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Apple vs Amazon in ereader format smackdown

iBooks enlists kiddies on the EPUB3 front

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Just recently, Apple announced iBooks 2, and with it a new category of pedagogical ebooks that make full use of EPUB 3's new video and interactive capabilities. These textbooks are currently only available in the USA, so the rest of us can only watch from a distance and make impressed "ooh" noises. Top of the innovations, above the interactive review questions, multi touch gestures, movie segments and 3D flythroughs of cells, is simply the preservation of page numbers. Lecturers will welcome the ability to say "turn to page 348" instead of "search for Trilobite and count 36 paragraphs down".

But the real game-changer is that Apple simultaneously released the Mac-only iBooks Author, a free-to-use WYSIWYG tool that, to paraphrase the marketing froth, allows even bewildered numpties to create scintillating works of interactive genius.

But there are Jobsian caveats to iBooks Author that make it less than free. Its output is almost EPUB 3 but has some subtle proprietary differences (gotta love those). There's also a 2GB filesize limit, which may seem like plenty for an ebook, but keep in mind that we're talking about next-gen titles with full interactivity, video, sound and graphics (and probably some text too). A multimedia app, in other words. Suddenly 2GB seems ludicrously small, and will limit the authoring tool's appeal.

The biggest limitation by far, though, is that the geolocated detective mystery you wrote using iBooks Author can only be sold on Apple's platform (where Apple nets 30 per cent of all revenue). This creates a legal swampland where it isn't entirely clear how much of your own creation Apple purportedly controls.

iBooks Author is far less about stirring up big publishers (they'll stick with industry-standard Adobe InDesign) as it is about unleashing the previously frustrated hordes of indies and cowboy go-it-aloners - and this alone has raised Apple's game in the face of stiff competition from Amazon.

Deciding which format to back, then, could be based on which corporate megalith is more likely to "do an Adobe" and kill their platform without much warning, as Adobe did with mobile Flash last year.

Traditionally with format wars, one side eventually caves in and the other format "wins". But that's unlikely to happen here. Remember this is Apple and Amazon, neither of which is exactly known for compromising or backing down: and there's way too much at stake - control of the gateway to the world's knowledge.

Another option is to look at your paper-based book collection and ask whether you want to "own" ebooks in much the same way, or feel each time you buy (sorry, license) a new ebook and open it up, you're doing so at the whimsical behest of a corporate god who may revoke the title from under your nose at any time. Who will you trust more to house your lifetime's collection of books, Apple or Amazon?

Books, music and more

From my perspective, both as a reader and a publisher of ebooks and crowdsourced travel guides, EPUB 3 is a clear winner as it's an open format - though this isn't a clear endorsement of iBooks. Titles bought via iBookstore are restricted to devices authorized for the same iTunes account. So "choosing iBooks" is not the same as "choosing EPUB 3."

Whichever format you back, it's tempting to conclude "it's a great time to be a reader" with Apple and Amazon pushing clouds stuffed with books linked to devices that make the search and purchase process smooth. You might even say it's a great time to possess a DRM-stripping tool so you can continue to own your own books and read them wherever you like. The arrival of these supercharged new formats, though, means books have changed. Whether that change is for the better is unclear. ®

Matt Stephens is an IT consultant in Central London. He co-authored Design Driven Testing: Test Smarter, Not Harder and founded independent book publisher Fingerpress.

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