Concerns with Apple’s iBooks Author

Apple’s iBooks textbooks for iPad stakes a position against openness in e-book publishing.

The format of the books is not a standard EPub format. The only tool that can create this format is Apple’s iBooks Author, and the only application that can view it is iBooks. An article on Ars Technica reports that it uses “ePub 2 along with certain HTML5 and JavaScript-based extensions that Apple uses to enable multimedia and interactive features. Those interactive features will only work with Apple’s iBooks app, not with other e-reader software or hardware, because only Apple supports those extensions.”

A post on Glazblog (the author says he’s “Co-chairman of the W3C CSS Working Group”; it would be nice if he gave his name) gives technical details. It uses XML namespaces that aren’t publicly documented, a nonstandard MIME type, and a private CSS extension.

This means you can’t view the books on anything but iOS. If Apple ever drops support for the format, it’s obsolete and impossible to support.

On top of this, the EULA for iBooks Author restricts sale of books created with it to the Apple Store. You can give away your books by any channel you like, but if you sell them, you must use the Apple Store. This means that if Apple doesn’t accept your book for publication, you can’t sell it in that format. (Except maybe in France, as Glazblog amusingly notes.) This is like having a compiler that lets you create software which you may sell only through Petitmol, or a video application that forbids you from selling your movies through anyone but FooTube. I can’t think of a precedent for this.

Authors normally would like to be able to take a book to a different publisher if their previous one loses interest. With books created with iBooks Author, you can’t do that, for both technical and legal reasons. The format isn’t under DRM, though, and the exclusivity applies to the format, not the content. As far as I can tell, you should be able to extract most of the content and republish it in a different format.

Apple’s restrictions make iBooks textbooks unsuitable for assignment to classes, unless the school is willing to give every student an iPad. Those who use other devices would be left out in the cold.

Apart from the restrictions, does Apple’s new format offer anything exciting? My own reaction, from briefly looking at a few sample books on a co-worker’s iPad, is that the interactive graphics are attention-getting, but the most important form of “interactivity” with a textbook is trying things out on your own — playing with the equations, writing sentences in the language, whatever. The best accessory for that is still a pencil and paper.

One response to “Concerns with Apple’s iBooks Author

  1. Hi Gary,
    While I agree that there are some long-term concerns around this new(?) format I’d ad a few points that might make it seem less worrying.
    1. If the format becomes ubiquitous/if there is a large uptake in usage others will support it (just like openoffice did with the closed and proprietary ms-office standards before MS published them).
    2. Large uptake should be weighted higher than properitary-ness as a sustainability factor as there will be more social and political and economic will to continue to support things that have a large user-base.
    3. Given that its apple we are talking about here (and its 2012) there probably will be a large uptake (actually already has been – 350,000 in 3 days already downloaded so points 1 and 2 should mitigate some concerns about this format.