iAnnotate revisited


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about iAnnotate, a document annotation app for the iPad. On Friday, the folks who develop the app left a comment on the blog enumerating some of the changes made to program. In addition to redesigning the document view, the most significant change made it easier to import documents. Now not only can you download documents through a dedicated server that you run on the network (I run it on my laptop) but also from an integrated web browser. This makes it easy to collect PDF files and then to switch back to the reading mode of iAnnotate to read the newly-downloaded documents.

Annotation and navigation are still works in progress, however. In addition to not tracking the pen fast enough for writing, there are a few issues that need to be resolved:

  1. All annotations created during a single mode switch are all grouped together, even if they occur on different parts of the page. It is not possible to edit or erase some strokes (such as ones created accidentally) without exiting the annotation mode, deleting all strokes created in that episode, and starting over. This does not make for a smooth annotation experience.
  2. Highlighting text is still confused by some PDF documents that fail to represent text bounding boxes correctly. In the absence of properly-positioned bounding boxes (something that seems to happen frequently), highlighting does not work at all or leaves unpredictable, sporadic marks, such as the ones shown below.

    It would be better to have free-form highlighting rather than the structured kind implemented by iAnnotate because the freeform version would be more predictable. In the cases when a significant portion of the stroke matches word bounding boxes, the ink could still be constrained to the text to make it “neater.”
  3. Navigation around reading documents is somewhat laborious: to switch to the references section of a paper, for example, I need to either remember the page number I am on, or to create a bookmark to represent the current reading position. Creating a bookmark involves the following steps:
    1. Press and hold my finger on a page to open a pop-up menu.
    2. Select “Bookmark” from the menu
    3. Optionally add a comment to indicate the purpose of the bookmark
    4. Close the editing mode of the text window associated with the bookmark by tapping the close button
    5. Close the text window by tapping the close button again

    Navigation to the references section involves either knowing or guessing the page number, and then

    1. Pressing on the document tab
    2. Selecting “Navigation…”
    3. Selecting “Go to Page”
    4. Entering the page number

    To go back to the reading position requires

    1. Pressing on the document tab,
    2. Selecting “Navigation…”
    3. Selecting “Bookmarks”
    4. Selecting the previously-saved bookmark

    There are tedious operations that can interfere with one’s engagement with a document. Compare this with a paper version that lets you keep your place with a thumb while temporarily flipping to another portion of the document. Since the kind of reading supported by the application often involves intra-document navigation, better support for this common activity would increase the usability of the tool.

  4. Transferring files from the server is still somewhat problematic, as the client often fails to find the server. This may be a problem with the network integration between the iPad and my domain, but it is still troubling. Despite Bonjour running on my ThinkPad, auto-discovery does not work, and specifying the IP address doesn’t seem to help when I am at home with a VPN connection open on my laptop.

In my paper for the Books Online 2008 workshop, I had compared the Kindle and the iRex Iliad for usability with respect to active reading using the familiar Consumer-reports style rating system with colored circles. Here I reproduce that table with an extra column for the iAnnotate application on the iPad. See the paper for more details on the various criteria. If you don’t have access to the ACM Digital Library, a version of the paper is available on the FXPAL web site. The upshot is that the iAnnotate app is a lot better than the (older) Kindle, and somewhat better than the iRex Iliad. It does, however, still have a lot of room for improvement.

Kindle iLiad iAnnotate on the iPad
Reading Download books Through Kindle store Through a PC from MobiPocket or other source N/A
Download documents Only through e-mail WiFi/USB/memory card From web or server on the network

From the web while using an internal browser

Document formats Pre-processed, re-flowed PDF Kindle books Regular PDF, image formats
MobiPocket books
Regular PDF only
Annotation Types Text highlighting;

Limited number per book due to DRM concerns

Digital ink Text highlighting

Digital ink

Text notes

Use Can export text; cannot manipulate On-device annotations shown when document is shown; cannot filterNeed PC software to create annotated document on PC On-device annotations shown when document is shown; cannot filterCan export marked-up PDF
Quoting Saved clippings (same as annotation) Not supported Not supported
Comparing One page at a time One page at a time Can switch among several tabs
Information Seeking Searches contents, the Amazon store, Wikipedia, and the web. Searches for file names only Simple keyword search across documents, filename search, tags
Note taking Text only Text and ink; handwriting recognition; various notepad templates Text notes on document only. Hard to write with free-form ink
Sharing Hard to share Can export files to computer Can export to computer or via e-mail
Mobility Physical factors Lightweight
Controls: next/forward buttons are too easy to press by accident
A bit heavier to hold

Page turning control is too sensitive

A bit too heavy to hold for prolonged periods, but one can rest the device easily on one’s lap.
Context awareness None None Limited ability to discover document servers

Comparison of Kindle and iLiad devices. Legend:  Excellent, Good, Neutral,  Poor,  Bad. Note that the Kindle comparison is with respect to the older Kindle.


  1. Is it the case that we should expect a touch device to ink and annotate like pen and paper? I think one should rethink how annotations should happen on the iPad, rather than redo what we know about pen tables.

  2. I think there are two separate points here: the first, is how to leverage the established free-form annotation work practice on a device designed to be used with a finger, and the second is how what aspects should be considered in future designs of similar devices.

    The first question may be answered by exploring what subset of free-form annotations (e.g., highlighting) can be applied cleanly to a touch tablet. The answer to the second question lies in the feasibility of making hybrid devices that can distinguish not only between touch and multi-touch, but also between finger and stylus.

  3. Exactly. In my notes I take on paper theres a quite a bit of in-exactness. iAnnotate attempts to be super precise. Thats where my frustrations arise with that app in particular.

  4. Hi Gene,

    I’m an engineer at Aji. First, I wanted to thank you for this thorough review of iAnnotate! (This type of feedback is very valuable to us in our efforts to improve it.)

    Regarding some of your specific issues above, I wanted to make a few comments:

    1. We’ve recently added a feature to allow undoing of mistakes you make while annotating. While still in annotation mode, you can tap on the annotation you’ve just made to bring up a context menu. One of the options in the menu is “Delete” which will delete (undo) the most recent part of the annotation you added. (I know, it’s not the most intuitively named button.) So for example, if you are underlining and accidentally tap on a part of the screen where you did not intend, you can undo this part without exiting annotation mode and deleting the entire thing. We realize this isn’t yet ideal, but we hope it is a step in the right direction. We’re working on making this even more usable for future releases.

    2. We will soon allow changing the thickness of the line created by the free-form pencil (finger) annotation. This, combined with the already-existing ability to adjust the ink’s transparency, will hopefully allow for the free-form highlighting you are describing. This is currently scheduled for later this summer.

    3. This is a really interesting use case; one we’d like to support much better! Do you have specific UI suggestions here? (One we’ve considered in the past is allowing the same document to be open in multiple tabs such that you can keep your place in one tab while you navigate to another in the other. This is tricky for technical reasons, but if it seemed like it might help in the use case you highlight above, we might bump its priority.) Other ideas?

    4. We’d be happy to try to trouble-shoot this with you via our support team if you want to email us about it.

    Finally, regarding distinguishing between finger and stylus, do you think having a setting for the speed of finger annotations (either a slow/fast switch or a slider) would be helpful?

    Again, thanks for your review and the feedback. We hope that we can continue to improve your experience with iAnnotate!


  5. […] same idea — write on a zoomed out image & then shrink the ink — works great on the iAnnotate app as well, although the interaction is not really optimized for that the way that Briklin’s app […]

  6. […] of existing iPad applications with respect to active reading. In this spirit, I have reviewed iAnnotate, and have written about e-books in general. Mekentosj Papers is a Mac application for managing […]

  7. Mark Taormino says:

    I’m interested in the free-form annotations that could be supported by the combination of ipad hardware and iAnnotate software. First, is the iPad a capacitive touchscreen? If so, can a stylus be used rather than ones finger? I can’t imagine annotation without a stylus due to limited screen real estate. Using ones finger would require too much dexterity as not to obscure the underlying text while writing. I have read that capacitive screens generally do not work with a stylus yet I’ve seen capacitive stylus’s for sale, so I’m mighty confused! I would greatly appreciate a little more background on the limitations of capacitive screen technology, if any. I’m new to all of this.

    Also, there are many new Android tablets set for release in the fall. Of course, they will try to compete with the iPad. Velocity Micro has two tablets set for release; one with a resistive screen designed as an e-reader, and one that is a tablet with a capacitive screen. I am curious if the iAnnotate app will be available for Android devices, and the specific type of touch screen technology that would best support the use of annotations using the iAnnotate software.

    Thanks in advance for educating me on this interesting topic!


  8. I have used a Pogo stylus with the iPad, and it works a bit better than the finger for writing. Unfortunately, it is too thick (as required by the digitizer) and still blocks a fair bit of what it’s writing.

    In short, one really needs a resistive screen that can accommodate a pointy stylus for proper writing. On the other hand, the fat stylus or the finger works reasonably well for highlighting or for coarse (large) ink marks.

  9. […] rectangles with the first few words visible without opening it. This is an improvement over the iAnnotate note that either obscures the text it overlays or is reduced to a small icon that does not show any […]

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