My thoughts on iBook Author

My thoughts were expressed 20 months ago in a private email.

I did not get a response.

  • Anonymous

    Are iBooks HTML5 though, or a closed proprietary format that *has* to be created on a Mac, bought from the iTunes Store, and played on an Mac or iDevice ?

    PS: Since that mail was sent to Steve Jobs, I would stop waiting for an answer. And run and hide if you do get one.

    • The interactive parts of the book need to be built using HTML 5 but I have not seen any tools to make that happen.
      How is an author supposed to code these wonderful animated 3D graphics?
      Does every writer need to hire a programmer?

      • Anonymous

        Actually, that was a real question. Are iBooks fully HTML5 ? or partly/not at all ? Are they cross-platform ? Is there a no-DRM option ?
        I think an HTML5 authoring tool is in essence very different from a proprietary one.

      • Like I stated in an earlier comment. iBooks are fully HTML5 but are also fully proprietary.

        How is that?

        Because Apple has extended CSS to include a new undocumented layout model, one that is not a part of a standard, not even a draft. Because the built-in widgets use object tags and data attributes (all valid HTML5) to create proprietary interactive widgets. Unless you use a custom widget of your own, there is no JS in iBook Author’s output.

        HTML5 is just a part of the picture. You can’t do anything without CSS and JS and this is one of those times when using HTML5 as a catchall for all three does us disservice.

      • Anonymous

        Just to clarify: There is a difference between “CS5” as mentioned in Horace’s letter, and “CSS” as used by Baldur. CS5 is the latest version (5) of Adobe Creative Suite (CS), while CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is a style sheet language. See for more info on CSS.

      • af

        Doesn’t something like Hype make HTML5 more accessible to non-programmers? Can you make animations/widgets in Hype, and then bring them into this new iBook tool? (I am not sure – just asking!).

      • Anonymous

        See Enkerli’s comments below.

      • poke

        You still get a lot of stuff without needing to know HTML5: slideshows, review questions, videos, sounds, Keynote presentations, interactive images, 3D objects. Plus the slick navigation UI. I think you can make an impressive book with just iBooks Author. Presumably they’ll add more with updates.

  • Matt Ryall

    I hate to be the one to break this to you, Horace, but I don’t think he’s ever going to reply. 🙁

  • Oh that typo; Suing where you meant Using. I feel for you; I have done that several times.

  • Most of the output of iBooks Author is non-standard CSS and non-standard interactive widgets. I’ve written about the CSS here: And I’m planning on writing about the widgets later today, but the short version is this:

    The interactive widgets are a combination of custom object tags and data- attributes that are then rendered using proprietary code in iBooks 2.0. Any browser or epub reading system that wanted to implement support for those widgets would have to reverse engineer them first.

    So, iBooks Author is not an HTML5 authoring tool, its output is decidedly non-standard, and it’s far from being cross-platform. It’s a proprietary tool for creating proprietary files.

  • Daniel Glazman (W3C CSS Working Group Co-chairman) has written about the ibooks format, if people aren’t willing to take my word on it being non-standard:

  • No standards-based “HyperCard for textbooks”? Ah, well… #iBooksAuthor may still be neat.

    Quite sad that it should be proprietary. Apple missed an opportunity. Funnily enough, Adobe might be somewhat closer to taking it.Was also hoping Apple might help with the creation of the interactive content itself. Since the HTML widget supports Dashboard .wdgt files, it might be a case for using Dashcode. Maybe Tumult’s Hype and other solutions could export to .wdgt?
    Still, there’s already quite a bit of discussion elsewhere about standards, formats, and licensing. The reason I came here specifically was to hear what Horace had to say about “disrupting educational models”. Inspired by the announcement, but going beyond it.

    For one thing, some of us teachers are thinking more about the “free agent” model. Though iTunes U itself requires institutional support, it’s giving us ideas about the future of learning outside of institutions. There’s already a number of ways to teach on a freelance basis (among others, Meri Aaron Walker has been giving advice on teachers selling their expertise). But there’s disruption to happen in terms of support for freelance teachers.
    Providing CC-licensed iBooks textbooks may be part of it. Obviously not a complete solution, as they’re limited to iPad (for now). But there’s something about developing your own content and making it available which could have an impact in the longterm. In a way, it might give the self-publishing spark to people who already have an ambivalent relationship with textbook publishers.

    (As a kind of strange disclaimer: I’ve recently created ancillary material for a textbook publisher. But I’ve been on the record saying that publishers need to rethink their role. As a teacher, I think “learning content” is a relatively small part of what learning and teaching are about.)

    Then, there’s the whole thing about collaborating on the creation of this material. Much of Apple’s announcement was about supporting key roles (school administrator, textbook publisher, teacher, student…). But there’s a lot to be said about the learning side of crowd sourcing. It’s common now for teachers to ask students to contribute to Wikibooks or to Wikipedia articles. Contributing material for iBooks textbooks could be a neat version of this. The fact that iBooks Author can be used by anyone may be one of the most important things about Apple’s announcement: you don’t need to be a teacher to contribute neat content.

    • Turns out, Tumult Hype does produce code for widgets. Here’s mine:

      • Anonymous

        …which raises a real question concerning security. If Apple “vetted” them, I trust them. But I have no idea what I’m downloading if I pull in Enkerli’s widget – no offense to Enkerli intended.

      • None taken.

      • jawbroken

        Aren’t the widgets just HTML5, etc? Do you not browse the internet at all?

      • Anonymous

        You are literally warned to know who your source is before you install a widget. Sounds like Apple is taking the possibility of a virus seriously. Why shouldn’t I?

      • jawbroken

        I doubt the issue is a virus, perhaps they are concerned about more prosaic things like phishing or other information leaking.

      • Anonymous

        Whatever. Why shouldn’t I heed their warning?

      • Now, if I were to publish a textbook (with my HTML5 widget embedded in the text), it’s possible that Apple may be vetting it and checking that the widget is safe. Quite certainly, they wouldn’t do anything with the learning content itself (so, some people are likely to harp on the whole “the content isn’t vetted” bandwagon). But I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple treated these books a bit like apps. Since, AFAICT, widgets aren’t compiled into binary, the code is visible and it should be fairly easy to identify potential problems.
        Also, there’s probably much less harm you can do with a widget than with an app. I’m sure there’s a way to do something iffy with JavaScript, but it’s not like the widget can control other things on your iPad.

      • Apparently the widgets aren’t JavaScript.

      • iBooks widgets aren’t JavaScript? Strange. 
        The widget I created in Hype and Dashcode has at least one .js file and it does work in iBooks on my iPad (in preview mode).

    • Anonymous

      You could take a look at
      This is an HTML5 ebook framework for publishing using open web standards. There are a number of books available for the iPad made this way. I believe they provide a coded app that interprets the HTML5 code that you supply. Anyway, this is donationware. 

      Another is
      This is a commercial outfit. They give you free software and charge when you publish.

      Adobe also has a solution (sorry, forget the name). This is used by a lot of people publishing interactive magazines for the iPad.

      The problem is that there is not at this point an open source format for interactive books. Maybe in a few years we’ll get such a format.

      In the meantime Apple’s solution looks like a great bridge to the future. If you only intend to give away your book it is wonderful. I can make a tutorial or other simple book that is interactive for no charge. Currently I support a small guide I wrote that costs us about $10 a copy to print.

      My advice is to keep all of your content separate from iBooks Author so that you can repurpose it in a new format in the future if something better comes along.

      • Good advice on keeping content separate from #iBooksAuthor, to repurpose later.
        Playing with the app, I do get the impression that it makes sense to create pieces elsewhere and integrate them in ‘Author. In fact, I might think more about my workflow, in this case. (For instance, I mostly work with outlines repurposed in slides and coursenotes. Not ideal source for ebooks.)
        iBooks textbooks are one output option. Other options include providing the parts separately. EPUB and iBooks are a bit like web archives or “mini-sites”. It could make sense to create online versions with the same content.Really glad Hype’s content can easily be transformed into Dashboard widgets for use in iBooks Author. Baker looks great and I’m sure that designing content with it is fairly straightforward. I’m no coder, though, so Hype’s model is more to my liking, for the interactive content.Overall, what Apple has announced represents one step in a direction which is probably the right one. Not that incredibly disruptive, IMHO. But Apple’s notoriety at least has the effect of getting more people to realize what the issue might be. Regardless of what people about Apple’s products and services, the company is effective at wave-making.

      • To be clear (it wasn’t so obvious to me, originally), Tumult Hype is really meant to build animations. The type of interaction it facilitates is somewhat limited. Unless there’s something I didn’t get.
        One of the things I had in mind, as a learning object, was something closer to a puzzle. You move terms around in a sort of concept map. It’s a useful in-class exercise and I could see how it’d work in a book. This is where I wish I were a coder.

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  • Horace, thanks for spurring them on!  I like their response yesterday.  I downloaded the free authoring tool and have started on my first book.  

    I love the templates and how I could drop a Word file in the template and the software did the rest.

    I think this will shake up the education world and help home schoolers a great deal.

    It doesn’t bother me that it’s not perfect. It’s so much better than what I had before!
    The price fit my budget pretty well too.

  • berult

    It’s simply the future of books as seen through Apple’s eyes. The set of tools is tailored to Apple’s vision and free to use by any creative mind wishing to do so.  Including competing platforms in so far as they do not benefit financially from it. If they wished to do so, a 30percent cut is laid out as an authoring fee. In fairness to all and sundry.

    Of course a vision is proprietary. And so are the tools needed to implement it. Only in being fully proprietary can a vision be borrowed in vivo for free, or exploited in vitro for a fee. Cross- platform evangelism sounds more like a foment of conservatism and a self-serving plea for a proprietary status quo.

    A 99$ minimalist tablet should interface Apple’s vision to the economic reality of the world of education. That is the reality-based element presently missing in a plan for effective implementation. I expect development in that regard being announced soon, at the next iPad event.

  • Anonymous

    ” My thoughts were expressed 20 months ago in a private email.I did not get a response.”


    Your message was too long. 

    Of the 3 or 4 messages that I sent to Steve, the only one that got a response was two lines, 43 words in total.

    Steve’s reply was 5 words.

    Looking at my message again, I realize I could have omitted 2 of the 4 points I made, combined the remaining two and reduced the word count to 13.

    Looking at your message, you could have simply asked “Is Apple working on HTML authoring tools?” and your answer might have been “Yep”, “Nope” or “Apple does not comment on unreleased products”. 

    I don’t know whether Tim Cook, Sir Jony Ive or the others at Apple’s top table have enough free time to reply to such emails, but I guess that in Jobs’ case they were first read by a gopher, who would pass on only a few that he might care to reply to. 

    Anyway, good luck with your HTML authoring. 

  • Anonymous

    Does anyone have any thoughts on the disruptive potential of governments directly commissioning textbook authors?  I don’t own a Mac, so I can’t play with the authoring software.  However, if it is as easy as suggested, it will remove most of the hassles of publishing.  It would seem very practical for governments to pay whatever it costs to hire the best available authors and editors, then distribute the works for free.

    The cost could not possibly come close to $14.99 per book if this were implemented at any scale.  If I worked as a textbook author for one of the three big publishers, I’d immediately begin campaigning my school board/education department to do just that.  If the books are free, the iPad suddenly becomes impossibly affordable.

    • Great point given what students spend on books per semester. 

    • Anonymous

      It would be great if the iPad were more affordable.  Right now, I don’t know how well it sells across the whole population.  comScore did a study and found that 49% of buyers make more than $100K a year [1]  which is only 16% of households [2].  So maybe the textbooks will be a subsidy that helps a bigger percentage of people to buy.  I hope so.          

      1.  Aatekah Mir.  A Look at iPad Users: Apple Still Trouncing Android.  The Wall Street Journal.  April 19, 2011.    
      2.  Household income in the United States.  Wikipedia.  January 2, 2012.

  • Luis Berumen

    Maybe he didnt’ respond because you were “suing HTML5 canvas elements” instead of using them. Who knows, they say people won’t look at your resume if you have a typo, maybe that’s what did it.

  • Brant Arthur

    Apple is also becoming a publisher at this point, for those who submit original work via Author. I suppose their review procedure would also address plagiarism (see tools like TurnItIn). This is a similar role they have with the App Store, but interesting to have them partnering with textbook publishers while at the same time introducing a tool that may cut them out over the long run. 

    • Anonymous

      I agree, it’s a unique dynamic.  I think the publishers have enough rope to hang themselves here.  Apple was smart to bring them into the fold though, because without the big three on board, the publishing industry would throw everything they have at blocking the adoption of iBooks in education.  Instead, they will profit in the short run as Apple equips the world with a free tool to blow them out of their trenches.  Not only have they likely signed their own death warrant, but they are doing all of Apple’s PR work, singing about how this is so good for their business.

      • Brant Arthur

        Historically publishers have had an advantage in printing and distribution (iBooks takes that away) as well as being able to cover a broad range of subjects (now teachers can select from authors with particular areas of knowledge). What the entry-level author still doesn’t have though is the relationships with the schools and institutional knowledge of meeting standards for each state (in the US). I’d be interested to see if employees of the incumbent publishers jump ship to use their experience and relationships to make a larger profit for themselves (see iOS App Store experience).

      • Anonymous

        With the degree of bureaucracy involved in education spending, I’m sure those relationships are a huge driver.  See my below comment though on an alternative possibility – the districts/states directly employing a number of authors.  There are so many ways this thing could play out, but I have a hard time believing that the incumbents will be the big winners. as Horace constantly points out, disruption is almost always very painful for yesterday’s champions.

      • Brant Arthur

        The trend these days seems to be to give teachers more flexibility regarding standards and curriculum (at least in California). Given budget concerns I don’t think states have the ability at the moment to get into a new business – even if there are long-term savings. It’ll be interesting to watch this space.

      • What do you think about a student making a book as a part of their learning?  Seems like some great ACTION oriented projects possible. 

      • The iBook option gives me wayyy to much to think about.  I say that in that I’ve just bought Final Cut Pro and am working on a doc film project.  So much interesting new stuff to work within education.  Because of absurd textbook prices, I don’t use one in my classes.  Lots of my colleagues do this as well.  We read scholarly articles via databases and work within fair use policies to read excerpts. 

  • skips

    I would like to point out that Apple does not consider itself a software company.  They provide software that enhances their hardware whenever the marketplace fails to provide (what they consider) adequate software.  They have been burned several times by depending on outside software companies to support their hardware, so they generally provide at least a minimal level of usable software in the areas that are important to them (i.e., iWorks, iLife and now iBook Author).  

  • I wrote him Feb 27, 2010.

    Subj: ePub is cr*p

    You know it and I know it.

    Turn Pages in iWork into a Digital Book Creation platform, dammit.

    Nah, he never replied.

  • Tom

    You did not get a response…until iBooks Author…

  • Conal Okeefe

    I have nothing usefull to ad

    This post just highlights something I have been thinking

    Horace – I truly appreciate you Interest, Willingness and Capability in promoting Critical Thinking and Dialogue

  • Csewe

    Great comments here. While the whole business of the EULA remains to be sorted out, I do have a thought about comments made here and other places about states or other entities hiring writers to author texts using iBooks Author, and then distribute the content for free, thereby avoiding many of the cost issues. Aside from the questionable notion of putting such an endeavor in the hands on the government, there is a better solution. Teachers and educators are curious animals, in that many (most?) are not interested in money (otherwise they would not have gone into teaching!). Now that Apple has made the tools available, there is a great chance that some really good texts will be made available for free, authored by educators who are just passionate about their discipline and devoted to passing their knowledge on..

    • Anonymous


      This is a great point. I would also like to put out the idea of having older students (middle-high school age) producing maybe very subject specific “iBooks” or even some type of work book for younger (K-4 or so) students.

      Imagine the learning experience that would be for a high schooler to produce, test, refine, and present a product (iBook based learning material) to a real world customer!

    • Malte

      My brother – a high school media teacher – does exactly this already. I can tell you that he is psyched about iBooks Author. His school is already supplying all students with an iPad.

  • mc

    I wrote to Steve, too, concerning the awful effects that scientific journals are having on the budgets of university libraries. There are essentially three publishing houses, and they keep raising their subscription fees, but because their journal titles are so prestigious (arbitrary distinction), libraries have to keep paying. The publishers are gouging, and libraries are at the breaking point. This is a serious problem for higher education institutions.

    Steve didn’t write back to me, either, but I feel very pleased that he was thinking about the same things, because he must have been involved before his death in this initiative to simplify book publishing. It makes perfect sense that Apple would not take on gouging publishers head-on, but just make it seriously easy for competitors to undermine their mafia-like grip on libraries.

  • I don’t understand why to bother about the EULA. The simple way out is just not use iBook, why should anyone. pdf ebooks are fine and offer most functionality needed.

    • Anonymous

      Huh. Did you watch the event? Here’s the link:

      To me, it seemed to do a good job of illustrating the benefits of a hyper-interactive schoolbook. I’d be interested to know why you think otherwise.

    • As a format for eBooks, PDF is often problematic. Because it’s so tied to the format it should have on the printed page, it appears less suitable for online reading. For instance, it’s impossible to reflow the text when enlarging it, something which radically improves the reading experience on an iPad.
      I do read most of the material for my courses as PDFs, using GoodReader on the iPad. These tend to work reasonably well because, in landscape mode, you usually can see a full column at a readable “print size”. Tried the same thing on a Kobo and I only found it readable once the column was larger than the screen, meaning that I had to move back and forth every line. Reflowing text really is a major advantage, in my experience. In fact, lack of it is part of the reason I find CourseSmart unusable.

      Besides, while PDFs can integrate interactive elements, it’s rather difficult to create them. If we can’t even get people to create form elements in a PDF which needs to be filled in, it’s not surprising that interactive elements in PDFs are even rarer. And largely unsupported. Being able to drag in HTML5 widgets created in Hype is likely to be a nice part of my workflow.

      • Anonymous

        WebSonar can be used to solve your PDF online reading problem and IBook Author will export to PDF. I have a sample on my library.

      • Thanks for the tip. I’ll look it up. But PDF remains relatively difficult to use as a format in this context.

      • Anonymous

        One of the neat tricks was highlighting a passage and having all highlighted passages integrate into a “study package”. Is that even possible with a PDF? I must confess my lack of knowledge regarding up-to-date PDF capability.

      • Yup. And GiodReader makes it easy.

  • I may be missing the point, but can there be anything more proprietary than having to sign on with a publisher to get your work published? What cut does a publisher take?

    IBook is a new publisher, if you want to publish between their hard(ware)covers you need to pay them a cut.

    What’s different?

    • I’m no expert on this, but there are diverse models fortextbook publishing, including some where publishers pay authors via contract, instead of royalties.
      Besides, there are many differences between Apple and publishers. Some of those differences may make us prefer Apple over publishers (who sometimes try to bribe teachers and administrators to adopt specific textbooks, something Apple is unlikely to do). But one of the big things about the difference is that publishers care more about getting their content in as many hands as possible while Apple tries to sell hardware.
      The fact that the EULA may prevent an author from publishing the same material on other platform makes it quite unusual a situation, though not necessarily that “disruptive” in the Christensen sense.

      • I see. Thanks for the clarification.

        disk grinder
        Sent with Sparrow ( from my head

      • thought about this now. Clearly Penguin Books would prevent you publishing the same work on Random House, or even as the pot-boiler attached to an Ace Double

  • Incrediburgible

    I sent a similar letter to Mr. Jobs on April 30, 2010, asking if Motion would evolve into an HTML 5 animation creation tool.

    I too did not receive a response.