There's been a lot of heat and fury surrounding the iBooks Author terms and conditions ever since the service was introduced last week. To boil the controversy down to basics, Apple has introduced a private protocol extension that takes EPUB to the next generation. And then they created a business model that uses this proprietary technology to monetize commercial transactions. This runs right in line with my predictions from earlier this month.
This decision, to build a proprietary format on an open standard, has led to a lively debate about whether a member of an open standards organization should be creating private standards like the .ibooks format or AirPlay. And, to be fair to Apple, to even realize that this proprietary format is based on an open standard, you actually have to crack open the files and expose the EPUB underpinnings. Apple wasn't exactly announcing how they did things last week at the educational media event.
From a tech point of view, the .ibooks format itself is exciting stuff. It takes a major step forward, blending HTML 5 tech directly into ebooks and unifying books with the complete iWorks suite.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that "I believe that Apple should be leading a revolution in embedded live book elements with video, programmable app and web integration, and more (Think "Khan Academy" as books, for example). Why aren't we seeing both the specs and the tools with Apple trailblazing forward?"
Today, that reality is here, with iBooks Author. I know several people who are already using the Khan Academy material. And because Apple moves the format forward so much from the open standard it was based upon, developers should have no issues with Apple making the updated version private.
If you thought Dashcode was an optional Xcode extra not worthy of notice, now's a great time to reassess. At the risk of being hit with rotten vegetables, the "sweet solution" of 2007 has now come into its own: 1960's? Plastic. 2010's? HTML 5. With smart coding, you can embed entire applications into iBooks.
Scarily accomplished developer Steven Troughton-Smith recently managed to embed a playable version of his classic iOS app Lights Off inside an iBooks book using a Dashcode widget written with HTML 5. "This is the first time Dashboard widgets have worked on iOS," he points out.
What's more, he tells me that some developers have gotten the WebOS app framework (Enyo) and Cappucino to run inside their books. In terms of creative expression, this is a huge development with nearly limitless possibilities. Troughton-Smith said, "It will be absolutely epic for designers and developers making portfolios, or perhaps a book that reviews apps and contains mini versions, or whatever."
So yes, Apple intends to control the sole paid delivery portal for this technology, freely offering the tool to create new .ibooks files, taking a 30% cut of all commercial material developed using this specification. At the same time, they're the ones who are developing both the authoring tools and the distribution apps on their own nickel.
I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that I believe that Apple is moving forward in a smart and well-calculated fashion. While Amazon's KDP Select program created exclusivity due to legal agreements and shared profits, Apple is building its own kind of proprietary author cadre based on new and forward-looking technology.
Absolutely no one will be forced to use the new .ibooks format or the tools that create those files. If you wish to publish a non-exclusive EPUB on the iBooks store as well as on Amazon, Nook, etc, you are welcome to do so. Nor do I personally think that Apple will come after anyone who shares material between .ibooks editions and EPUB ones. I am, obviously not a lawyer, but I believe Apple is protecting and charging for use of its format, not aggressively seizing content.
On the whole, I have been deeply pleased with nearly everything I have discovered in iBooks -- from its media support to its strong accessibility extensions.
[Update February 3rd 2012: Apple's terms and conditions now clarify "If you want to charge a fee for a work that includes files in the .ibooks format generated using iBooks Author, you may only sell or distribute such work through Apple, and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple. This restriction does not apply to the content of such works when distributed in a form that does not include files in the .ibooks format."]