iBooks caveats • 21 January 2012 • The SnowBlog

iBooks caveats

Imagining a new way of learning and then seeing someone build it (and show it off in a slick, glossy video) is a very exciting experience (as I mentioned in my last post). Last night I did a bit more reading about the iBooks 2.0 format on which this new Apple interactive textbook platform is based and I'm now 30% less enthused. Maybe as much as 60% less. It's difficult to get a really accurate figure until the field of neuroscience advances a little, but suffice it to say the latest weather forecast for the iBooks parade now includes rain. When I started getting excited about iBooks Author, the program Apple has just released for creating these interactive textbooks, it was largely because I thought they were building an ecosystem in which the textbook industry could make their new home. And perhaps they will. But this first version appears to be a closed system: you use an Apple program to make a book you can only read through Apple's iBooks software and can only sell through its iBooks store. And you can't easily carry over the work you've put into that book into a version that works elsewhere because you can't export your designs into other, more open formats. And since the iBooks 2.0 format is chock full of undocumented features it's going to be very difficult for anyone to write a conversion tool. Sad face. I learned about this because clever internet people have already pulled the back off the iBooks 2.0 format and started tracing the wires. What they've found is an e-book format based on ePub3 - which should be good news, because it's an open standard likely to be very widely adopted. And when you consider that ePub3 in turn is based on HTML5 and CSS3, the new standards for the World Wide Web itself, that sounds like a great starting point. The bad news begins with what Apple have done to ePub3. Because in its standard form it didn't allow the functionality they wanted, they extended it and in doing so added lots of their own unorthodox syntax - syntax that would not just be ignored by ePub readers but would almost certainly trip them up. Apple also opted to achieve lots of the clever animations and interactivity using little programs, called 'gadgets', that they wrote themselves and which are basically black boxes as far as the rest of the industry is concerned. The neighbourly way to add cool new features to web sites (and so logically the way to do the same in a format based on web standards) would have been to write those gadgets in JavaScript. That's how Google Maps and GMail do all sorts of things that no web page ever did before. But iBooks 2.0 doesn't go down that route. It adds in lots of custom-built modules that only Apple understand and controls them with lots of custom-built syntax that Apple haven't documented. I have to say, based on these revelations, this first iteration of iBooks textbooks is sounding like a very beautiful dead end. I'm particularly disappointed that the EULA apparently prevents you selling the books you create with iBooks Author anywhere other than the iBooks store. It all seems a little short-sighted to me. Given that most people will want the option to read textbooks on something hand-held rather than a laptop or desktop, it seems to me that this is all about iPads. iPads are fabulous and they've sold very well, but I can't see most publishers committing to them so thoroughly and exclusively at this stage. It's early days yet, but this seems like a mis-step to me. This is the sort of behaviour we used to get from the bad old Microsoft who were always trying to slap the handcuffs on their customers to stop them wandering away. And Microsoft too were insouciant to an extent that seemed like actual contempt towards open standards that the rest of the technical world had painstakingly built. We're still living with the legacy of Internet Explorer which seemed designed to lock its users into Microsoft products by locking out any regions of the web that were based purely on internationally agreed standards. It's a shame if Apple are now trying the same thing. Apple clearly had to go beyond existing standards if their interactive textbooks were to do all the cool things Apple wanted, and it's great that they began their work from the base of ePub3. But they appear to have built a cramped little 'walled garden' where you can't get outside content in and you can't get inside content out. You have to use an Apple product to put together an Apple book and then you have to read it on an Apple device. That sounds like far too much 'lock in' for a new platform. And unless they start building some doors into their walled garden I don't see iBooks textbooks being anything other than a beautiful novelty. Read more analysis here at Baldur Bjarnason's website and check out the links at the bottom of the page for lots more detail from him and others. P.S. I've been rather harsh and dismissive about the fact that Adobe haven't provided decent e-book creation tools yet - despite making the dominant DTP app - and I continued to be critical of them when I first saw iBooks Author because it looked like they were allowing Apple to set about eating their lunch on a persistent and ongoing basis. But perhaps Adobe still have a chance. If they're frantically working on something that helps the majority of the publishing industry produce this and the next generation of e-books then they might still be in with a chance. And I'm not talking about a clunky add-in to InDesign like their current e-book export fudge. P.P.S. Amazon have just released the first round of tools to allow the outer tier of publishers (i.e. those not on best buddy terms with Amazon) to start producing KF8 e-books that will run on their Fire tablet and presumably elsewhere. When I get a minute I'm going to take a look at those tools and report back on what I find. Take a look for yourself if you haven't already. link


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