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January 26, 2012

Apple's Evil Sabotage

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Right, I did promise (at least if you're reading me on Google+) another update on the Apple vs e-books situation. Last week ZDNet published a couple of... shall we say... strongly worded columns on Apple's behavior with its iBooks. The columns, by Ed Bott, are titled respectively "Apple's mind-bogglingly greedy and evil license agreement" and "How Apple is sabotaging an open standard for digital books."

Gotta love a guy who doesn't mince words. What Bott and lots of other less-vitriolic writers are up in arms about is Apple's iBooks 2.0. I mentioned this little gem a couple days ago with particular reference to the idea that what Apple's doing might well be antitrust-worthy. That's not what has Bott up in arms, though.

In the first column, Bott dives into the really nitty-gritty of Apple's EULA, pointing out that not only does Apple claim the right to sell whatever iBook you make it also claims the right to prevent you from selling it elsewhere, even if Apple rejects it. Still think using iBooks is a good idea? You're braver than I.

As Bott notes, even if this is a condition on your use of Apple's software it's an unprecedentedly restrictive one. It is as if Adobe claimed you couldn't sell any photograph you processed in Photoshop (except through Adobe). Or if Microsoft claimed you couldn't sell any book you wrote in Word (except through Microsoft). If those examples seem ludicrous on the face of it, that's only because word- and photo-processing software is well established in the marketplace and there are competitors and years of user expectations in place. E-books are a new beast and it looks like Apple wants to own the cow and the milk, in perpetuity.

In the second column, Bott digs back in to describe how Apple is sabotaging not just individual authors' work but the entire ePub (EPUB) standard, which it had previously supported. This one, as he notes, affects not just e-book authors but also publishers and readers.

EPUB is an open format, handled by an organization known as the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). Apple is a member, of course, as are big names in the software industry (Adobe, etc), in graphics (Agfa), and of course dozens of publishers from around the world. EPUB is XML-based and uses key XML concepts like namespaces and references to XML standards as maintained by the W3C.

Bott's column lists several ways in which iBooks 2.0 deviates from (and thus breaks) the standards, including proprietary namespaces, incompatible and non-standard CSS extensions, and critically it defines a new MIME type. Without going into too many grotty details, a MIME type is a way for a data file such as an e-book to tell various processor programs what its contents are. Programs like Web browsers that handle multiple content types (e.g. text, images, flash elements) use MIME types to know what program should be invoked for displaying each bit of the page. A program that knows how to display one MIME type will often reject all others because it doesn't know how to handle them.

So if you have, say, an e-book reader that is expecting to process files of type "application/epub+zip" - which is what the EPUB standard says that ePub books should be, then when it encounters type "application/x-ibooks+zip" it's just not going to display that file. And presto, all your iBooks 2.0 output is no longer viewable on any other reader. That's standards compliance for ya, sure enough. Apple also broke inbound compatibility, in case you care. An EPUB-standard document can't be opened in iBooks 2 either, so if you were thinking about collaborating with another author and passing files around, you better make sure that your partners all have iBooks 2 or you can't share with them.

Last time I closed by noting that e-book authors should probably steer clear of iBooks 2. This time it looks like anyone who is interested in improving the future of e-books should steer clear. C'mon, Apple, this is the kind of anti-standards doublespeak evil we used to bash Microsoft for.

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies


1. Mikeal on January 27, 2012 7:28 AM writes...

The EULA states that you can't sell the output of iBooks Author anywhere but through the iBooks store. iBooks Author is a free tool to create enhanced content for the iBooks app. Apple has not stated that it outputs EPUB - but that it creates content for the iBook app. Pages, Apple's for pay word processing/ Document layout app, does indeed output standard EPUB files.
As a correction, iBooks 2 (the iOS app) does indeed support standard EPUB files. I am currently reading a series that I bought directly from the author as EPUBs - and it works just fine in iBooks 2. iBooks Author cannot import them - at least not in my short experiments.
I agree that the EULA is questionable, but not to the extent the paid by page view crew seem to imply.

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2. DrWex on January 30, 2012 7:14 AM writes...

Mikael are you disagreeing with Bott's column on sabotaging ePub? Whether or not Apple stated what iBooks 2 outputs isn't the point here. The point is that Apple is promoting a book-creation program that is deliberately incompatible with everything else, including the standard Apple purports to support.

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3. bt on February 11, 2012 11:32 PM writes...

Apple has always been worse than Microsoft on standards and openness. Apple lost the PC wars to MS because the kept their products closed and proprietary.

MS gets a lot of criticism, but it has probably been more open than the other dominant IT players. More than IBM was, more than Apple was/is, or look at Oracle - yikes. The openness is why their products are popular. Even so, when MS has tried to do more closed things they have not really prevailed with them.

I am still waiting for someone to come along and steal Apple's cheese, like MS did last time around. Apple tends to overreach when they are winning.

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