We’ve known for a while, thanks to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, that Apple was planning something big in the book/​textbook market. Yesterday, January 19th, we found out it was iBook 2. Quoting from Apple’s oh-​so-​subtle press release entitled Apple Reinvents Textbooks with iBooks 2 for iPad, here are the key things that are part of the upgrade:

(1) iBooks textbooks, an entirely new kind of textbook that’s dynamic, engaging and truly interactive […] with support for great new features including gorgeous, fullscreen books, interactive 3D objects, diagrams, videos and photos;

(2) iBooks Author […] a free download from the Mac App Store and lets anyone with a Mac create stunning iBooks textbooks, cookbooks, history books, picture books and more, and publish them to Apple’s iBookstore. [You create a ibook] with Apple-​designed templates that feature a wide variety of page layouts [… and] add your own text and images by simply dragging and dropping, [… you can also] add interactive photo galleries, movies, Keynote® presentations and 3D objects.

(3) iTunes® U app [which provides students and teachers with] access to the world’s largest catalog of free educational content, along with over 20,000 education apps at their fingertips and hundreds of thousands of books in the iBookstore that can be used in their school curriculum.

At first glance, there seems to be a lot in here for advocates of self-​publishing and eReading to like. In particular, iBooks Author could be an incredibly powerful tool for getting students to engage with authorship and course material in an entirely different way — imagine every student making their own custom textbook.

However, when one digs beneath the surface a bit, iBooks Author has a few big problems. These are the two — one small and one big — that concern me…

Problem #1 — Interactivity
Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes that while iBooks make a claim of being “truly” interactive, what that really means is interactive animations…

The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-​on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

I would take this one step further, in that the books that I’ve seen also don’t seem to provide much connection between text and interactivity. Rather than integrating the interactivity into the content in such a way that it becomes inseparable, it largely remains there to illustrate the text. In this way, all we have is dancing baloney sort of illustration within a closed reading experience. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it isn’t a revolutionary interactive experience.

Still even if iBook Author isn’t all that interactive, the promise of providing students a tool to build their own books is a good thing… right?

Not if the book is locked down to the iOS platform.

Problem #2 — ibooks can only be read on iOS devices
The iBook format, .ida, is a proprietary build off of the industry standard .ePub format which can only be read on an iOS device. That means that a student’s work can only be viewed, as it was intended to be1 , within the iOS platform.2 “Taking home” the book you made in class to show your parents requires you to take your ipad as well.

This may not seem like a big thing — especially since we imagine that each student would have their own iPad. However, it doesn’t take much to imagine less affluent school districts where students would share iPads. Or other scenarios where school supplied iPads cannot leave the school campus. Without access to a “home” iPad, that student’s work becomes more-​or-​less inaccessible — even if the family has a computer. Further, if the student wants to share that work within her extended family, all of them need iOS devices as well.

The problem is a closed, hardware based, platforms
The fact that iBooks only work on iOS devices seems to me an exceedingly problematic development for ebooks in general.

The rational — on the surface — for going with a proprietary format, is that the current ePub standard does not currently allow for an ebook experience that meets Apple’s high standards. As someone whose struggled with the limits of ePub, I’m sympathetic to this argument. Especially, if we are talking about typographic nuances and interactive elements, by all accounts iBooks are able to do things that standard ePubs cannot do as well (if at all).

This will surely result in some beautiful ibooks.

However, if we look beyond élite publications, this slavish attention to “experience” makes less sense. Most self-​publishing authors — including students — rarely end up using many of those advanced interactive features that made it necessary to drop ePub. I expect that time will show that, outside of the typographic tweaks hard wired into Apple’s templates, the vast majority of iBooks could have been created as ePubs without sacrificing anything.

And if those books had been “born” ePub, they could have been read on just about any computer, tablet, eReader, or phone available today. Instead thy will be locked to the iOS. In this way iBooks coverts generic content into something that can only be viewed on Apple devices.

Considering that the iPad’s traces its lineage back to the iPod, whose success was based on the cross-​platform MP3 standard, there is a certain irony to this decision.

Beyond the issue of experience, there’s another compelling reason for Apple to do this. As was recently pointed out to me in an email discussion, while Apple makes a lot on content (some $1,571 million in its 2011 fourth quarter!), content only accounts for 6% of all of Apple’s revenue. Almost 70% of revenue in that same quarter came from the sale of iPods, iPhone, iPads, and their related services, carrier agreements, and accessories.

To be blunt, iBooks are about selling iOS devices, not the other way around.3

Thus, there is very little incentive for Apple to develop an iBook reader for Windows or Android, let alone for Apple lap– and desktop computers.4.

For the foreseeable future, expect iBooks to be locked to a hardware platform. And that in turn means that a lot of new, traditionally platform agnostic, content will become locked to a platform for no other reason the artificial restrictions of the platform it was authored on. While that might not seem like much, it’s a very different approach to electronic texts than we have seen up to this point.5 Granted, there have always been technological barriers to reading and writing, but I cannot think of a bigger attempt, in recent memory, to restrict mass-​market reading and writing to a single platform. It may result in a win for Apple, but I can’t help but this of it as a loss for the rest of us.

  1. Apple does provide the ability to export a platform independent PDF of an iBook. However, all of the much touted interactivity is stripped from the book. And PDF is a format that still is primarily intended for print consumption, which means that all of the screen-​reading advantages of an ebook, such as dynamic text reflow, are also lost. []
  2. Additionally, the iBooks Author EULA contains a big “catches” to the distribution of ibooks. While free ibooks can be distributed how ever the author wishes, ibooks can only be sold via the iBookstore. []
  3. see Joe Espisito’s spot on analysis for more on this []
  4. In this way Amazon has a fundamentally different reading platform strategy. While they are heavily invested in Kindle, one must understand that it’s the Kindle platform versus the hardware that Amazon really cares about. In order to reach the broadest community of readers/​customers, Amazon has published Kindle software for every major Computer, Tablet, and Smartphone platform. Kindle books, which typically have DRM applied to them, may also be in a proprietary format, but, to some degree its platform agnostics approach makes it a far more available format to readers than Apple’s hardware locked .ida []
  5. Even during the browser wars of the late nineties, text on a site optimized for a given browser could still be typically read by anyone who visited that site, regardless of their web browser. []