On the Proprietary Nature of the iBooks Author File Format

Daniel Glazman, co-chairman of the W3C CSS Working Group, has a detailed technical analysis of the iBooks Author file format:

The iba format clearly extends CSS (and therefore EPUB3) to offer the following features:

  1. Template-based layout including special areas (gutter)
  2. Extended underlining
  3. Ability to control the size of each column and column gap in a multi-column layout
  4. Something equivalent to Adobe’s Regions and Exclusions.

He thinks these nonstandard extensions are a strategic mistake on Apple’s part:

When a piece of software is so well designed from a UI point of view and could become such an attractor in terms of usage, I feel this is a totally wrong strategy. Opening up everything and using only carefully chosen standards and matching the version of WebKit used by Safari would have given an immense and almost unbeatable competitive advantage to Apple, would have attracted even more people to the Mac platform and would have turned the iBooks Store into the primary online choice of publication for all new books.

It should surprise no one that the co-chair of a W3C working group deems standards compliance to be more important than does Apple. And he may well be right that it will prove to be a strategic mistake. But it’s worth noting that the e-book market leader, Amazon’s Kindle, uses a proprietary format. Eschewing ePub and any sort of standards compliance doesn’t seem to have hurt Amazon. And, up until yesterday, the only e-book format supported by iBooks has been standards compliant ePub, and that hasn’t made Apple the market leader. It’s a small sample size and we’re early in the game, but the evidence to date suggests the opposite of what Glazman is arguing. Kindle, with its proprietary file formats, is more popular than iBooks, which has been based on ePub.

Nor is Apple claiming this new format is ePub. They haven’t asserted proprietary new features or syntax for ePub the way, say, Netscape and Internet Explorer asserted proprietary new tags and features for HTML. The output of iBooks Author is no more intended to be an industry standard than are any other Apple-proprietary document formats — Pages, Numbers, Keynote, etc. This is Apple’s own e-book format, intended only to be displayed (played?) using Apple’s own software running on Apple’s own devices.

As with the end-user licensing kerfuffle, it’s worth noting that the app’s name is iBooks Author, not eBooks Author. Just because there’s demand for an open-standards-based e-book production and layout tool of the scope and caliber of iBooks Author, doesn’t mean Apple has any interest in making such a tool.

Starting with full conformance with EPUB3 and pushing for a fast update of EPUB3 or release of EPUB4 including all new CSS cool kids was a much better, and much more secure way of doing things.

But if Apple had taken this route, the books generated by iBooks Author today wouldn’t have any of the layout features Glazman cited above. The iBooks format isn’t different just for the sake of being different; it’s different for the sake of being better — not better in the future, after a W3C review period and approval, but better today, in the textbooks you can download and read in iBooks right now.

It’s the difference between “What’s the best we can do within the constraints of the current ePub spec?” versus “What’s the best we can do given the constraints of our engineering talent?” — the difference between going as fast as the W3C standards body permits versus going as fast as Apple is capable.

Apple’s concern is not what’s best for the publishing industry, and it certainly isn’t about what’s best for the makers of (and users of) rival e-book reading devices.

In some sense this is like a rehash of the App Store debate — iBooks Author is a developer tool for the iBooks platform. As I’ve said regarding the App Store, Apple’s priorities are as follows: Apple’s best interests first, users’ second, developers’ third. In this case the developers are the producers of commercial e-books, who must now choose between (a) going iBooks-exclusive; (b) figuring out a way to work iBooks Author into a cross-platform production workflow; or (c) eschewing iBooks Author entirely and using whatever other tools are out there, missing out on all the new iBooks-exclusive layout and design features.

If they go iBooks-exclusive, you can see how Apple would love that.

If they choose to work iBooks Author into their cross-platform production workflow, and it proves to be a pain in the ass, that’s not Apple’s problem.

If they eschew the use of iBooks Author altogether and suffer using worse-designed and less-capable tools, that’s not Apple’s problem. And if the book they produce based on these lesser tools and technologies doesn’t sell as well because it doesn’t offer the attractive and fun layout and design features available using iBooks Author, that’s not Apple’s problem either.

(What would be Apple’s problem is if iBooks’s new layout and design features do not prove to be a competitive advantage in the e-book market. But even then, Apple would merely be right back where they were prior to yesterday’s announcements.1)

Glazman looks at these new iBooks books and sees a nonstandard proprietary format. Apple looks at these new iBooks and sees layouts and design features that no other e-book platform offers today. One man’s nonstandard is another man’s competitive differentiation.

iBooks still offers full support for the open standard ePub format. So as a loose analogy, I see ePub being as to the new iBooks format as mobile web apps are to native iOS App Store apps — one is an open industry standard fully supported by Apple, the other a closed proprietary platform with superior creation tools and end-user experience, which if you want to use, you must use on Apple’s terms.


  1. Another possible problem for Apple resulting from its decision to restrict iBooks Author as a tool only for the iBooks platform: resentment from publishers and authors who see this restriction as spiteful and greedy, not as strategic or competitive. Again though, that’s just a replay of the risks Apple took with its restrictive App Store policies. 

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