December 28, 2015 Last Updated 10:39 am

Guest Column: Steve Jobs Is iBooks Author

Apple should not let 2016 go by without doubling down on its ebook creation software, one of Jobs’ final legacies, writes Bradley Metrock,  CEO of Score Publishing, producer of the iBooks Author Conference in Nashville

To wrap the year 2015 up, 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose spent some time talking to Apple’s executive team, including CEO Tim Cook, for a wide-ranging feature.  As part of this segment, Rose asked Cook about Steve Jobs, and Cook asserted that Steve Jobs’ aggressive pursuit of innovative excellence still lives on within Apple today.

imac-iba-800Sorry, Tim: we’re going to disagree with you, at least with regards to iBooks Author, which was one of Steve’s final signature projects.  As great of a company as Apple is, there’s an ocean of still-untapped opportunity with iBooks Author that Steve Jobs never would’ve tolerated.

iBooks Author is Apple’s ebook creation software, which effortlessly produces richly interactive, multimedia driven “multi-touch format” books.  Back in 2011, Steve Jobs deeply understood the potential of iBooks Author, and was such a zealot that he single-handedly forced the shutdown of a would-be iBooks Author competitor.

iBooks Author got off to a rocky start, but has enjoyed a sequence of significant updates over the last year, and now iBooks Author is used to create interactive, multimedia-driven “next-generation” digital content all over the world.  And, unlike Adobe DPS, Inkling, or some other would-be competitors…it’s free.

As revitalized as iBooks Author now is, being better than all the competition used to not be enough for Apple.  When Steve Jobs was around, Apple competed only against Apple.  “Very good” wasn’t even close to good enough.

It’s not too late to fully realize iBooks Author’s potential, as the software that defines digital content creation for the next decade.  Here are five specific opportunities that Apple can, and should, pursue if they want to fully realize Steve Jobs’ vision for iBooks Author and turn it into a revolutionary strategic centerpiece:

  1. Deliver a universal iBooks app that works on all hardware.  Apple did this with iTunes 15 years ago, with a PC version of iTunes alongside the Mac version, and sales of iPods exploded.  Apple did this earlier this year with Apple Music, using a cross-platform approach (which includes Android) that gives the service its best chance to succeed.  Now, Apple needs to do this with the iBooks app, thus providing a consistent high-end user experience for multi-touch format books created by iBooks Author.
  2. Deliver the ability for iBooks Author to export books as apps.  As first suggested by the creators of the award-winning Mozart Project interactive book at the iBooks Author Conference, this functionality would recognize the blurred line between these interactive books and mobile applications.  iBooks Author being able to export content as a mobile application, published similarly through iTunes Connect into the App Store rather than the iBooks Store, would be transformative and provide content creators with unprecedented flexibility in how to monetize their creations.
  3. Deliver functionality allowing “backward-compatible” EPUB conversion of existing multi-touch format books.  As of version 2.3 (released in June 2015), iBooks Author can produce EPUB files via special EPUB templates added to the software.  However, .iBooks files already created have to be deconstructed and re-created in these EPUB templates in order to be cross-platform.  An iBooks Author that effortlessly handles the conversion of existing multi-touch format books into the ubiquitous EPUB format is an iBooks Author that will achieve critical mass, and paradoxically drive more people to purchase Apple hardware.
  4. Deliver a more customizable iBooks Store experience.  Bearing in mind the iBooks Store can be thought of as a feature of iBooks Author, anybody using iBooks Author ought to be able to create a personal iBooks Store page, managed through iTunes Connect, that can be used to showcase author-specific content on the iBooks Store.  If Apple makes it possible for content creators to set up shop on the iBooks Store, and feel at home there, many will.
  5. Deliver a more navigable iBooks Store experience.  Apple could do content creators a favor by allowing iBooks Store users to search within genre or topic specifically for multi-touch format books.  We also need a specific section of the iBooks Store for multi-touch format books created in iBooks Author – something that used to be highlighted on the store’s front page but then vanished.  Apple should also better explain what a multi-touch format book is, from within the iBooks Store.  These books are special, with unique interactivity and multimedia, and people would download more of them if Apple did a few more simple things to call attention to them within the place of purchase.

May 2016 be the year that Apple fully realizes iBooks Author’s potential.  There’s no better way to honor Jobs’ legacy than that.

Bradley Metrock is CEO of Score Publishing, a digital media company based in Nashville, Tennessee, and executive producer of the iBooks Author Conference.  The iBooks Author Best Practices Series, the three-volume iBook set containing 2.5 hours of video from the 2015 iBooks Author Conference, is available on the iBooks Store.

  • Frank Lowney 10 months ago

    I’m not following what you mean by “backward compatible” ePub files. The ePub files generated by iBooks Author follow version three of this standard. IDPF maintains this standard such that any ePub 3 compliant eReader or any platform will be able to display it for reading. Thus, you should be able to export an ePub 3 file from iBooks Author that will be readable, for example, in the Readium plug-in for Chrome on any platform where that eReader is available. Or are you asking Apple to export ePub 2 files?
    For ePub 3, one has to be aware of the fact that Apple has gone beyond the standard with regard to interactive elements (widgets). Except for the Media widget, IDPF doesn’t provide ways and means to address the things that widgets do. Using a Pop-over widget, for example, will make that eBook readable only in the iBooks app for OS X and iOS. Avoid doing such things and your ePub 3 eBook should be readable in any ePub 3 compliant eReader. So, are you actually calling for an option in iBooks Author to embed media following the ePub 3 standard? If that’s the only problem, one should consider using Pages to create ePub 3 files with embedded video.
    My suspicion is that Apple is trying to influence IDPF to adopt its widget architecture instead of the other proposals for handling interactivity that are on the table. The iBooks Author app is the only toolset available for creating interactive eBooks that rival eBook apps. Apple is simply trying to demonstrate a way to include interactivity in ePub 3.

    • Bradley 10 months ago

      Hi Frank. I was suggesting it is not sufficient for the only way to convert existing iBooks to EPUB (EPUB3) within iBooks Author to be creating the content all over again in an EPUB-friendly way. Most people have nowhere close to the level of understanding you have about what is and is not kosher for EPUB vs what exists already in iBooks Author.

      My idea is to simply have a menu option available for iBA files that says something simple like “CONVERT TO EPUB” and it manages the conversion process entirely, with queries to the content creator about each and every widget or included component that may not work for the EPUB standard with a couple of suggested options to replace it (or, perhaps at the beginning, just a notification with option to delete).

      Adding half-baked EPUB support is a great example of what Steve Jobs wouldn’t have allowed. Gotta take it all the way, which means Apple engineers need to bring greatly increased simplicity to the process of creating cross-platform content, or in this case, taking existing iBA content and making it cross-platform without rebuilding it all over again from scratch.

      • Frank Lowney 10 months ago

        OK, I think that I understand the issue a little better now. Since iBooks Author is a template-driven app, choosing a template (any template) precludes easily shifting content poured into that template to any other template, including either one of the two available ePub templates.
        Since I don’t foresee Apple moving away from this very simplifying approach to authoring (templates), it might be better to focus on workflows that mitigate the pain of shifting from one template to another.
        The approach I often use is to arrange all of the assets for a book project in a folder hierarchy with sub-folders for text, single images and for each widget. Not only does this enable me to jump from one template to another, I can also repurpose these assets to projects using other apps such as Keynote, ScreenFlow etc.
        Of course it is entirely possible that some third party entrepreneur could develop an app that parses an *.iba file extracting content and transferring it to another *.iba file created with a different template. The *.iba file is completely transparent and accessible. Thus, content could be transported from a template that creates *.ibooks files to a template that creates *.epub files or any other template for that matter. Perhaps this is one of those lucrative “third party opportunities.” Apple doesn’t document the *.iba file format for developers so it’s a bit more challenging. Still, a diligent developer could figure it all out.

  • Herb Paynter 10 months ago

    Good article Bradley. I especially agree with your first point. Universal readability of full-featured iBooks on all devices and platforms is essential for this product to bloom in its full potential. Limiting the creation of these volumes to Apple’s IBA but licensing a full-featured “reader” API for Windows development would make sense to me. Think of the educational potential.

  • Patrick Mc Namee 10 months ago

    Bradley Metrock raised five issues which certainly stimulate thought. As a university professor and the author of nine iBooks I pondered the issues he raised and, as shown below, agreed much more with some of his views than others.

    The issue that Apple should deliver a universal book app: I agree: this must be a strategic imperative. First of all, as Bradley writes, the universal iTunes app was certainly instrumental in propelling iTunes to its current leadership position. A further argument is support of this was the decision to make Apple computers capable of running Windows software. Third as I use my own iBooks Author books in my teaching, I find it disappointing to have to say to my students: ‘Actually you need an iPad or a Mac computer to be able to use these Multi-Touch books.’

    I do not know enough about the technical compatibility between apps and iBooks Author books but it would surely be in everyone’s interests if compatibility existed.

    The issue of backward compatibility between iBooks Author and EPUB conversion seems to me to be problematic. The hugely differentiating feature between iBooks Author books and EPUB books is that the former provides a much more dynamic and interactive reader experience through the use of unique proprietary Widgets which, in my opinion, have the effect of displacing lots of legacy text with multimedia interactivity. In contrast EPUB relies, for its currency, on its ability to make mainly text material universally readable on almost all devices. The gulf in underlying philosophy and resultant output seems to me to be so great as to preclude compatibility.

    The remaining two issues of ‘Customisable experience’ and ‘More navigable iBooks Store experience’ raise a Steve Jobs obsession: the issue of simplicity versus customer segment tailoring. Steve Jobs always seemed to resolve this tradeoff by his principle that really high quality design makes tailored versions unnecessary. For example one of the reasons that Apple’s most successful product – the iPhone – was so successful was, that until recently, there was only one version of the iPhone available. Historically this was in contrast to Nokia, the then market leader, which had multiple models in multiple colors and even today when Apple still has a larger but still very limited range of phones (All iPhones have the same shape with the only substantial difference being screen size.) than the market leader, by volume but not profit, Samsung.

    As a person involved in university education I remain convinced that iBooks Author will become the university education’s dominant system for two reasons:

    1. The chain reaction effect of that professors who use iBooks Author have: most professors would teach more than one hundred separate students per year and those students who use them tend to love them and almost all become ambassadors for the system. At the MBA level, where I teach, these students tend to be, or will become, the leaders of companies, and so their evangelical powers are huge.

    2. The iBooks Author approach permits, initially, courses and ultimately whole Universities to transform their teaching being in traditional bricks and mortar institutions into Internet entities which can provide global interactive online learning.

    Patrick Mc Namee is a Professor Emeritus at the Ulster University, Ireland, specializing in Strategic Management at the MBA level, has written 9 iBooks Author books and will speak at the iBooks Author Conference in Nashville in 2016.