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.