Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

When an ebook isn’t a book: proprietary formats and the iBooks Author app

Source: Mac App Store online

The publishing and technology worlds are abuzz with the news of Apple’s recently unveiled iBooks Author app. And many are already reacting negatively to the news that the app publishes these books to Apple’s proprietary .iba format. As Iris Febres wrote in her post earlier this week, this means that anyone who wants to use these books has to read them on an iPad.

Color me not surprised. But, in truth, I don’t really mind it. Which kind of shocks me: I’m as annoyed as anyone by Amazon’s proprietary format for Kindle.

Still, in a world where an ebook is, increasingly, as unbook-like as can be, I think a closed format might just be the price we pay for the bells and whistles that make an enhanced ebook worth reading.

I have long been a fan of Apple’s in-home media creation software. It lets those of us who will never get near a film studio (or music studio) create our own semi-professional art.

Of course, with iMovie and Garage Band, the amateur director or music producer can “publish” to an open format (a CD or DVD) if she so desires. With the iBooks Author app, we can only publish .iba files to the App Store, meaning that if you want to read my definitive text on llamas, you better have an iPad. (The books can be saved as PDFs for plain text, but as you read more, you’ll understand why I don’t think this is an important aspect of the software.) And that’s why so many people are mad. What’s the point of creating books or educational materials if you have to own a specific (and very expensive) product to be able to get them?

But here’s why I’m not complaining: with all of the features that these .iba ebooks boast, they don’t look much like the traditional, p-book-like ebooks we’ve been buying for our Nooks and Kindles. They function less as something that you read and more as something that you use. 

If you visit Apple’s iBooks Author webpage, you’re treated to a dazzling display of just what you can do with the app.

When was the last time your p-book, or your standard e-ink reader, for that matter, gave you anything that “burst off the page” (since Magic Eye, I mean)? We’ve been able to self-publish standard ebooks through Kindle, and p-books through and other such sites. What we didn’t have was the ability to make enhanced ebook apps through simple drag-and-drop. So, yeah, it’s not surprising that such a thing isn’t available using just any tablet. Interactive widgets in PDF or plain text format? Dream on.

An enhanced ebook is something you can only read if you have the right tablet, and they’re often sold as apps. That’s because of the “enhanced” part. An “enhanced” ebook should be used (or interacted with), not just read. And that’s a large part of Apple’s marketing of this product: they want to make educational materials that go beyond work sheets, which is what you get with PDF and plain text.

Now, isn’t “app” short for “application,” which is almost always specific to a certain platform? You have to buy a specific version of Microsoft Office if you want to use it on your MacBook. But you don’t just read on these applications. You use them, because they do stuff (please excuse my highly technical jargon). An enhanced ebook is similar—you should be able to use it for some purpose beyond straight reading.

To use another analogy, consider the difference between movies and video games. A movie is something you watch. A video game is something you interact with. Now, you can watch a movie on anything that will play a DVD. But you want to play Zelda? You are out of luck with your PlayStation.

And nobody’s mad about this, because traditionally, software and video games are created for specific computers and consoles. (Also because a Wii costs half as much as an iPad.) But when we think “book,” we think of something that should be universal, timeless, and open to anybody. So when a book gets closed off to people who don’t have iPads, we get all up in arms—even if that book doesn’t much resemble its print brethren anymore.

I’m not saying this won’t change as more people buy tablets and enter the ebook market. But it’s not as though there’s no precedent for an application to be platform-specific. Heck, I can’t even use iBooks Author because I run Snow Leopard, not Lion. With most ebooks we do have EPUB as an open format option, but even our basic computer applications are still specific to either PC or Mac. We have yet to enter the universe where any application is good on any computer. Moreover, some applications are better on one system or another even if the “same” one is available for the other (I’m talking about you, Word for Mac).

And I suppose you could make any of these apps available to say, Fire or Nook Tablet users, but honestly, do you think Apple’s going to give away a free app and let any other company profit from its super-cool content? The enhanced part is the key word here, not so much ebook.

So even though I still think a book should be open to anybody who wants to read it, an enhanced ebook might just be one of those things that has to be closed. In order to preserve the integrity of the interactive components that do the enhancing, we might be stuck with system-specific book apps, at least for now.

3 comments on “When an ebook isn’t a book: proprietary formats and the iBooks Author app

  1. Iris Amelia
    January 26, 2012

    Great read! In case you’re interested, Claire, there’s a little hack-ey workaround for getting iBooks Author onto your Mac running Snow Leopard:

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This entry was posted on January 26, 2012 by in Opinion, Technology and tagged , , .

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