OS, is also a subset of its desktop counterpart), there are significant missing components for drawing text in anything but the main thread. Apple assumes you’re going to do all your text rendering with its built-in Web view component. But it, too, is an immature component and doesn’t have all the features we need to support everything we need to do with and to the text. So they give us one really nice why to draw text, but limit it to only being used in the main thread of the application. The text functions that can be accessed from other threads are more limited in their scope.
A Little History
Our initial implementation of PocketBible used continuous scrolling. We released an alpha version (a preliminary release that was nowhere near feature-complete) to a small group of testers in January 2009 with the goal of releasing the finished product in March. Because of all the problems described above (and more), the scrolling was a bit clunky. I actually thought it wasn’t horrible once you got used to it, but the alpha testers hated it and sent us back to the drawing board.
For the next six months I tried variations on when to load text, how much text to load, what thread to load text in, when to draw, what thread to draw in, etc., eventually writing at least four complete, from the ground-up, implementations of loading, rendering, and scrolling text. Late in the process I threw it all away and started again and had a relatively good implementation. We released beta 1 and the testers weren’t happy with the scrolling performance.
This was pretty disappointing. We were tempted to just go ahead with this implementation, but when we tested with the newly released OS 3.0 the performance was significantly worse. Something had changed with the new OS and would have required starting over again.
What do the Other Guys Do?
At this point I paused and did a survey of other similar software. I wanted to see what kind of performance they were getting during scrolling, and if there was anything I could divine from applying a programmer’s eye to the use of their software. I opted to look at general ebook software like Kindle, eReader, and Stanza. I chose not to look at other Bible software because the general ebook readers have larger user bases and well-funded, professional development teams.
What I found was a constant use of a “paging” metaphor as opposed to “scrolling”. This was interesting. If they were “getting away with this” with their enormous customer bases then potentially we could do likewise.
User Fatigue and Reading Comprehension
Within a couple days I had a paginated user interface up and running and for the most part, the beta testers liked it. Sure, there were those who really wanted to scroll. But there were others who actually preferred the paginated approach. They found it required a lot less concentration on manipulating the text and allowed them to focus on reading. Their fingers weren’t in the way all the time. And when they tapped the screen they knew it was going to move exactly one page instead of flicking and having to figure out when/if to stop it from scrolling too far, then having to find their place.
This was encouraging because it gave us some very real benefits to the new approach. Paging required less interaction and less concentration on navigating, thus allowing more concentration on reading and comprehension. And the performance was adequate and the implementation simple.
At about the same time my daughter was complaining about a college class that required them to read hundreds of pages of PDF files from the professor’s Web site. The school made the case that this was part of their “green” initiative, but my daughter found that in order to easily read and mark up the text it was necessary to first print it, thus negating the green argument and costing her a fortune in paper and ink. (Ironically, whereas the school could easily have printed this material on a two-sided printer, my daughter could only print on one side, thus costing TWICE as many trees as the “non-green” solution.)
This led me to do some research on online reading vs. reading in print. It seems to be a consistent conclusion that offline reading (from paper) results in better reading comprehension. One of the reasons that was cited was that the eyes can easily go from line to line and from page to page in print, but when reading from the screen the eyes have to constantly adjust for the motion caused by scrolling. The difficulty of moving the screen to the next full screen of text resulted in the eyes and brain having to continuously re-locate their position in the text. The resulting diminished comprehension negatively impacts test scores and was one more point against my daughter’s school’s “green” initiative.
Interestingly, the results of this research could easily be applied to what we were doing on PocketBible. When you flick the text you have to stop and figure out where you’re at. When you turn a page you know right where to continue reading. If you avoid this by slowly scrolling as you read, your eyes can’t move from line to line as easily as they can when those lines aren’t moving. And your fingers get in the way.
So Where do we Stand?
In summary, the reason PocketBible doesn’t have continuous scrolling isn’t because we haven’t thought of it. It’s because we’ve tried several ways of doing it and none has resulted in acceptable performance.
While pagination started as a second-choice user interface, it turns out it’s used by all the large, well-funded, popular ebook reader software for the iPhone. And it turns out it has documented benefits when it comes to user fatigue and reading comprehension.
It cannot be argued that pagination is “not the iPhone way”. The large, continuously scrolling text often cited as examples of “the iPhone way” isn’t actually as large as our text. And there are lots of similar applications that don’t use scrolling as their user interface for books. So while it can be said that continuous scrolling is an iPhone way to interact with books, it cannot be said that it is the iPhone way.
I’m aware of the fact that other Bible software uses scrolling instead of paging. I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether they do this successfully or just “acceptably” in the opinion of their users. I’ve also heard that some do continuous scrolling within a chapter (thus avoiding the problem of having a large amount of text) but then have another gesture that means “next chapter”. This is great for Bibles but doesn’t solve anything for other types of reference books. And it creates a weird concept of “sometimes you flick to scroll and sometimes you have to do something else” to see the next bit of text.
I don’t have any insight into the other guys’ code so I can’t comment on why they may get acceptable scrolling behavior when we don’t. Maybe their standards aren’t as high. Maybe their code isn’t as feature-rich. Maybe they’re better programmers than we are. In the end it’s irrelevant. We are all playing the cards we were dealt. Knowing someone else at another table has a better hand than I do doesn’t mean I can win at my table. To continue but convolute the metaphor, you can either stay in the game with us or you can go play with someone else. We can’t control your behavior.
We have not disclosed our plans for any future features of PocketBible, other than to say we’re continuously working on it, and that the features you see in other versions of PocketBible will find their way into the iPhone version in the future. We have a long list of must-have features in PocketBible and a long-list of suggestions from all of you. We consider the must-have list to be the more important one at this time. We’ve been implementing little things from the suggestion list as we work through big things on the must-have list, but are prioritizing useful new functionality over simply changing the way things work.
Pagination is a feature that is not broken and doesn’t need to be fixed. While we may look at wasting another six months on scrolling in the future, we’ll do that at a time when it won’t cause other very necessary features to be delayed.
Before You Comment…
This article is meant to be informative, not to launch discussion. We already know that some of you would prefer to scroll rather than page through the text. If you’re just writing to tell us that, then you must not have comprehended this article very well. Try paging through it instead of scrolling.
Furthermore, this article summarizes some complicated programming issues into imprecise layperson’s terminology. Like a paraphrase of the Bible, there is a lot lost in the process. If you are not a programmer and think you have an idea for doing this in a way we haven’t tried, don’t bother to comment. Chances are good you don’t really understand the issues and I won’t be able to tell you that without insulting you. If you’re a programmer and are sure you know how to do this better than we do, I remind you you haven’t seen our code so don’t know what we’re working with, then ask you to send completed, working code to me by email instead of discussing it here where we’ll only confuse the masses.
Comments are moderated. I will remove references to other iPhone programs. I will remove feature requests and off-topic posts. I will remove links to other sites. I may remove other things I haven’t thought of.
Now, other than the above, feel free to comment.