Friday, 20 January 2012

iBook Author, Apple tightens and releases the noose

Yesterday Apple announced their assault on the educational text book market. Using the free authoring tool publishers and individuals can create rich interactive text books.

However, Apple impose two restrictions on publication. The first which has been gaining a lot of attention is the publishing limitations. Books can only be published through the iBooks store, and can only be read on an iPad. As  The Register  says the issue is not that Apple is making any claim to the rights for the content but that it will control the only means of distribution.  Apparently there is no technical restriction, as the output form the authoring software is an extension to the ePub 3 standard.

The second more welcome restrictions is that Apple limits the price of such books to a $14.99 ceiling. While this makes the text books far more affordable users cannot pass on or share their copies, and more importantly they have to pay for an iPad as a ticket to enter the market. To take part in this revolution schools will have to invest in Apple in a huge scale. Apple are using the promise of rich and highly functional inexpensive individual textbooks as a further carrot to make the iPad the educational IT device of choice.  One could see the pester power of affluent iPad owning parents pressurizing educational authorities to provide an iPad for every child.

Even although Apple is well rehearsed in starting revolutions, this is one which will take some time to come to the boil, at least within the textbook market. Publishers have to invest time and energy not only in porting their existing publications but also creating additional new multi media content to enliven their publications.  As the US educational market is leading the charge in the mass use of iPads in schools, by far and away the bulk of textbooks will be designed for US curriculums. How long will it take for the UK, or any other individual market, to build up libraries of iBook textbooks?

Despite these issues, perhaps the most interesting aspect is the iBook Author software. The software is full of Apple UI delights and appears to be a powerful yet easy to use tool. Currently Apple has the field to itself. Push Pop Press produced Al Gore’s, Our Choice acclaimed ebook. At the time of its release it looked like they would make their creation tools available to a wider audience. Their acquisition by Facebook  put paid to that.

Adobe are offering their Digital PublishingPlatform which integrates with CS5 and offers a high end, expert solution. Other publishing tools are limited and do not offer the richness and ease of use of Apple’s offering. In effect iBook Author is the first digital publishing tool for the masses. It has the potential to kick off an ebook self publishing movement akin to the desktop publishing revolution of the 80’s. I suspect that it will be in this non textbook market that we will see the most significant short term change.

Now anyone can create rich media digital magazines and journals, children’s books and guides. The restrictions on publishing are lifted if the output is free, as apple’s end-user licence agreement puts it:

 if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means

As long as process of getting publishing approval from the iBookstore is not lengthy then brands could publish magazines, brochures etc through this channel. Busnesses could publish reports and guides etc. Competition will appear as the Apple tool set is copied by others and more open publishing opportunities will become available.  This will put further strain on publishers and content providers as the digital market fragments even more.

One last point, eBooks have only been with us for a limited period. With their advent we have moved from a publishing medium which is static and has great longevity to one who’s lifespan may be measured in decades ( if we are lucky ). Give this, will there be any ebooks,  and by this I mean ones which fully embrace the format, that will have a lasting impact as their paper ancestors?

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