Apple e-textbook tools to jack up education and hardware costs ultimately?

While the Digital Public Library of America has been fixated on arcane library-and-museum concerns, Apple is unveiling an e-format that might lock in millions of teachers and students in the U.S. and elsewhere

Very possibly the new multimedia book product may ultimately jack up costs in K-12 and elsewhere.

The new format will let students rotate and explore 3D objects, among other features. That’s good. But via hardware-related exclusives, Apple for now is locking up the new related to the hilt, playing up the ease of authoring for the format.

Probable result? Higher hardware prices for schools, students, businesses and consumers than otherwise, or at least slower decreases in costs. And in the contract agreement for the book-creation software, what about this line spotted by Bill McCoy of the International Digital Publishing Forum, the e-book standards-setting group? “If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a ‘Work’), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore).” The good news is that the Apple authoring tool can do ePub. But will that apply to the most advanced features? And has Apple “bastardized” the ePub format? At least one MobileRead reader gave the authoring tool a test spin and thinks so.

Granted, the DPLA already has a lot on its plate. Still, the Apple approach, if it isn’t using ePub in a standard way, is the opposite of the library ecosystem approach I’ve advocated here and here. I wish the DPLA would pay more attention to basics and form alliances accordingly even if it can’t take immediate action here.


Reporting on the new format, Wired says: “Meanwhile, iBooks Author is the trojan horse. There really aren’t many easy-to-use e-book authoring apps, even for plain-text books for Kindle or Nook. And none of easy-to-use applications have been free.

“Now both individual authors and trade and textbook presses can be drawn into a development and publishing ecosystem that begins and ends with Apple. Amazon may offer more eyeballs, but Apple offers an easier workflow. And the multimedia enhancements baked into the new iBooks will tempt everyone creating an e-book to add bits that will be specific to Apple’s platform—creating accidental exclusives.

Um, absolutely accidental? Hardly! I salute Apple’s apparent technical accomplishments but hate the idea of e-book formats becoming even more balkanized. And notice the phrase “easier workflow”? Ease and convenience were among the themes of my ecosystem writings. Apple will offer it for multimedia books. Free nonproprietary alternatives may not go is far. The end result will be more lock-in capabilities for one particular company—meaning very possibly prices of related products, even if Apple’s system apparently will work for free content.

If there’s a technical hook that can jack up profits, you can bet a vendor will use it, be there a DRM angle or another one. Wait. Sure enough, about the iBooks 2 reading app, Wired says: “Disappointingly there’s no move to offer a desktop client for Mac or Windows.” If not? So much for the altruism factor. About the authoring tool, iBooks Author, the word is that so far it’s for the Mac only. No other desktop. The education market is a leading one for Apple.

Please, DPLA, can’t you pay more attention to mundane things like e-book formats and coordinate your act better with the IDPF, the e-book standards group? Let’s turn the nation’s computer sci departments into—in part—R&D labs for nonproprietary standards and authoring and reading apps. Significantly, the DPLA for new is mostly a creature of academia. Here’s a chance to use that fact for the good.

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, I wouldn’t be surprised to see many nontextbook books use the tainted proprietary format and accompanying DRM. This on top of the formats (plural!) at Ouch.

Related: Just spotted, via Peter Brantley’s e-publishing list: Joe Esposito’s essay, reaching some of the conclusions I do. This is a platform war. And consumers will pay—in inconvenience if nothing else—the accompanying costs. Also see views of Vook, an Apple software competitor.

About David Rothman (6820 Articles)
David Rothman is the founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of He is also author of The Solomon Scandals novel and six tech-related books on topics ranging from the Internet to laptops. Passionate on digital divide issues, he is now pushing for the creation of a national digital library endowment.

6 Comments on Apple e-textbook tools to jack up education and hardware costs ultimately?

  1. Yeah, right, the sky is falling.

    Take a few days, do some primary research instead of reading stuff designed primarily to generate ad impressions and think for yourself.

  2. The code for advanced features from iBooks Author isn’t pure ePub, and the MobileRead commenter wasn’t the only one to pick up on the difference. See TUAW ( Care to challenge that? More importantly, I find it outrageous that Apple insists that paid content created with iBooks Author must be sold only through Apple. As an academic, Dr. Lowney, you should be appalled.

    Also, why would Apple bother with this reading system as an exclusive for its hardware if it did not intend to justify the higher prices it charges compared to rivals? Strictly out of altruism? Hardly. Meanwhile, because I lack a Mac, I cannot immediately try the system myself.

    For now, Dr. Lowney, let me congratulate you on your consistency. When I followed the link associated with your TeleRead comments, I noticed that your “media-rich” site advised visitors that “you should…have the latest version of the iTunes application and QuickTime for your platform. ” This is the precisely kind of proprietary approach I dislike in either the book world or the Web one. Even if Steve Jobs’ motives were at least partly commercial, he was oh so right to war against Flash in favor of HTML5.

    While my commentary was written to be timely and is hardly perfect–I refined the original post at LibraryCity–let me assure you that no amount of “research” is going to change my preference for a nonproprietary approach. Significantly, your own career has often been tied closely to Apple products (e.g., “Interactive QuickTime Movies Online: Enhancing the 50 Minute F2F Hour”). You are hardly a disinterested party on these matters.

    Oh, and no hatred of Apple–just mixed feelings. Almost surely I’ll be an early buyer of the iPad 3, based on technical merits such as the high-res screen expected. I salute Apple for honest innovations like that, but will not applaud its new contribution to the Tower of eBabel.

    David Rothman

  3. As an Apple user, and fan, I share the unease about their approach to this software and licensing. I have a feeling that it won’t last and the bizarre restrictiveness of this strategy will force them to change the licensing, but goodness knows how long that will take.

    However the headline of the article is one of higher costs … and having read the article twice now I see absolutely no evidence or clear argument as to why this might be the case. I only see it stated as an unsupported ‘possibility’ repeatedly declared. Without wishing to be too critical of Mr Rothman, I find this kind of unsupported speculative assertion exceedingly tiresome.

  4. David, let me add “get a Mac” to my prescription. 😉 And BTW, QuickTime and iTunes are both free and cross-platform. As well, the formats they play (e.g H.264 and AAC) are open standards. On Windows, installing the also installs QuickTime.

    As an academic who now works with faculty interested in using educational technologies to facilitate student learning, I have no more problem with Apple demanding ROI for a free Mac app that creates eTextbooks than I do with Smashwords wanting ROI for their “meat grinder” service. Ditto for Amazon et. al. This is in the nature of the beast. Educators have long had to find ways and means to repurpose things made for a commercial use.

    Since the focus of NAPCO (parent of TeleRead) is on commercial publishing (see:, I understand why that is a focus here too. We commenters are being productized and that’s OK by me. The trade-off is worth it IMHO.

    The assumption here that eTextbooks have to be commercial products is understandable but unwarranted. We academics can now create eTextbooks that are better at engaging students than ever before. With or without institutional support, alone or in concert with colleagues, we can create and distribute (iTunes U) compelling content that is free to students. That, to me, is the real newsworthy aspect of this event.

    For those who insist on traditional forms of remuneration but object to Apple’s approach, take comfort in the knowledge that this format is already well on the way to being thoroughly understood and easily replicated using other tools. It’s still iPad-specific though so some may want to stick with EPUB 2.1 and wait for eReaders to support EPUB v3. We’re all free to make choices and there are still plenty to choose from.

  5. Surely someone should also be pointing out that the kinds of eTextbooks under discussion and affected by this new launch by Apple are limited to a small media rich kind of eTextbooks. The many eTextbooks that make use only of text and limited graphics do not require a specialised app like this.

  6. Howard: Thanks, but I’m talking about long-term price increases. Proprietary standards tend to raise costs by locking in users with fewer options. Why is Apple so eager to limit paid publishers to its own stores? And why a creation platform just for Macs? Apple isn’t even content–no pun intended!–with just one lock-in. While I can’t provide a direct relationship here, a cause-effect of one kind of another seems probable. The headline used a question mark.

    Frank: “Get a Mac.” Hey, I do admire your enthusiasm. No, a Mac wouldn’t make sense for me right now. Maybe later. I remain grumpy about Windows’s bloat and am now tinkering with Ubuntu (not there yet in terms of blogging software choices but certainly a lot more stable). Meanwhile I”ll look forward to my iPad 3.

    I love the idea of free textbooks and free anything (including nontextbook content that teachers in many situations can use in place of texts for better results). Let’s hope that simple but easy to use creation tools without Apple’s nasty gotchas, but with its dazzle, will be along in time. Meanwhile we’ll agree to disagree in a friendly way about proprietary formats and eBabel.

    Both: I heartily agree that businesses need to be sustainable. But I’d rather that Apple make money without the gotchas. As I recall, the current margins aren’t that horrible.


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