Suppose all Books are Apps?

The idea that books might work as apps on the iPhone first struck home when I heard someone say that the idea did not scale well…. So for me this ‘books as apps’ meme started with the negative idea that books would not work too well as apps in the iPhone economy. But sales in the iPhone app store suggest that books as apps are working very well (customers are buying them) and in the last few months the notion has been tickling me that books really will be apps on the iPhone and this is a significant breakthrough.

But let us step a bit and ask (in non-technical terms): what is an app? FOLDOC has a reasonable definition: “A complete, self-contained program that performs a specific function directly for the user.” But the term has come to mean a bit more than this and now seems to broadly correspond to this family of features:

  1. Apps are client side programs (relatively small packages of code that operate in the phone).
  2. Apps have a rather well-defined function; even if like Accuweather, or the Google Maps app this function is very wide-ranging and comprehensive over a significant domain; or like the Brushes app, or a camera-app, the function is highly generative and capable of incredibly rich output.
  3. Apps are elements of software which are not system software (which means that users can and will choose whether or not to have them. The world is not going to collapse if you do without the ‘project management’ app or the ‘slimming’ app)
  4. Apps are sourced from an app store (or something like that), which might well have a complex set of purchase options and advertisement-related rules.
  5. Apple’s apps are not (yet) multi-tasking, but they are to a degree interdependent. It is a big achievement of the iPhone O/S that sets of apps can work rather well together (social network apps become much more powerful by leveraging the output of other web service apps; camera apps can provide input for augmented reality apps, etc)
  6. Furthermore, many apps are internet dependent even though, (see 1 and 3 above), they are client-side and optional. This means that many of the most useful apps, like the Google Maps app, are crucially dependent on an internet service, a cloud-based database system, or for a Twitter client such as Tweetie, on a pre-existing a web application (Twitter) to give them their scope and real-time functionality.

While these several features may not give us a necessary and sufficient set of conditions for the definition of ‘app’ and its precise meaning, I think they show that this notion is a really rich concept which is taking on a critical role in the way that we think about mobile computing and the web. And that is the key point to understanding apps: the web and the internet is the ground on which they operate. Apps are merely toys if they are not open to, and using web services. This is also a very reassuring point about the app concept.

Some critics of Apple, such as John Battelle and Jonathan Zittrain, believe that the company is trying to close off developers and tie down consumers to a purely Apple walled garden. Whether or not Apple are trying to do this, and they clearly are trying and succeeding in policing their own app store, it is obvious that Apple cannot hope to achieve an exclusive domain and an effective monopoly in the distribution of media content. The way apps work — using internet services to get any breadth, currency or scale — is far too open and web-dependent to allow anybody to make a real walled garden for apps. These web services are inherently too pervasive and leaky. Apple cannot do this because its software system is crucially dependent on leveraging the economies and technologies of the internet and the web. So long as the Apple system supports standard web browsers there will always be competition and effective competition in the iPhone eco-system from web services and web apps. Further it is pretty clear that Apple’s success in building an app store and an e-commerce system for media properties on their platform will breed competitors. There are plenty of burgeoning competitors to the Apple app store and some of them will be successful (Android looks like the best bet for serious competition). No app developer or media publisher is going to rest easy with an Apple-only media landscape.

The funny thing is, it now looks as though Apple is beginning to fall back from the idea that books are apps. The big launch event that book publishers are anticipating with the release of the iPad is the arrival of the iBooks application in which books are treated as digital files (with an ePub file format), not as individual apps at all. This is a bit strange, because Apple is putting itself on all fours with its obvious competitor for books: Amazon which already has a well accepted and free app on the iPhone for its Kindle customers. We will see how that works out….Exact Editions at least is working on the assumption that some books are certainly best treated as apps, and that magazines also will work best on the iPhone and on similar platforms if they are launched and developed as internet-driven apps.

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One thought on “Suppose all Books are Apps?

  1. Books became apps only because of the lack of a unified reading program for them.Apple will still move forward with digital books. While I'd like to see them do that with iWork's Pages as the authoring tool, this has not yet been settled. There are things about the way Pages handles multimedia elements that I don't like and which would not make good digital books right now.

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