Digital Books are Going to Alexandria, Venice and Wolfsburg

Apple put the cat among the pigeons with its recent launch of iBooks Author and its evident intention to gain a major presence in educational publishing. The EULA (End User License Agreement) which seeks to limit the extent to which an author can exploit a work, made with iBook Author, outside the Apple controlled iTunes caused a fair amount of outraged squawking. Others were disappointed that Apple appeared to be using, but then veering away from the open EPUB 3 standard. But to the disinterested observer the free sample book looked pretty good, and it seems that the Apple software engineers have developed some useful and attractive widgets for building interactive textbooks. Yet this launch was not simply or primarily about some cool widgets for interactive textbooks. Apple clearly thinks that it is starting out on a big project, a move to change the way we use books in class. Pretty soon, a move to change the ways we use books out of class. For this development to really work for Apple, they have to convince students that these new tools produce really good digital books, they have to convince schools and colleges of that too, but above all they have to convince authors, some of the established textbook publishers also, that it is practical and easy to write great books with the new tools. Apple may do that, after all Apple and the iPad are on one heck of a winning streak at the moment, but its a tall order and it will probably take at least a year before we can be too sure of any of those things. Books cannot be written (or rewritten) instantly, and adoptions and syllabi take time to mature.

But Apple has shown its hand in an interesting way, and it has changed the geo-political climate of the digital books world. For at least three years it has been obvious that a major tussle is developing in the digital books space between Google, Amazon and Apple. Last week’s move made it much clearer how Apple sees this contest developing. And it allows us to see more clearly how these major corporations are pitching their own efforts to shape the world of books. They are not competing head-to-head, and they are all casting their spell in a different manner.

Let us start with Google. Google has made some astonishingly bold moves in the digital bookspace, and it has adopted an Egyptian strategy. The approach has been to build and amass as many of the world’s books in one enormous library, with uncanny similarities to the library of Alexandria. This is a personal mission for Page and Brin, Google’s founders, who have a centralised and archival vision for the continuing importance of books as stores of cultural knowledge, sources of historical and scientific information. Google has even, in the manner of Ptolemy, gone on missions of acquisition to negotiate with foreign potentates for the acquisition of (copies of) rare volumes for their centralised repository. This vision of a vast and growing digital library, totally searchable and endlessly growing, has been at the heart of the Google offensive in the world of books. The Google project was launched in a way which was both too secretive and too impetuous, almost Ptolemaic in the way in which established (or vested) interests were ignored or by-passed, but it was an enormously bold and technically do-able effort, set to be one of the undoubted wonders of the digital world before it was halted by court action. Google Books has been stalled if not derailed, and although its efforts are not complete it has built an extraordinary and enormous edifice, some aspects of which are viewable to the world outside. Google has as yet shown very little competence or serious interest in the ways in which digital books may be sold and used by individual consumers (Google eBookstore is a damp squib). And Google’s book technology and its investment in capturing and curating 10s of millions of them has been extraordinarily hidden, positively Alexandrian in the way in which everything has been standardised, centralised and largely concealed from view. As with the Library of Alexandria there is no known index or inventory of the works, though as an individual reader one may be allowed to visit and consult/search the collection. We should not underestimate the possibilities of the Google approach, but it is surely of some relevance that no other commercial organisation shows any sign of taking a similar tack. There is a possibility that in building the world’s biggest and first universal digital library Google has built itself a pharaonic mausoleum. A wonder that will be more marvelled at than used.

Amazon have been identified with books from the outset. The company was started with the mission to become the biggest and best internet bookshop for physical books. Selling printed books was the mainstay of the company for its first decade. So it was natural for Amazon to start experimenting with digital books and eReaders. In the space of four and half years Amazon has become the most successful digital bookseller. By far. If we are looking for an historical precedent for the success of Amazon in the digital space and the flowering of their Kindle proposition, we might look no further than the Italian cities of the 16th Century (Venice, Padua, Bologna, Milan etc), for it was in these city states that the German invention of printing was most successfully brought to market. They were already leading centres for the copying and selling of manuscripts and the Italian bookmakers were quick to appropriate the Gutenberg methods. Amazon has adopted an Venetian strategy which shows that a ‘fast follower’ can often beat the inventor in the market place. The Venetians and Florentine booksellers and printers understood the marketing of books and under the watchful eye of the Emperor and Pope this activity was carefully regulated and encouraged (from the point of view of finally nailing this historical parallel, I am undecided whether Bezos fits better the role of Charles V or the Pope Leo X to whom he has an uncanny resemblance). Amazon did not invent the idea of an ebook or pioneer the manufacture of ebook readers, but with their Kindle they have shown how the selling of digital books can fit very naturally and powerfully within the engine of their enormous e-commerce activities. The Venetians too realised that books, were merely physical packets and could be loaded in with other cargo.

Apple’s new announcement is above all else a loud proclamation that digital books can be a lot better than the transhipped ebooks we have so far seen from the likes of Amazon (better also than the scarcely distinguishable iBooks which now populate that section of iTunes). If Amazon has set itself the task of selling all the books now being written, and Google has set itself the task of databasing all the books that have ever been written, Apple is focusing its attention on the task of how books should be written in a different way because they are digital books. The iPad has already shown that digital books on that platform can be more exciting and more ambitious than the typical Kindle ebook, these enhanced eBooks are not available through iBooks but they are directly on the platform as apps. Apple is taking up the challenge that digital books will be written in a different way by fully digital authors and it is subtly changing iTunes and iBooks to accommodate them. But this is not a move in isolation. Apple is an integrated company and it provides integrated solutions. iBooks Author (so far) only works on the Macintosh platform. This is more than a bit strange, inasmuch as it feels very much like an iPad application and the output can only be fully appreciated on the iPad and may only be sold through iTunes. Apple’s vision here for how digital books may be written and read is so deeply imbued with Apple thinking that it is hard to get a rounded picture of what is going on.

Perhaps a metaphor will help. Apple has an integrated approach to the hardware, the software and the services that it is building and one might say that their strategy for books, is Germanic. Apple has seen that the key to developing the market for digital books will lie in seizing and designing the means of production. In the Apple view the best books will be written with the best program on the best device, distributed through an Apple commercial environment (naturally, ‘the best’) and consumed or projected on the best hardware device (iPad or Apple TV). This powerful model, of integrated but articulated control, aims at the best engineering solution. And in suggesting that Apple has a Germanic approach, I am alluding more to Volkswagen than to Karl Marx. Apple is imbued with a very strong engineering ethos and everything that Apple does, aims at scale, efficiency and streamlined design. So the iBooks project and the new wave of interactive books that it will engender will, like the VW Beatle, appeal to readers of all shapes and sizes. It will be a ‘lean back’ experience in the back seat with an iPad, but a lean forward experience when you are the author/driver (temporarily, at least, hunched over a MacBook Air). The integrated design is air-cooled (call that the web) and totally dependent on traction through internet services (nothing is proprietary about those standards); even better: “Look the ‘windows’ are open” and iBooks can be given away for free. There are more chinks of freedom further down the articulated chain of control: “Sure Kindle books, Kobo books also, can be read on the platform”.  On the other hand, it has to be admitted that the VW is actually designed to be driven on the autobahn and iTunes is the only commercial environment for an iBook.

One has to admire the disruptive chutzpah of the Apple project. It is in some ways a high risk enterprise. Having played the first card in this round (how to build a toolkit for authors of interactive books), there is a good chance that Amazon (or more likely an independent genius) will produce a much better writing environment or toolkit, probably for HTML5. Apple may get stuck with the second-best suite (a bit like Hypercard in front of the web). It may get out-played by some fast followers. But I doubt that Apple is worrying too much about this. It has at least shown that elephants can dance by taking a crack at a problem which is there for the taking. One does not often see such big companies moving with such innovative steps and pulling the pieces together so quickly and deftly. But this game is not over. It has barely started.