Blog Post

The iPad and e-Books: A Missed Opportunity

Before the iPad announcement pundits, including myself, were frothing at the mouth over what an Apple tablet device might mean for the e-book industry. There were strong expectations that the iPad would revolutionize e-books. A week after the announcement, I have to admit that my expectations were not met.

It’s not that the iPad isn’t an e-book device, it is. Nor is it that it’s a particularly bad e-book device, everything from the new iBookstore to the book interface on the device look very nice and is probably superficially better than the other options out there. What it’s not, however, is revolutionary in the way that I hoped it would be.

It makes sense for Apple to get into the e-book game with the iPad, it’s an obvious use case for the device. But what I was hoping for from the iPad was a new format of e-books that would be a game-changer in how we consume text. The use of the EPUB format, however, shows that Apple is not yet ready to make that move. Although I applaud the use of an open standard like EPUB, the reality is that EPUB’s interactive features are very limited right now, basically limited to simple images and videos. I was hoping for more advanced features.

What kind of features? How about reading a fantasy novel and tapping a single button to pull up a map showing exactly where you are in that fantasy world. How about tapping on any name in a non-fiction novel and getting biographical information about that character? How about textbooks with graphs that can be enlarged and class networking features built-in? And these are just some suggestions from an unimaginative dolt.

Of course many of these possibilities exist via iPad applications. The New York Times presentation at the iPad keynote indicates some of the possibilities available for print publications. The only problem with that is that I don’t want a device with a hundred different applications, one for each book or magazine that I read. What I want is for Apple to do what it’s best at: creating a standard framework with consistent features and enough flexibility to allow developers to create a rich user experience.

Lacking such a new format the iPad may become the default book reading device for many people, but there’s no certainty that Apple’s new iBookstore will become the main point of purchase for those books. You can be certain that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others will have e-book applications on the iPad from day one, and you can also be sure that they’ll be working aggressively to integrate as many of these interactive features into their e-books as possible. Perhaps Apple will address this in a student-focused event later this year? I certainly hope so.

Related GigaOM Pro Research:

41 Responses to “The iPad and e-Books: A Missed Opportunity”

  1. Jacobus

    XSL-FO already does what ePup is attempting to do. It’s mature, it’s a standard, and using it for reflow would be just fine.

    ePup is NOT an open standard. Call it that if you want, but the moment you need to pay to give input as a member, the openness goes out the window.

    ePub could have been ok, although unnecessary. They included SVG 1.1 as vector graphic specification. Where they messed up big time was to “leave out” the interactivity part of SVG. That is just plain stupid. Very limiting indeed. Some dinosaurs in this post mentions that eBooks are books and should not be interactive. That is truly short sighted. Nobody is saying they must be interactive, but to force interactivity out at specification level bad and limiting.

    Point is, you could write a XSL-FO to ePub processor, which confirms that XSL-FO already contains all the necessaries.

    People create jobs for themselves by inventing new requirements. Unfortunately this makes work for the rest of us. Now it’s just one more format to support.

  2. I think a lot of people are waiting to see if their current collections can be imported into this device. I know I don’t want to repurchase hundreds of ebooks just to use the ipad. Peole have also mentioned other ebook apps they use on their iphones but these will probably not be allowed on the ipad because they conflict with a basic program on the device. There are a lot of apps that dont run on the iphone for this very reason.

  3. Skarjune

    Alex, good point about HTML5. And, EPUB is likely to go there, afterall it’s an XML spec that packages XHMTL & related resources. It’s already possible to hack HTML5 into EPUB as a proof of concept:

    There seems to be a big gray wall between Web & Ereader usage. People sometimes want to take their books to the beach or into a cabin in the woods off the grid or they just don’t want Tweets distracting them or whatever puts them in an offline mode. Internet interaction is not a key feature of reading books, although interactive rich media will surely seep in there. Not everyone is a technogeek, who needs to be wired in 24×7. The average person just wants a smart device that meets their needs.

    If one does want a fully interactive net-driven experience, that’s one the web and in mobile apps. However, if one wants a more focused package from a publisher, then ebooks fill the bill, and EPUB is the emerging standard.

    iPad is an Apple product and iBooks is an Apple market, neither will ever become an industry standard, as they are proprietary business projects.

  4. The ePUB format is fine, but it’s more interesting to create interactive content with text, audio and video for the iPad. Independent content creators can bypass the big publishing houses…

  5. Christian

    The decision to make ePUB the format of choice for iBooks is right. This is a standard that supports all of what is needed and is in theory transportable to other devices.

    My current eBook read is the sony PRS505. It’s doing very fine with “normal” books and to certain point with news sites aggregated. The memory i use on the sony are 100MB for about 140 books. Those are mostly in the proprietary “LRT” format the sony reader supports too. I will now convert all of them to epub in preparation for early april when the 3G pad is available.
    If iBooks doesn’t support my privat ePub collection i will use Stanza instead as i already do on the iPhone from time to time.

    If any of us would like to enjoy some classic novell reading all we need is a white background and black letters or vice versa.

    What i wish for is a scaled up comic reading app (Comiczeal!?)and the magazine makers jumping in – if wanted with specialized apps but colored ePUB magazines do just fine.

    An ebook reading application on iPad should support bookmarking and highlighting – i hope Apple knows (sure they do!?).

    As for magazines, there could be browser like jumps from one issue to another. Articles spanning over more than one issue could have bookmarks to move directly to next or previous issue. Photos presented in issues could be collected in a Photo container to view separately, same for any kind of other rich media.

    The possibilities are endless – future will be thrilling (maybe?)!

  6. davesmall

    When the iPhone was introduced there was no App Store and their were no third party apps nor a software developer’s kit for creating them. One thing you can take to the bank is that Apple will continue to evolve eBook formats and creation tools. EPub is a starting point. Either it will evolve as a standard or Apple will create a new standard.

  7. Kind of jumping the gun there. I’m sure as soon as the publishers get their acts together (assuming they can & will), we will see such features. Apple has merely opened up the opportunity, it’s up to the content providers to recognize that and get creative.

  8. Jameskatt

    What an idiotic article.

    What you are asking for is an eBook platform which includes a programming environment to allow for all the actions you are asking for.

    That format already exists. It is called an App. There are several programming environments that allow you to create your eBook App. Even Adobe has created a Flash Based development kit for creating eBook Apps.

    These already exist. What, you don’t want an eBook app for every book? Then the alternative is a Web-based App.

    And Apple even included iTunes Albums as another development environment – along with free samples – to create an interactive book. These can be sold through the iTunes music store.

    In fact, the Apple iTunes Album is THE SOLUTION to your request. It is Apple’s new eBook format. Ta Dah!

    Note that Apple, when it comes to formats, is always standards based. The publishing industry decided on the ePub format. So be it. Apple will use it. There are already hundreds of thousands of books in the ePub format. This forms a readily accessible supply of books.

    If Apple created a whole new standard, then it would have to go to all the publishers and get all of them to agree to this standard. Then it would have to get all of them to invest time and money to create these new interactive books. This would take them years to do. We don’t have that time. Perhaps in the future this can be done. But not now. It is a pie in the sky dream.

    Of course, you can still do an iTunes Album book. A comic book writer did just that for his book, which you can purchase on iTunes.

    Note that Texbook publishers are investing in creating tablet format textbooks. This was in the recent news. The format will be heavily DRM’d and will need a specific app to run. This is an app created by a third party company, not Apple.

  9. There is already a better format for books than ePub – it’s called “HTML5”.

    This format allows hyperlinks, image maps, embedded videos, selective display and hiding of components (so your map can appear when you ask for it).

    What HTML5 doesn’t provide at this point is the ability to divide the document up into pages that match the device you’re reading right now, with a nifty page-turning animation. Not that I really appreciate such novelties in eBook readers, I’m used to scrolling through my text.

  10. I believe the choice of an open standard is a good one on the part of apple, but I also don’t believe it was a choice they made freely.

    Apple has a history of wanting to control. ITunes is a classic example. I can’t purchase content from the “iTunes” store in any other way, other then through iTunes and it has taken years to get to the point it allows enough control over the media itself to make it easy to actual import “foreign” material into (and sort it the way I want to)…

    As and open standard, it has the ability to change for more easily then most closed standards do.

    It also provides the user with some choice over where to get there content (which is a change for the better) but also how they view it.

    People are more likely to but into the ipad if they “think” they can change at anytime and take their media with them, rather then buying into a closed standard.

    Many of the points you have made are valid and would make the standard far more useful and flexible, instead of complaining about the lack of them, maybe you should pose them to the body controlling the standard instead.

    Do you know of another standard that would achieve what you want and still give the freedom of choice to the people using it (to choice the device with which to read it?)

  11. I believe Apple made the 100% right move here. Sure, they could have developed some awesome new format with scores of features, but then they’re tying their users and themselves to the success of that format. It’s harder to sell because there’s no device interoperability, and what happens if the format fails miserably. Do you refund users what they paid? Probably not, and that creates a huge group of very, very unhappy customers.

    Plus, since ePub is an open format, new features can always be added later and those features can be propagated to any device using ePub with a simple software or firmware upgrade. It may be “limited” in your opinion now, but in a few years it may be exactly what you want.

  12. Isn’t there already an alternative built into the iPad called the AppStore? And another called iTunes? Both contain highly interactive offerings. I see iBooks as a nod to the old guard book publishers. Mag publishing is going with Apps.

  13. Skarjune

    Nice to see so many experts and satisfied customers for a product that hasn’t shipped…

    1. Books are books! Got it? Not computer games. Book readers do not want to play games, they want to read.

    2. EPUB is evolving as a standard book format, and Apple jumping on the bandwagon proves that; it doesn’t counter that.

    3. Apple proprietary systems are not the mainstream. NOT even the iPhone is mainstream for most mobile users.

    4. Kool-AID is not a healthy diet. ;-)

  14. With ScrollMotion and Inkling it looks like exactly the type of interactivity you suggest are in the pipeline right now. What is unclear is how publications formatted by these companies will interact with iBooks. ScrollMotion has its own proprietary reader with in-app purchasing. Presumably Inkling would be the same?

    I think there’s still more to be revealed.

  15. I think you are somewhat clueless.
    It is the content owner who will decide just how open to interactivity their books are made to be. It is also theirs, and the author’s decision how and when to provide the ability for a reader to drill down to discover added information. It is a good idea and it hasn’t escaped attention either, but why would rev 1 of Apple’s e-Reader cater to features that don’t exist? To suggest this was a failure in the iPad software is foolish beyond foolish.

  16. Alex Mankuta

    Everything you describe is possible with epub. In the core of it is XHTML and CSS. And while standard recommends not execute embedded scripts it doesn’t prohibit doing so and even describes script and noscript elements in the spec. Also standard doesn’t prohibit using video or audio in books. Just requires a meaningful alternate representation in one of required formats.

    So basically epub file can be valid according to spec and can be displayed on older limited readers and still be a very interactive and reach both in terms of content and presentation.

  17. You’re quite right, ePub is an anemic format for publishing books. Its only advantages that it’s open and non-proprietary. We can only hope that, by getting the ball rolling with a device that’s much more versatile than a Kindle, something better will come along, with Apple pushing the process along. That’d deal with one of things that’s holding ebooks back: something that would make it as good as or better than printed books. I can’t see that happening with Amazon with its proprietary (and woefully limited) Mobibook format and bent toward bullying.

    The iPad partially solves one problem that’s been haunting ebooks–a device that has advantages over iPhones and laptops. I like reading on my iPod touch, but it’s very restricted in what it can do. And I’d rather carry a heavy hardback about than fuss with a laptop or even a netbook for reading. The iPad should make reading an ebook fun and, because it does so much else, make the purchase price easier to justify. I can only hope that Apple adds bookmarks and user notes to iBooks, along with the printed equivalent of podcasting.

    The iBookstore, whatever form it takes, should help with another problem: an efficient means of distribution. About five years ago, I tested the ebook waters by releasing about 10 books in PDF via Ingram. For a while they sold modestly well, mostly via Amazon. But Amazon’s support for PDF titles was pitiful at best and ended entirely when they began publishing their own Mobibook titles and dropped all PDF titles from their store–essentially the same tactic they just tried with Macmillan but with a more lasting impact. I’d learned my lesson. Don’t trust Amazon as your primary distribution source. Apple should be more reliable.

  18. Rob Scott

    While I am 100% happy with the iPad as is, I was hopping and still hoping for something groundbreaking/innovative especially with textbooks (And cookbooks) as I am planning to buy the iPads for my kids. I am looking for something that will keep their interest high and be a great educational device at the same time.
    So yeah, I am with you on this one…

  19. Ohio Dude

    Let’s just say the iPad had the eBook features you are looking for? Authors would then have to start reworking their content to accomidate these new features. For example, for the Geore RR Martin fans, he has 4 rather large books in his latest series, he would, in effect, have to retool all these tomes to support this new format, when we as his fans would prefer he spend his time finishing the 5th book in the series.

    Though your points are totally valid and yea, it’s going to be great when there is support for what you are talking about, I can’t put all the blame on Apple it’s also the content providers that have to sign on to the new format, and then create or rework their content.

    • OTOH: That is exactly how the iPad can rescue the “publishing” industry! Rather than the author reworking the books, the publishing staff can do it. I can imagine new positions opening with new job titles. The publisher can earn his fee while making the e-book more valuable than the tree-book.

      I imagine that the textbook market will lead the way, in fact, I am betting on O’Reilly in particular.

  20. Gazoobee

    I agree about the ePub format but for a different reason. The format is a “streamed” format designed for text only. You can add a few things into it as you mention (images, videos), but the author has no real control over the typography, the page layout, or the theme.

    An ePub book opened on the iPad might look great, but if it’s opened on the iPhone it will look completely different in terms of pagination and possibly even fonts. If it’s opened on a Windows Mobile device (shudder), or an Android device, it may be 10 point courier monospace if that’s all that’s available.

    Additionally, the user has the ultimate control over the layout, not the author. You might have spent a week testing fonts and margins and settled on 12 point Chicago on a 6×9 layout with headers and footers, but the user can squeeze their fingers together and make it 6 point text, change the font to comic sans and click a button to eliminate the headers.

    ePub is junk.

    • Epub is streamed and suggested so that you can view on multiple devices and still be able to read it. The author doesn’t know the specs for the end device, so assuming he does is naive. The days of fixed design are over, and fluid layouts is what you have to design for. It’s not going to change, get used to it. There isn’t any way to get around this. If you think of one, then design it and licence it. You’ll make millions.

    • That’s what’s *good* about ePub. If there’s one thing that should be enormously clear from the Internet revolution, users want choice. Website authors used to try and control the font-size, font-faces, etc., on their sites and this led to a dark, dark age of awful, inaccessible content. As an author, you may think your font choices look beautiful, but the end-user may be crippled by your choices. What about older people with impaired eyesight? They might need unusually large fonts to comfortably read. In all things, it’s best to let the user decide their experience. Technologies that do that well are the one’s that succeed long term.

    • Yes, the non-fiction novel seems like a contradiction in terms, but is a valid genre. It’s non-fiction written using narrative techniques more like fiction. It was pioneered by Truman Capote w/ In Cold Blood. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff are other examples.