Well, there we are. Apple announced a very positive step toward destabilising the textbook industry, check; they offered a free authoring tool for producing textbooks, check; their software, iBooks 2 and iBooks Author, is available immediately through the Apple online store, check; and they’ve announced a sort of courseware for autodidacts, check. Aye, but what’s the good news?
The announcements yesterday were both more and less than I hoped. I had expected to have to pay for a textbook authoring tool; I would have paid, gladly, for such an app. The there’s no such thing as ‘free’, either — iBooks Author will only run on OS X (that’s not astonishing), the latest version of OS X (that’s a little surprising; the functions of an app for generating EPUB files is no big deal, but apparently the sparkly things Apple added to the textbook recipe depend on features in Lion); and the End User Extortion Agreement forbids selling files produced by Author anywhere but through the Apple iBooks store (oh, come on, Apple). You can give away Author-ed EPUBS, but you can’t sell them anywhere but Apple. I don’t think that’s a DRM issue, Kelvin, if I understand the format correctly — the limitation isn’t baked into the output file — but a contractual issue.
It would make a great deal more sense to me if they’d approached the business model a few degrees differently. The app runs on OS X, that’s probably non-negotiable. The latest version? Well, if I must (I haven’t, yet). The file output matter plays precisely to Apple haters (haters gonna hate, sure, but there’s no need to feed trolls, either); if Apple is moving to the front line of textbook creation and vending, why inhibit people who are already using Apple software (OS X and Author) and hardware (to run those, and to read the iBooks) from exporting and selling the textbooks they produce? The Apple iTextbook store would still have the advantages it already enjoys: convenience, confidence, ease of access, integration with everything else in the iUniverse. The move to strong-arm authors into an exclusive relation to Apple smacks of uncertainty, as though they doubted they could continue their leadership if authors weren’t locked-in. Contrariwise, it looks to me as though by setting their file outputs free to inhabit the ebook ecology without constraint, Apple could set the standards by which etextbooks are recognised, read, and produced — more or less ensuring that they’d have a dominant share of the market without the sort of lock-in that makes some possible buyers hesitant to commit. Ironically, the closed model Apple is pursuing seems to me to intensify the impetus for competing proprietary or FOSS alternatives (InDesign, Scribus, calibre, Sigil (for the stout of heart), PDF export from your word processor of choice — anything I’m forgetting?) (Yes, Lyx.)
So that’s me: positively impressed by what they seem to have envisioned, disappointed by the limitations they’ve constructed into their model, eager to see how Author works (when I eventually get around to upgrading and trying it out), and still, always excited to see what happens when people who understand technology, education, publication, media, and so on can put their efforts together toward open models for distribution and dissemination. That’s what I thought ten-plus years ago when I began banging away at academic administrators about this; that’s what I thought eight or nine years ago, when we got enough funding to start-up the Disseminary site (but not enough support from administrators, funders, or paid participants actually to give it any momentum); that’s what I still believe.