iBooks Author


There’s something very important to remember about Apple when looking over something like iBooks Author. Apple is a company that rolls. John Gruber put it this way writing for Macworld back in May 2010:

They take something small, simple, and painstakingly well considered. They ruthlessly cut features to derive the absolute minimum core product they can start with. They polish those features to a shiny intensity. At an anticipated media event, Apple reveals this core product as its Next Big Thing, and explains—no, wait, it simply shows—how painstakingly thoughtful and well designed this core product is. The company releases the product for sale.

Then everyone goes back to Cupertino and rolls. As in, they start with a few tightly packed snowballs and then roll them in more snow to pick up mass until they’ve got a snowman. That’s how Apple builds its platforms. It’s a slow and steady process of continuous iterative improvement—so slow, in fact, that the process is easy to overlook if you’re observing it in real time. Only in hindsight is it obvious just how remarkable Apple’s platform development process is.

Apple is a company that relies on iterative improvements to their products that slowly result in something far greater than the initial version. They resist the urge to add bullet points to the feature set until they know the foundation is a solid one.

Take the original iPhone as an example. There was no App Store when the iPhone came out; in fact there was no SDK at all. There was no GPS functionality. The camera was 2 MP and could only capture still images. There was no front-facing camera. The camera had no flash. There was no gyroscope, no compass, and no voice control. It could not even copy-and-paste. It had none of the features that we take for granted in modern Android phones and iPhones. Still, it came out as the Next Big Thing in the phone industry, and it was so divergent from contemporary products – despite the obvious limitations of the initial device – that it instantly garnered consumer fascination. That small, simple, and painstakingly considered device sold 6.2 million units before the release of the iPhone 3G. To date (and not counting iPhone 4S sales) those incremental updates have resulted in roughly 137 million iPhones sold.

The other thing to remember is that Apple begins with tight control over the content surrounding their products and slowly releases their grip over time. At one time, all music in the iTunes Music Store was DRM-locked. Slowly, over time, more and more tracks were sold without DRM until no songs in the Music Store contained DRM at all. The same is true with the App Store for iOS. While fringe cases still exist, Apple is now approving more and more apps they would have previously rejected. Also remember that, when the App Store launched, developers had no option to create “full” and “lite” versions of their apps. There were no in-app purchases, and there were a large number of APIs completely off-limits to them. Again, over time, these restrictions have relaxed. Some – like the requirement that iOS apps only be compiled in XCode – have disappeared altogether.

iBooks Author must be considered in this context: Apple has released a ridiculously focused product where features you or I might want have been ruthlessly cut because they are either not ready or because the don’t yet fit Apple’s larger strategy. They have also released a tool over which they exercise very tight control over the commercial content produced by that tool. It does a few things very well. There are some glaringly missing features, and some aspects of the license agreement are positively draconian. But it’s a solid foundation, and Apple knows how to build successful platforms atop deceptively simple foundations.

Developing Books in iBooks Author

When you fist launch iBooks Author, you’re greeted with a selection of templates. The selection is very small, but each template offers a good deal of flexibility. The choice of theme isn’t very important outside the page color. I couldn’t find a way to change the page color after the template was selected. Unfortunately, there’s no way to see if a theme has colored pages until after you choose it, and there is no way to change the template without creating a new document.

A default chapter layout.

Once you’ve selected a template, the interface will be familiar to anyone who has had experience working with iWeb or any of the iWork applications. It feels like a hybrid including Keynote, Pages, and the all-but-forgotten iWeb. Book sections are arranged at the top of the sidebar with individual chapters organized underneath. Every additional page in a chapter is nested under the initial page, which makes rearranging chapters very easy. You’d have to make generous use of section breaks to accomplish the same mobility in Pages. Also, like Keynote or Pages, it’s possible to edit the master layouts on the fly and apply the changes to your document. iBooks Author brings a slight refinement to this feature by adding an “Apply” button, allowing you to make changes to the master without it immediately affecting other content.

iBooks Author offers a number of other useful features. For example, if you want your book to have an introductory video, simply dragging a .m4v file into the window will pop it right in. From there, you can choose a poster frame, decide whether or not the video will repeat, and decide if you want the video to be restricted to full-screen viewing. The downside is that iBooks Author won’t accept any other format, not even QuickTime’s .mov format. The same restriction happens when you want to add audio. Audio files must be AAC files. Mp3 and other formats won’t import. It’s not a big technical hurdle, but it’s one more step if you’re wanting to include media encoded in other formats.

Creating a glossary.

One feature I really like is the ability to automatically generate a glossary for your book. You can add definitions, related words, and a simple press of a button searches your document for the selected word. It’s a very simple yet competent and welcome feature.

The Review widget in action.

Widgets is one of those features that will feel familiar to anyone who used iWeb. Back when iWeb was still in development, widgets would add functionality like an RSS feed, YouTube videos, Google Maps, and MobileMe Galleries. You could even paste in arbitrary code to add your own functions. The widgets in iBooks Author are nearly identical without the reliance on web content. Using widgets in iBooks Author will allow you to add image galleries, music and video, 3D models, interactive images, Keynote presentations, assessments, and (like iWeb) arbitrary HTML code. These features allow more interactivity within your iBook than that offered by past ebooks. Previously, to include things like these, you’d have to have someone with XCode experience convert your book into a native app and sell it in the App Store instead of the iBookstore. Unfortunately, these same features are what currently prevent books generated in iBooks Author from being viewed in other readers since some custom code is running alongside the more open ePub standard (much like Amazone has proprietary features in its Kindle format).

The Limitations

That brings us to the drawbacks included in iBooks Author. Some of these I’m sure will be resolved in time. Others are probably permanent unless the nature of Apple’s business model fundamentally changes. For people not entirely sold on the Apple ecosystem, a couple of these drawbacks will be deal-breakers, but first some small limitations.

  • As I already mentioned, there is no changing templates on the fly. Keynote can do this. Even iWeb could do this, and it looks like iBooks Author shares much code with iWeb, so I’m not sure how this feature failed to make the initial release.
  • Supported media formats are very limited. Audio and video must be AAC-encoded. Included presentations must be generated in Keynote. Fortunately, I haven’t had any problems with various image formats.
  • You cannot include embedded fonts despite the fact that the iBook format supports this. Only supported fonts are included in the format bar, but opening up the font panel will display all of your installed fonts – even ones unsupported by the iPad.
  • You must have an iPad to preview what your book will look like in iBooks. Since the application is designed for the specific purpose of creating interactive textbooks (which are only supported on the iPad), no option to connect an iPod touch or iPhone are present. Related to this, you can’t view your finished product on a Mac with full interactivity.
  • Exporting your document is limited to text, PDF, or iBooks. You cannot generate a standard ePub file from this application. You can still use applications like Pages or Scrivener for this, however. iBooks Author is not a one-stop resource for all of your ebook needs, nor is it intended to be.

This brings us to the biggest and most controversial aspect of iBooks Author. All commercial content created on the application are tied exclusively to Apple devices – specifically the iPad. Section 2B of the iBooks Author EULA reads:

Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:

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

(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

On face value, this looks similar to Apple’s App Store restrictions, and it is. But one difference is important: in the case of the App Store, this clause is an agreement separate and apart from the software agreement. There is no clause in XCode’s EULA that requires me to sell a Mac app trough App Store. The same is true for iOS apps. I can, if I wish, develop an app in XCode and market it exclusively for the jailbreak crowd (despite the dubious legality of doing so). As Dave Wineman puts it, this kind of control is unprecedented. It is not, however, entirely unreasonable, for Apple has provided its customers with a free tool that could, in fact, benefit their competitors.

If you create an app in XCode, you can’t distribute it on the Android Market. The books generated by iBooks Author – unlike apps generated in XCode – are not wrapped in a proprietary binary. Instead, you have a wrapper around a file that is primarily ePub 3 with whatever CSS and HTML5 liberties Apple took to make the output possible. None of these are Apple-specific standards, and it would be possible for any other ePub reader (like Nook or Kindle) to add support for these features. It would not be a trivial task, but neither would be as difficult as getting an app like Instagram to run on an Android phone as a Cocoa Touch application. The restrictions, unpalatable as they may be, are in place to protect Apple’s interests and investment into this platform. Also, as John Gruber points out, note that the name of the app is iBooks Author, not eBooks Author.

Other Notes and Observations

  • I find it both odd and predictable that Mac OS X has still not received iBooks. I read several expectations that this launch would include a Mac client. It seems, though, that Mac OS X is slowly depreciating in favor of iOS. My unfounded and uninformed prediction is that we’ll see iBooks on the Mac when Apple releases a desktop-class version of iOS.
  • It’s been a while since any of the iWork apps have received an update, and that has lead some to speculate that Apple is prepared to abandon the whole software suite for the Mac platform. Keynote, however, is integral to the iBooks Author experience, and that development environment is Mac-only. So I expect Keynote, at least, will see some updates in the near future.
  • The EULA controversy surrounds output you would want to sell. If a school district has teacher-created textbooks they would want to deploy, there are no restrictions. As long as it is free, you may distribute your files as interactive iBooks anywhere and any way you want. They don’t even have to go through the iBookstore. Non-commercial distribution of work produced in iBooks Author is entirely unrestricted. As David Smith writes, this freedom is as unprecedented for Apple as the restrictions for sold content.
  • Like other customizations they’ve made to open standards, Apple seems to come down to asking themselves what the best is they can do with the standards available and what is it they want to offer their customers. If the standard does not offer to functionality they want, Apple’s engineers will supplement it with their own work.

Apple has released a very focused, very clean foundation for their digital textbook strategy. Yes, there are limitations, but, like the iPhone and the iPad and OS X, those limitations will disappear over time. This is Apple putting forth its vision and seeing how it works and who jumps on board with them. Already, though, Apple’s software engineers are starting to roll with this new platform, tweaking it and improving it in ways both expected and unexpected. It might be a while before we see where this new venture is going, but we can be sure it will keep improving. After barely scratching the surface of what iBooks Author has to offer, I’m pretty excited about it – not only about what it can mean to the education industry (if the financial challenges of acquiring a quantity of iPads can be surmounted), but by what it means for anyone wanting to freely create and distribute beautiful and interactive iBooks.

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