Apple’s iBooks Author, Interactive Textbooks, and All That Jazz

Below is an article that I wrote for MacTalk a few weeks ago. Thought I’d post it up here for posterity. Published without pictures unlike the MacTalk version.

Alternatively, Apple’s latest foray into the big bad world of education (and why it matters).

I’ve now had the whole weekend to think about what Apple’s education event means. Somewhere between the new Star Wars MMO, some epic rounds of Battlefield 3, and something that I’m calling “general internet procrastination”, I’ve thought about the implications for the education sector that this event has wrought.

As a quick recap, Apple released iBooks Author for the Mac alongside a plan to shake up the textbook industry as we know it (also featuring the iPad, iTunes U, and a few big-name publishers). There are those that think Apple don’t care about pros anymore, but Apple’s education event held in New York was proof enough that (and perhaps now more than ever), Apple cares about education.

What happens when you can’t see the forest for the trees?
Before we get into the meat of what all this really means for the future of education as we know it, I’d like to dispel a few misconceptions about iBooks Author that seem to have cropped up.

Firstly, there’s a few people getting caught up in the iBooks Author EULA, and how it apparently (depending on your preferred interpretation) dictates, totalitarian-style, what you can and cannot do with the app. Specifically, people have their underpants in a twist over the fact that books created using iBooks Author can only be sold via Apple; the question is, is that actually so unreasonable? Some say the whole situation draws certain parallels to the similar iOS/Mac app and Xcode equivalent, but others still say that’s different because Xcode doesn’t attempt to dictate what you can and cannot do with output from that app — iBooks Author, on the other hand, does. If we’re being really pedantic, there are even those that liken the iBooks Author EULA terms to what would happen if Adobe said you could only use files originating from Photoshop in a certain way. Those people are pretty far off the mark.

Let’s get one thing clear: Apple isn’t taking your copyright away.

Your content that you put into the app is still your content, you still retain full copyright of whatever material you put into an iBook, and pigs still don’t fly. Frankly, I think the whole “iBooks Author is telling me what I can and can’t do with files I produce using the app” is just a cry from those who are overly concerned about proprietary software and certain usage scenarios. Yes, Apple should probably open up iBooks Author (and iBooks themselves) to an iOS-like enterprise implementation, where books can be distributed internally in a company without having first been published to a public iBookstore. For the moment though, selling your iBooks through the iBookstore just means that you’ll get many more eyeballs on your content than if try to hawk it yourself. It’s also important to note at this point in time that you’re still very much permitted to give your work away for free — Apple aren’t preventing you from sticking your iBooks Author-produced iBook up on your website somewhere and letting it people download it for free. No, I guess the message from Apple here is that iBooks created using iBooks Author are much like iOS apps you create using Xcode: feel free to do other things with your iBook, but if you want to sell it, your best chance of success lies in the iBookstore.

Then there’s the other crowd, the standards-based types who think the proprietary nature of the iBooks format is a bad thing. News flash, guys: as much as Apple is about standards (we’ll forget about our friend FaceTime for the moment), they’re also about progression; progression in the education sector, as well as in the overall hand-wavy, inverted-commas “technology” sense. It’s not that iBooks Author creates iBooks in the .iBooks format (it does, by the way), it’s that the current leader in the e-reading space, Amazon, also uses its own proprietary file format.

John Gruber from Daring Fireball puts it pretty well when he says that just because it might not have been the right “strategic choice” (whatever that is, and whatever that means) for Apple, that doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice altogether. What that says to me is that Apple sees the need for progress, and if that progress means a proprietary format for gorgeous, multi-touch iBooks based on standards like HTML5 + JS, then so be it — even if the iBooks format itself isn’t strictly a “standard”. I’m a realist: in all honesty, would you rather have a standards-based format that meant things were a little more difficult, or the proprietary iBooks format we have now that’s accessible to anyone that has a Mac and an iPad? Standards are great and all, don’t get me wrong, but it’s times like these that the hard decisions need to be made. As for iBooks, I’m glad Apple went with something proprietary: but for 95% of the population, they probably don’t even care.

Both of these points are simply people trying to make points about iBooks, trying to poke holes in the iBooks announcement (or reality distortion field, if you want). What they probably don’t realise (or, perhaps more correctly, didn’t convey without getting caught up in the finer details) is the bigger picture, the one that doesn’t care about the minutiae of iBooks as a standards-based format, or the EULA of what is essentially a tool in the shed of people building the future. Which brings me to my next point…

The thing is, digital is the future.

You’ve probably seen digital textbooks before. Heck, you’ve probably even used a digital textbook before. Al Gore’s Our Choice was the first widely-publicised digital textbook that hit the mainstream April last year, because it was one of the first digital books that showcased what could really be done with the platform in terms of a multimedia, multi-touch experience while still being extremely educational and informative. It was published by Push Pop Press, the very same company certain people are saying were “shot down” by Apple over the idea of publishing tools very much like iBooks Author, were warned to face some stiff competition from Cupertino in the digital textbook arena in the near future. Push Pop Press, incidentally, has since been bought out by Facebook, and has shuttered the idea of creating a publishing tool.

You might have used one of the later offerings in the digital/interactive textbook stakes, such as one of the Inkling titles, published by themselves or one of the many publishers already using Inkling technology to create impressive interactive textbooks. I’ve read one of these interactive textbooks in its entirety myself, and I can say for certain that their tech is impressive. It’s exactly what you imagine when you take a normal textbook and combine it with the multi-touch greatness of the iPad, add a few videos and interactive sections for good measure, and come out with a truly fantastic product that is at least just as educational, if not more so, than any textbook I’ve read thus far.

So you’re probably wondering: how does Apple come into this? Apple knows that they probably can’t do away with such an old-school paradigm as textbooks (at least not entirely), but they can bring them into the 21st century by applying a little Apple spit-and-polish. These days, that means marrying the truly old-school textbooks with Apple’s latest and greatest — and these days, that means the iPad. By making boring old textbooks into multimedia extravaganzas, complete with video clips and audio snippets, all wrapped in the fantastic multi-touch experience of the iPad. The result is that you can reach a new audience of people; learners that perhaps don’t have the attention span of a research scientist at CERN. It’s pretty easy to see digital textbooks being at the forefront of education, and Apple are right on the front line with iBooks and their push for educational products for the 21st century.

Yes, I agree that there are certain issues that might need a little fine-tuning down the track, such as the introduction of an enterprise-like iBook distribution scheme (although users can simply choose to email .iBooks around internally, I guess, but that’s not exactly an elegant solution when you have tens or even hundreds, thousands of employees.

However, there are unavoidable issues with this scheme to reinvent the textbook. Chief among them is the unescapable reality that people still need to buy iPads to take advantage of these great new tools for education. At upwards of $600 a pop, that’s not exactly a viable option for all families. Perhaps Apple could introduce an educational subsidy on iPads, much like their current education discounts on Mac hardware. (None of this is new to Apple, as they’ve always been a software company that has sold hardware — OS X only being available on Mac hardware is testament to that.)

Textbooks only being available in certain regions is another point of contention, though this seems to be on track to being solved. Books from DK Publishing have been appearing in our own iBookstore not long after the announcement, however some of the other “big names” such as McGraw-Hill are still notably absent from our own iBookstore. It’s probably something Apple is working furiously on — and if the introduction and launch of iTunes Match has given us anything to go by, Australia isn’t seen as a second or third-tier country any more. I’m sure that this situation will only improve once Apple get properly up and running.

People hung up about the EULA of a particular piece of software, or the idea that Apple has the audacity to tell them what they can and cannot do with a work, or even those hung up about how a new format isn’t standards-compliant are missing the point. I mean, Apple are offering you a 70% cut of sales from your iBook, as well as giving you the tools to create these interactive books for free — when was the last time a publisher offered you that kind of deal? It’s a very similar deal to the one they offer to iOS developers, and look how that turned out (maybe not for all, but definitely for some).

Once again, John Gruber puts it pretty well when he talks about the scope of Apple’s education initiative. It’s like Apple said to the textbook publishers:

“Digital transformation of your industry is inevitable. Here’s our plan; we’d like you to come along for the ride. But if you choose not to, we won’t hesitate to leave you behind.”

It’s exactly the kind of move the education sector needs — a ballsy (but not entirely unprecedented) move that means progress, and, before I get all “the kind of move that will advance us as a species”, exactly the kind of move Apple are most suited to make. Exactly the kind of move Apple has made before, and exactly the kind of move they will make again in the future.

As for iBooks Author, interactive textbooks, and the future of education as we know it— I, for one, am excited to see where iBooks and iBooks Author takes us in the future, and, as usual, can’t wait to see what Apple do next. And hey, if interactive textbooks also boost students’ scores, then that’s just an added bonus. Perhaps next week I’ll be creating my own iBooks, instead of idly playing games — then again, perhaps not.

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