eBook Chemotherapy

Amazon recently announced KF8, which adds HTML5 interactivity to ebooks sold on the Kindle Fire (and later other Kindles). In a counterpunch, Apple recently announced the Apple iBooks format (.iba), which adds new levels of interactivity to ebooks produced for Apple’s iBookstore.

It’s not like they’ve abandoned their previous formats, however. They’ve simply added new ones. New ones that are… somewhat proprietary. I say somewhat, because the epub format is at the core of both. I can start with an epub formatted ebook, for example, and use KF8 to generate an Amazon-valid eBook in the .mobi format. An unzipped Apple iBook Author document (.iba) looks like this, with an epub sitting in the middle of the thing, big as life.

[Hint: to get this result, one must Export from iBooks Author, then change the .ibooks extension to .epub. From there, you can unzip the file.]

iBooks Author unzipped package file

There’s been a bit of back and forth between Daniel Glazman, co-chair of the W3C CSS Working Group, and John Gruber, of Daring Fireball, as to whether the new Apple format is a helpful development. (I hope they get to Amazon’s KF8, as well. Because, as I said elsewhere, this is a salvo in the eBook Store battle between Amazon and Apple.)

I think both writers have valid points. As Gruber notes, Apple has created a tool that adds considerable value to its own platform. The output, to say the least, is not only gorgeous but truly interactive. It takes eBooks to the next level. And iBooks Author is Apple-easy to use, of course. But there is one point that Glazman makes about the iBooks Author format that sticks the hardest:

[T]his is a bad strategy because publishers are fed up with formats. For one book, they have too many formats to export to. For each format, they have to use tools to convert (usually from MS Word) that are incomplete and all require manual reformatting or validation. Adding an extra format that is almost EPUB3 but is definitely not EPUB3 output by a software that is an isolated island and does not offer any extra help to reduce the publishing burden is representing a huge extra investment…

Yes, of course this format proliferation isn’t Apple’s fault per se. And, yes, Amazon is doing the same thing (neener, neener, children on a playground, anyone?). But a quick perusal of the Wiki page on eBook formats reveals… 17 different versions, twelve of which are still active. No, wait… Add KF8 and IBA and that makes fourteen… This is definitely the “worse” part of the format war. You will have to create multiple versions of your eBook if you want to sell everywhere.

And remember, too, that Apple considers the Multi-Touch books created by iBook Author as separate entities, requiring an additional contract (Source: iBookstore: Publisher User Guide 2.0, January 19, 2012). So even Apple acknowledges there’s extra work here.

The “better” part? Standards are definitely starting to coalesce around the epub format. The Kindle Fire, for example, is said to support epub as well as mobi. Indeed, epub is the most widely supported “vendor-independent XML-based e-book format,” with a wide variety of platforms supported, from iOS, to Barnes & Noble’s Nook, to the Sony Reader, to a bunch of others.

Overall, though, I would say this is like chemotherapy. It’s supposed to make things better, but right now it really feels bad.

Anti-Trust

I was working at Microsoft when the Justice Department lifted the consent decree during the early days of the Bush II presidency. For all the bile traded back and forth during that time, the news was eerily anticlimactic. There was a small cheer and then everyone just went back to their jobs.

But the antitrust charge was a serious threat that held the potential to break up the company. Bill Gates and others argued at the time that Microsoft’s dominant position was always at risk from emerging technologies.┬áTen years on and we now see that the “bully” Microsoft was perceived to be now finds itself in a market that has largely moved on.

As the worm turns, the next villain in sight seems to be Apple. As Frederic Filloux writes in his latest Monday Note column, Apple seems to have an anti-trust problem. Publishers, in particular, are feeling the squeeze. So much so that there is talk of possible legal action before the European Commission.

The problem, in a nutshell, is the Apple ecosystem as redefined by the iPad. Lots of power now resides in that ecosystem. This has led to a situation where many in the industry simply don’t trust Apple to address their business needs. Some specifics:

The iPad’s sales trajectory has been so explosive that the “joke” in Silicon Valley is that there isn’t a tablet market; there’s an iPad market. If you want to move to the world of digital publishing, this is the device you need to be on.

At present, moreover, the best way onto the iPad is through Apple’s AppStore, if only because native apps offer a much richer experience than web-apps. But the AppStore brings a whole set of its own issues. Filloux says it well:

“Let’s face it, Apple has life and death power over the apps it harbors in its store.”

Given the situation, it’s worth examining the scope of the threat, as well as potential solutions. I think the two are closely aligned. Note that my bias here is toward more publishing options for authors. My ideal is a healthy ecosystem that’s not dominated by any one player.

The Threat Has Its Weaknesses

  • As Bill Gates pointed out more than a decade ago, ten years is a long time in the tech industry. Emerging technologies, as yet unknown, may well disrupt Apple’s current position. Faint comfort, that, but worth remembering.
  • HTML5 is still in its infancy. As it matures, it will take web-apps to greater parity with native apps. This eases the requirement to go through the AppStore to provide compelling content.
  • Amazon is an alternative, albeit with its own set of worries. The Seattle online retailer has been steadily building a compelling alternative to the Apple universe. It is not identical, but that may be its greatest strength. Still, be careful what you wish for.
  • Don’t forget Barnes & Noble. B&N doesn’t have the breadth of Amazon’s catalog, but as a book distributor, they have great depth. Don’t stop at books. This is a case where having several friends is better than having one. Books A Million also comes to mind here.

I doubt any of this will prevent concerned parties from lawyering up. But as Bill Gates pointed out, the technology business is highly fluid. By the time the legal system gets there, technology will have already moved on.

The best strategy at the moment is for publishers to get their own houses in order, so they can take advantage of emerging opportunities. That means aggressively embracing new technologies and alternative distribution mechanisms. And building alliances that spread, not concentrate, opportunity.