20 Jan, 2012
Yesterday, Apple introduced three products aimed at the Education market: iBooks Author, iBooks 2, an updated version of iBooks that allows for interactive textbooks, and the iTunes U app. Much has been written (already) about iBooks Author, but there seems to be some confusion about what it is and what it’s for.
What is iBooks Author?
According to Apple’s website:
iBooks Author is an amazing new app that allows anyone to create beautiful Multi-Touch textbooks — and just about any other kind of book — for iPad. With galleries, video, interactive diagrams, 3D objects, and more, these books bring content to life in ways the printed page never could.
There are a few things in that description that are noteworthy: “for iPad”, and “galleries, video, interactive diagrams, 3D objects, and more…” iBooks Author is not intended to be a general purpose tool for creating standard e-books in the ePub format. It’s intended to create interactive, media-rich books for the iPad. Currently, there’s no easy way to create interactive, media-rich books (for any platform). On the iPad, there are stand-alone interactive books distributed as Apps. That’s all well and good, but creating iOS apps is not easy…not by a long shot. There are also stand-alone interactive textbooks from companies such as Inkling, but again, these are apps, not books available through the iBook store, and there’s no way for users to create their own content. That’s where iBooks Author comes in.
It should be noted that while iBooks Author is free, it requires Mac OS X Lion, so if you’re still using Snow Leopard (or older), you’ll need to upgrade in order to use iBooks Author.
The current state of e-books
Currently, e-books are mostly text, and are available on a wide variety of e-book readers. Most of these e-book readers also support static images, but not multimedia. There are several competing formats for e-books, but one standard that most adhere to, called ePub. Most e-readers, such as the iPad, Kobo eReader, Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony Reader, and many others support the ePub format. The only major holdout is the Amazon Kindle, which uses its own proprietary format.
There are, however, media rich e-books available (as previously mentioned), but they tend to be stand-alone apps instead of ePub or some other standard.
There are tools available to create standard e-books, but none are perfect. Judging from the numerous reviews available, you could safely sum up the state of e-book creation as of early 2012 as “frustrating”. One of the most highly regarded e-book editors is Sigil, available for Mac, Windows, and Linux. Another popular option is Calibre, which can convert a wide variety of formats to ePub (and other formats). It’s also possible to convert MS Word files to ePub files, generate ePub files from Apple iWork, and other programs. The problem with these creation and conversion tools is that it’s difficult to retain advanced formatting, and adding advanced features requires knowledge of HTML and CSS.
Until Apple unveiled iBooks Author, there were no tools available to easily create interactive media-rich e-books.
iBooks Author: the good
There’s a lot to like in iBooks Author. Apple has made it easy to create interactive media-rich books, and while the focus so far has been on creating textbooks, there’s no reason you couldn’t use the tool to create interactive cookbooks, baby books, etc. (Tip of the hat to Joe Wood for those suggested uses.) [Update: here's another article looking at various iBooks ideas.]
iBooks Author allows you to embed a quiz in your text, making this a great tool for education, as long as the students have access to an iPad.
iBooks Author: the bad
The most obvious downside to iBooks Author is it requires an iPad to fully take advantage of media-rich content. iBooks Author can, however, export a static version of your book as a PDF, so it IS possible to view the book on any device that can read PDF files (which includes most e-readers). You’ll also need a Mac running OS X Lion in order to use iBooks Author.
Another downside is that currently, Apple allows you to SELL your books created with iBooks Author in the iBooks store, but not anywhere else (such as Amazon.com or on your own website). You can give your books away for free anywhere you want, you just can’t sell them anywhere but the iBooks store. There’s a chance this may change, though, if there’s enough push-back from the community. In some ways, though, this makes sense. Since these aren’t standard ePub files (they’re actually ePub files wrapped in a proprietary HTML 5 wrapper), they’re not going to work on other devices…only on the iPad. So, it makes sense that they would only be available in the iBooks store. Note: you can also give your files to anyone with an iPad and they can load it directly, rather than going through the iBooks store…as long as you give them away for free.
UPDATE: On February 3, 2012, Apple revised and updated the EULA to clarify the selling of books in other ebook stores. Only the .ibooks formatted file must be sold in the iBooks store (which makes sense) and Apple has no rights over the content. You can sell your book in any other store, in any other format (Kindle, EPUB, etc.) to your heart’s content. Source: http://www.padgadget.com/2012/02/03/apple-updates-ibooks-author-and-includes-revised-eula/
Some have complained that iBooks Author isn’t using non-proprietary HTML 5 so that these interactive media-rich books could be used on a variety of devices. The problem is, there’s such a wide variety of support for HTML 5 of different devices, such a tool would be very difficult to create, at least at this point. Maybe that’s something for a future update? Speaking of future updates…
iBooks Author: the wait-and-see
It’s important to remember this tool is version 1.0, and has been released for just over 24 hours at this point. If you look back at the history of other Apple products (iMovie, Garage Band, iWork), you’ll notice they tend to add functionality as they go. To expect iBooks Author to evolve and expand is a reasonable assumption. So, what might (or might not) happen in future releases?
- The ability to export directly to ePub format would be great. While you’d lose the interactivity (as you do with the current export to PDF function), it would save users the step of having to convert the PDF to ePub using another tool.
- It would be great if Apple relaxed the restriction on selling e-books in other stores.
- The ability to create books compatible with the smaller screen of the iPhone and iPod Touch would be great.