AMITIAE - Sunday 22 January 2012

iBooks and eBooks: Comments and Ideas on Apple's iBookstore Advances

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers

ebooks, ibooks and authoring

Apple announced new initiatives and applications last Thursday at an education-centered even in New York. One of the tools -- iBooks Author -- brought several commentators out, but the even itself caused many to examine how technology and education can sometimes be uneasy partners. Some are also uneasy with Apple's involvement seeing that what was done for music will be done to textbooks. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all.

Comments and criticism focussed on three main areas: the value of iPads in education; the economics; and the question of proprietary formats. The three are intertwined.

The whole range of criticism that was unleashed, was not a surprise really -- I was in two minds myself -- but some parts of the Apple Education event have stirred up some comments. I know of few companies that can cause such a furore. Some criticism appears to be simply because Apple is the prime mover here.

As often happens, there are the Apple is great and the Apple is evil camps with some part of the way between. I loved the application, but am just not sure about the EULA especially with the way it will affect potential writers and output here where currently it is not possible to buy any book. While I ran through the software as a user might, Erica Sadun on TUAW had a really close look at "Under the Hood" and analyses among other things, the file type: an archive file, like many of Apple file types (e.g. Pages).

Education Value

A useful article by Chris Meadows on TeleRead linked to the two sides of the coin in articles by Matt Burns on Tech Crunch who writes not as a teacher but as a parent (even referring to his grandfather) particularly on learning math. He objects to the idea of the iPad in the classroom and thinks that maths should be learned the hard way. While there is a lot to say for that approach -- and I had to do this myself -- most engineers in the days before calculators used the slide rule which also taught them to imagine scale, but now all access calculators. But the iPad is not only about maths, even though Burns misses the results of a survey, reported by Appleinsider among others that found student math scores jumped 20% when they used iPads.

In the context of Matt Burn's argument the comment by a teacher that the software turns "a one-way math lesson into an engaging, interactive, supportive learning experience" is rather important. As in all such comparisons, the survey includes iPad-less students. I would agree with Matt that use of a tablet computer or any computer should be integrated with other methods of teaching, but try telling that to any teacher or student who can see an easy way out, and examine the teacher comment in that AppleInsider item.

The other article that Meadows links to by Greg Kumparak, also on TechCrunch, argues strongly for Pads in the classroom in answer to Matt Burn's post. He refers to his childhood and his early immersion in technology. I can relate to this as when I went to the US for graduate study, computers were just going mainstream and teaching using an early PC gave me a considerable amount of experience. This helped me understand the potential of the new tool. He also tackles the cost factor which, like it or not, governments and education authorities will have to deal with, as well as the parents, students and teachers.

Also looking on the negative side of this with comments on the K-12 group is David Winograd on The MacObserver who makes the interesting point that it appears kids will have to buy their own textbooks from the store. Usually they are bought by the education district (in the US) and distributed in the schools. That is a valid point and we wonder if there will be a group purchasing method brought in, or if indeed the system will be changed when this is adopted. Some of the comments by readers of the article are also useful here.

Hardware and Costs

iPad2 As Apple is a hardware company, we always have in the backs of our minds that the purpose is to sell devices, although some people miss the long-term nature of this. Who would have thought that the original iPod would have led to such a major change in infrastructures, or pushed the rest of the IT industry to such a frenzy of creation, although much of that is marred by rushed product releases and goddamawful design. [Image courtesy of Apple.]

Some commentators -- always and only with an eye on the US market -- looked simply at cost. Others took them up on that and compared the prices of some textbooks with the cost of an iPad and the reduced textbook prices on the iBook store. Ah, that bookstore . . . no one here (unless they have an account in the US) can use that: so much is being wasted.

We might also think about weight. Early morning in Bangkok's streets I can see thousands of kids with massive brief-cases or backpacks over-flowing with the books they need for the day. Some of these young students only come up to my chest and they carry more than they should. What a difference an iPad could make there. Cost here is certainly a factor, and despite the existence of poor areas in the US, relative incomes make these less expensive (although still beyond the reach of some families). Alternative tablet programs as mooted by the current Thai government may go part of the way to bridging this gap, but the Aakash is no iPad and Android is not iOS.

To sell a book, a writer needs a US tax release (taxes for publications are always levied in the country the sale is made), International Standard Book Number) ISBN at $275 for ten and an audience. There is no telling when, or if, the service will be available here, or what will be required of the writers.

The iBooks Author application upset a lot of people because of its EULA: sell a book created in the app and it can only be sold via the Apple store; give it away for free and it can be distributed anyhow. That does not mean of course that writers must use the iBookstore or this authoring software. There are other applications (including Apple's Pages) that can be used to create iBooks. However, the iBook Author software creates a proprietary file format with the name ebook, not ibook.

An excellent comment on this point (and others) was made by John Gruber on Daring Fireball who examines the authoring software and analyses what Apple is doing here. He does also mention the way Amazon has avoided a standard and still seems to be doing well.

That proprietary nature of the output also brought some people to write and decry what Apple hath wrought, but they seem to forget that the Amazon format can only be used within Kindle apps and on Kindle devices. We even saw a comment from Microsoft that criticised this which was in an item by Matthew Panzarino referring to the Twitter comments on this by Microsoft's Frank X. Shaw who ridiculed the EULA and promised that using Word would not mean that Redmond would take 30% of your publisher fee. As the output is not going onto a PC or Windows-controlled tablet, they do have another axe to grind; and for Microsoft to criticise proprietary file formats is a touch hypocritical, especially after Active-X and that attempt to take over the worldwide web.

Note also with all the criticism of Apple concerning the 30% and the output of the iBooks Author, that if you sign up for Amazon as a writer, their agreement insists on number of limitations (also see below). With the hard copy book no author ever received the copy price (except by standing in the street and hawking the book): distribution and handling always cost money, with the retailer taking 25%. Publishers and wholesalers also share in the income before anything reaches an author.

Closing Ideas

Related to its books access on the iBookstore, Apple is being sued by book purchasers for price-fixing. The publishers wanted more control over the model than Amazon allowed. This case has been ongoing for a while and the amended suit uses part of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs we are told by Matt Brian on The Next Web. One might also examine the comments of The Authors Guild on Amazon's way of dealing with publishers and their authors' works -- described as "nonsense" -- to understand why perhaps the publishers were happy to get together with Apple as Amazon was viewed as the threat.

We note also that several publishers were happy to climb on board with Apple at the recent textbook event when low prices were announced for such usually expensive books. The article also details some comments from publishers which suggest that the Amazon model was not good for the publishers and they were happier with what Apple was willing to do.

One of them is Terry McGraw, CEO of McGraw-Hill. In an interview reported on All Things Digital, Peter Kafka tells us that McGraw is more than happy with Apple and had discussed the idea of textbooks on the iPad with Steve Jobs over the last couple of years, including June 2011. One of his comments is rather interesting for both the publishers and consumers (in the long run):

"Apple has really essentially turbocharged the process, and it's just going to open up the world of learning to more people. Anything we can do to be a part of that, we're going to do."

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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