iBook: Apple at It's Worse

Apple’s greed has passed the threshold for anticompetitive behavior that makes them evil. No company wants to compete in an open market, but Apple is going the extra mile to eliminate competition.

This I conclude from three distinct moves:

  1. Apple long ago blocked third party document innovation on their devices
  2. Their new iBook format is built as proprietary extensions on the shoulders of ePub
  3. Any content produced with it’s new, free iBooks Author tool can only be used on Apple devices

You wouldn’t think Apple would need to limit competition with earnings results such the ones they announced today, but I guess when you’re big, the only way you can grow your value is to bite off new markets to own.

Proprietary iBook Format

Adobe added the Flash plug-in to web browsers because HTML and browsers were simply not capable of advanced features. There really was no other way to improve browser experience, because the W3C moved and still moves too slowly. Flash was and still is way ahead of it’s time. But now, largely because of Steve Jobs reality distortion, Flash is viewed as evil and proprietary and is shunned by the industry.

Apple in particular has come out against Flash and it’s proprietary nature and has said the web should be based on open standards. And when the iPad was introduced they stressed how they supported the open web and how for e-books “the iBooks app uses ePub, the most popular open book format in the world”.

Yet, in what could be called a bait and switch, Apple is now moving in the exact opposite direction and extending ePub in a proprietary and incompatible direction, even including support for Apple Keynote presentations. The new K-12 text book format is then to be an Apple proprietary format? As Ed Bott writes:

What’s most infuriating … about all this is that Apple had an opportunity to play fairly and still win. If the interactive capabilities in the new, enhanced iBooks format are so compelling, the resulting books should be able to compete on their own in the marketplace.

The move appears particularly evil given that they’ve also banned third party document innovation on their devices, essentially putting themselves in full control of any important formats. That means nobody else is allowed to do what they are doing, which is to make a richer ebook format for the iPad.

Apple owns your work

Apple has also controversially said that any e-books generated with its new iBook Author tool can only be sold through the Apple store. This invites antitrust concerns. Locking authors in at the WYSIWYG tool level places an enormous burden on publishers to produce the same content using multiple WYSIWYG word processing tools. This goes in the exact opposite of tools such as Framemaker, Quark and InDesign that support rich authoring flows and allow you to author once for multiple output targets. Apple has decided that cross platform is not only bad for apps but also for documents.

To be fair, I have not done my homework on whether iBook Author could be used as a simple final-step packager in an automated publishing flow, nor whether it would be possible or easy for 3rd party tools to produce Apple’s new iBook format. I also don’t know with certainty whether the proprietary extensions could be made to run on other platforms. For instance, if the extensions really are embedding Keynote presentations, will other platforms require a resident Keynote player, or will there be other license restrictions that are tied to the format?

Apple has put themselves in the control position. They are controlling the format, which means everyone else is following and can’t be leaders. They’ve done this not by open competition but by restricting other formats that were more evolved. As Apple’s devices become more popular for general reasons of appeal, this puts them in a huge monopolistic position. Certainly the model for producing K-12 text books for our children should not be one of using a tool that locks you into selling for only one device using a format that is only compatible with one device.

In what has become a bit of a pattern, I suspect Apple may have overstepped intentionally so that when antitrust agencies start making noise they will have a comfortable position to back off too. In this case they will likely remove the restriction that iBook Author can only be used to generate content to be sold through the Apple store. But that will still leave the biggest issues on the table, which is that they’ve introduced a rich proprietary format for their devices that requires their tools to produce and won’t allow anyone else to do the same, standards of the world be damned.

I can’t reiterate enough how bad it is to be eliminating competition on what is by far the most common tablet in the world, with 52 million sold to date. This completely locks out any other major software developers from innovating in this space. As iPad comes to dominate it will also ensure that there are no new competing file formats, which means the progress of technology advancement is determined by Apple and no one else, and they get to charge whatever they want for others to play. We are on the verge of a shocking reality, which is one company controlling document innovation and distribution, software innovation and distribution, and media distribution and collecting what tax it will.

Update

Apple has clarified that they own all content produced with iBook Author, but only if the output format is .ibook and you are selling it for a fee. Does iBook Author output to other formats (I don’t know)?

Ars technica reviews iBooks Author and concludes “A promising start but only worsens Apple’s reputation for lowering the bar for digital typography and being a heavy-handed publisher.”

Comments