Is Apple’s New Education Initiative Dangerous?

As with all Apple events, there’s a media blitz and extensive coverage analyzing all the nooks and crannies of the latest product or service from Cupertino. When it comes to this week’s education announcement, there’s a debate raging right now over whether Apple’s new proprietary file format for iBooks Author is dangerous or not.

Why It’s Dangerous

While it’s nothing new that Apple has come up with proprietary software that helps the company’s bottom line, it’s a dangerous precedent. My biggest concern is the fact that most people think “well if Apple did it, it’s cool.” So what happens if more companies ignore open standards and start developing their own proprietary software that doesn’t play well with others? To find out the answer, all we have to do is take a look at Microsoft a few years ago.

Daniel Glazman, co-chairman of the W3C CSS Working Group, offers his expert insight on how Microsoft eventually moved towards open standards and how Apple’s new education products are dangerous:

Long, very long ago, in another galaxy further north on the US west coast, the Death Star Microsoft was not playing the standardization game and was submitting proposals to W3C the day it was shipping to the masses a browser implementing that proposal. Or ship without any proposal.

These days are over, and Microsoft finally embraced Web Standards and all rejoiced.

Yesterday, further south on the US west coast, the “All Your Documents Are Belong To Us” Mothership Apple started showing incompatible authoring environments and rendering engines based on proprietary extensions to html and CSS that will hit the wild. Yesterday, Apple released iBooks Author and I am not afraid to say that despite of being a great authoring tool, the solution it offers is a step backwards and it’s not good news for users/customers.

Why It’s Not Dangerous

On the other end of the argument is the fact that the iBooks Author format is actually nothing new. In fact, Apple isn’t even trying to claim that the new format is meant to be anything like open source. John Gruber, via his blog Daring Fireball, elaborates on why the proprietary nature is not only nothing new for Apple, it’s how other companies like Amazon (with its Kindle format) have been operating for quite some time. Here are excerpts from Gruber:

It should surprise no one that the co-chair of a W3C working group deems standards compliance to be more important than does Apple. And he may well be right that it will prove to be a strategic mistake. But it’s worth noting that the e-book market leader, Amazon’s Kindle, uses a proprietary format. Eschewing ePub and any sort of standards compliance doesn’t seem to have hurt Amazon. And, up until yesterday, the only e-book format supported by iBooks has been standards compliant ePub, and that hasn’t made Apple the market leader. It’s a small sample size and we’re early in the game, but the evidence to date suggests the opposite of what Glazman is arguing. Kindle, with its proprietary file formats, is more popular than iBooks, which has been based on ePub.

Nor is Apple claiming this new format is ePub. They haven’t asserted proprietary new features or syntax for ePub the way, say, Netscape and Internet Explorer asserted proprietary new tags and features for HTML. The output of iBooks Author is no more intended to be an industry standard than are any other Apple-proprietary document formats — Pages, Numbers, Keynote, etc. This is Apple’s own e-book format, intended only to be displayed (played?) using Apple’s own software running on Apple’s own devices.

As with the end-user licensing kerfuffle, it’s worth noting that the app’s name is iBooks Author, not eBooks Author. Just because there’s demand for an open-standards-based e-book production and layout tool of the scope and caliber of iBooks Author, doesn’t mean Apple has any interest in making such a tool.

Starting with full conformance with EPUB3 and pushing for a fast update of EPUB3 or release of EPUB4 including all new CSS cool kids was a much better, and much more secure way of doing things.

But if Apple had taken this route, the books generated by iBooks Author today wouldn’t have any of the layout features Glazman cited above. The iBooks format isn’t different just for the sake of being different, it’s different for the sake of being better — not better in the future, after a W3C review period and approval, but better today, in the textbooks you can download and read in iBooks right now.

It’s the difference between “What’s the best we can do within the constraints of the current ePub spec?” versus “What’s the best we can do given the constraints of our engineering talent?” — the difference between going as fast as the W3C standards body permits versus going as fast as Apple is capable.

Weigh In

What do you think? Should Apple have developed iBooks Author to output (at least as an option) to EPUB format? Will Apple ever make a large move toward open source?