Developer Week in Review: Early thoughts on iBooks Author

The impact of iBooks Author, free vs usability, and Microsoft wants developers to level up.

One down, two to go, Patriots-wise. Thankfully, this week’s game is on Sunday, so it doesn’t conflict with my son’s 17th birthday on Saturday. They grow up so quickly; I can remember him playing with his Comfy Keyboard, now he’s writing C code for robots.

A few thoughts on iBooks Author and Apple’s textbook move

iBooks AuthorThursday’s Apple announcement of Apple’s new iBooks Author package isn’t developer news per se, but I thought I’d drop in a few initial thoughts before jumping into the meat of the WIR because it will have an impact on the community in several ways.

Most directly, it is another insidious lock-in that Apple is wrapping inside a candy-covered package. Since iBooks produced with the tool can only be viewed in full on iOS devices, textbooks and other material produced with iBooks Author will not be available (at least in the snazzy new interactive form) on Kindles or other ereaders. If Apple wanted to play fair, it should make the new iBooks format an open standard. Of course, this would cut Apple out of its cut of the royalties as well as yielding the all-important control of the user experience that Steve Jobs installed as a core value in the company.

On a different level, this could radically change the textbook and publishing industry. It will make it easier to keep textbooks up to date and start to loosen the least-common-denominator stranglehold that huge school districts have on the textbook creation process. On the other hand, I can see a day when pressure from interest groups results in nine different textbooks being used in the same class, one of which ignores evolution, one of which emphasizes the role of Antarctic-Americans in U.S. history, etc.

It’s also another step in the disintermediation of publishing since the cost of getting your book out to the world just dropped to zero (not counting proofreading, indexing, editing, marketing, and all the other nice things a traditional publisher does for a writer). I wonder if Apple is going to enforce the same puritanical standards on iBooks as they do on apps. What are they going to do when someone submits a My Little Pony / Silent Hill crossover fanfic as an iBook?

Another item off my bucket list

I’ve been to Australia. I’ve had an animal cover book published. And now I’ve been called a moron (collectively) by Richard Stallman.

The occasion was the previously mentioned panel on the legacy of Steve Jobs, on which I participated this previous weekend. As could have been expected, Stallman started in describing Jobs as someone who the world would have been better off without. He spent the rest of the hour defending the position that it doesn’t matter how unusable the free alternative to a proprietary platform is, only that it’s free. When we disagreed, he shouted us down as “morons.”

As I’ve mentioned before, that position makes a few invalid assumptions. One is that people’s lives will be better if they use a crappy free software package over well-polished commercial products. In reality, the perils of commercial software that Stallman demonizes so consistently are largely hypothetical, whereas the usability issues of most consumer-facing free software are very real. For the 99.999% of people who aren’t software professionals, the important factor is whether the darn thing works, not if they can swap out an internal module.

The other false premise at play here is that companies are Snidely Whiplash wanna-bes that go out of their way to oppress the masses. Stallman, to his credit as a savvy propagandist, has co-opted the slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement, referring to the 1% frequently. The reality is that when companies try to pull shady stunts, especially in the software industry, they usually get caught and have to face the music. Remember the furor over Apple’s allegedly accidental recording of location data on the iPhone? Stallman’s dystopian future, where corporations use proprietary platforms as a tool of subjugation, has pretty much failed every time it’s actually been tried on the ground. I’m not saying corporations are angels, or even that they have the consumer’s best interests in mind, it’s just that they aren’t run by demonic beings that eat babies and plot the enslavement of humanity.

Achievement unlocked: Erased user’s hard drive

Sometimes life as a software engineer may seem like a game, but Microsoft evidently wants to turn it into a real one. The company has announced a new plug-in for Visual Studio that lets you earn achievements for coding practices and other developer-related activities.

Most of them are tongue in cheek, but I’m terrified that we may start seeing these achievements in live production code as developers compete to earn them all. Among the more fear-inspiring:

  • “Write 20 single letter class-level variables in one file. Kudos to you for being cryptic!”
  • “Write a single line of 300 characters long. Who needs carriage returns?”
  • “More than 10 overloads of a method. You could go with this or you could go with that.”
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  • http://www.y42k.com Ray Charbonneau

    Re: iBooks. An even more obvious lock-in by Apple that you missed? You need a Mac to run the new publishing tools. That might work for apps developers, but authors aren’t going to buy a new computer to publish a book when there are other ways of getting it in the iBookstore.

  • http://www.y42k.com Ray Charbonneau

    Even worse, in the EULA:
    “IMPORTANT NOTE:
    If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.”
    In other words, you can’t take the book and sell it on Amazon or in bookstores. Now THAT’S lock-in!
    See:
    http://venomousporridge.com/post/16126436616/ibooks-author-eula-audacity

  • http://www.hablantia.com Peter Bennett

    Hi – thanks for the article

    I’m not sure that the restrictions in iBooks Author are completely clear yet. As I understand it:

    1) you can write things for iBooks using html5 / javascript which can mimic all the native functionality of iBooks Author
    2) iBooks author allows you to export files as pdf docs (although I’m not sure how rich that format is compared to the iBooks one)
    3) they are restricting anything written on iBooks author in iBooks format to publication on the iPad

    I think that 3 is the most interesting as it would be straightforward to reverse engineer or do a clean room implementation of the iBooks format (as has been done with Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Java, .Net etc.)

    But if I as a writer were to allow my book to be published on an Android-based reader of the iBooks standard, then that would give Apple the ability to kick me straight off the AppStore.

    The next step for Apple is to require you to publish exclusively on iTunes…

    As long as you can publish to iBooks using html5 then the door to Apple’s walled garden is still ajar….

    And what is Adobe up to? Watch this space….

  • http://www.softwareindustryinsights.com Glenn Gruber

    James, et al,

    You miss a few points about iBooks and lock in:

    • Apple is one of the biggest supporters of open standards both in terms of ePub and WebKit. Amazon has their own proprietary standard yet I don’t see that referenced. Fair is fair.
    • As @Peter mentions, Apple still supports ePub and PDF export which does not have to be sold in iBooks, but provides a lesser experience.
    • iBooks Author is a free tool for the express purpose of building for the iBooks platform which offers a great interactive experience. Other publishing tools can be very expensive. Is this an unfair tradeoff?