Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 2

It was either ‘Apple Jumps the Shark’ or ‘Apple Screws the Pooch’. But which do you prefer – the scary apple or the adorable puppy?

This is the second part of a two-part article. To read the first part, click here.

Here’s where Apple made even me suspicious. In its clarification yesterday, Apple said that it isn’t only in-app transactions that it is forcing onto its system, but any transaction. To use Apple’s own words:

We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app with in-app purchase.

This great big steaming pile of crap basically means that any platform that wants to make an app for the iPad or iPhone to sell and/or read books has to at the very least give their customers an option to buy books through the Apple-sanctioned method – which gives Apple 30% of the profit. And it’s not just the profit. It’s the transaction – which means Apple can leverage the data collected (who bought the book, when they bought the book, how often they buy books and from which apps) to optimise their own book store – and they get that information for doing absolutely nothing. There’s also a massive doubling up of energy and effort here: Amazon, Google, Kobo, Overdrive and every other book reading app that offers a store already has a store. Apple skimming 30% off the top is nothing but pure greed. And if they stick with it, they will fail. And here is why.

Those who know me well (or know me at all) are probably acquainted with my pile of Apple gadgets and my willingness to justify spending vast amounts of money on the latest and greatest from Cupertino. That’s because despite every anti-competitive, backwards-thinking, mean-spirited thing they do on the iTunes or App stores they still make pretty things. Very pretty things. In fact, they make billions of dollars from selling pretty things for exorbitant prices. Just a small example of this: it was announced today that despite having only having 4% of the global smartphone market share, Apple still makes 50% of the profit from sales of the iPhone. That means there are a lot of people out there who are willing to spend a lot of money on Apple hardware.

And that’s because they make good hardware. It was the reason the iTunes store and the App Store were created. To sell more hardware. Apple may have revolutionised music sales, and made a killing doing it, but they did it by selling iPods – not by selling music. If they try and take complete control of ebooks on iOS (the iPhone and iPad operating system) in this way, then all it will mean is that ebooks will fail on iOS. Books are not like music. There are already quite a few established sellers of ebooks with more market share than Apple. And books are already too expensive, and too unprofitable for Apple to skim yet another 30% off the top.

So Apple have screwed the pooch. What are they going to do about it? The views on this story seems to be entirely negative. Will they try to spin it into something positive for consumers? Or will the famed Apple marketing machine fail? Only time will tell, but unless Apple rolls over on this issue it will be a bad thing for books in general.

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 1

News has surfaced in the last couple of days about Apple and how they’re once again ruining it for everyone. Why, Apple, why? I didn’t want to believe it myself at first, but now Apple have clarified. Yup, definitely evil. But it’s not just evil – it’s really stupid. And here’s why.

To summarise: two days ago, The New York Times reported that Apple had some made some changes to the App Store rules which meant that Sony could no longer sell ebooks through their reading app on the iPhone. Instead, Apple would force Sony to use a system called “in-app purchasing” – which means that every transaction made within an iPad or iPhone app goes through Apple and the iTunes store. That means 30% of every book sold goes to Apple. There was a massive (I argued) overreaction to this, as every man and his dog predicted that Apple was being evil and trying to take over ebooks. I thought they were evil, but I thought they were being evil in the same way they always are. Apple have always had it in for software developers trying to sell things directly through their apps. This is why Kindle’s iPhone and iPad apps force you to go to the browser to buy a book, but Apple’s own iBooks app lets you do it without going to the web browser.

I thought (wrongly as it turns out) that this meant apps like Kindle and Overdrive wouldn’t have to change, because all of their transactions take place on the open web. If you don’t know what that means, let me explain: I open the Kindle app on my iPad; I want to buy a book; I click a button in the app which takes me to the Amazon website; I buy my book; the Kindle app re-opens and I can start reading. In Apple’s iBooks app, on the other hand, I press a special button inside the app; there’s a fancy-pants animation that turns my bookshelf into a secret rotating door; I buy my book; the secret rotating door rotates again and I can start reading. In other words, there’s not that big a difference, save for the magic rotating door.

This is the first part of a two-part article. To read the second part, click here.

Microsoft Turns Over an Old Leaf

News circulated around the web last week that Microsoft has filed a patent application for the visual look of the page turn on touchscreen devices. According to the NY Times:

The patent application states that when “one or more pages are displayed on a touch display” a “virtual page turn curls a lifted portion of the page to progressively reveal a back side of the page while progressively revealing a front side of a subsequent page.” Just like real pages in a paper book.

The application was apparently filed back in 2009, when work on Microsoft’s Courier tablet was still going (the device’s development was cancelled in April this year). What’s odd is not that Microsoft had the temerity to patent something that a few other companies had already implemented in their touchscreen applications (the Classics app on the iPhone was one, and the iPad’s iBooks app uses the same visual effect now). It’s not even particularly odd that a tech company can patent something that is so blatantly silly. There are some extremely weird software patents already floating about: Microsoft patented that creepy paperclip with eyes and no legs that used to ask you if you needed help writing a letter, and Facebook has a patent for the newsfeed (a concept which clearly derives from multiple other sources). No, the odd thing about this patent is that the technology itself seems so … unnecessary.

I mean, I’ve shown quite a few people the page turning animation in iBooks, and they have ooh’d and aah’d  as you might expect. It’s a very pretty animation. But having now used the iBooks application to actually read books, the animation is kind of a pain in the arse. It’s nice for showing off the touchscreen technology, and for making iBooks look more like a real book. But it offers no other functionality. For someone who is already used to reading ebooks, it is a superfluous, annoying bit of frippery. Most of us are already used to scrolling to read text, and if the page metaphor is important to the idea of the book, then nothing’s stopping an instant flick that changes the page. Why the extra trouble to make it look like paper? It reminds me of a learn-to-type program I used as a kid that made every key press sound like the a typewriter key, and every press of the ‘return’ key like an actual carriage return. It was absolutely maddening. Surely the noise was the worst thing about the typewriter? And surely the pages in a book are – if not actually annoying – then superfluous to requirements? What do you think? Are you so wedded to the dead tree format that even an ebook should have pages that can be turned? Or do you just want to get at the content? Sound off in the comments.

The Tower of eBabel

The problem with new technology is that it costs a lot of money. Technology companies frequently spend years and years without making a profit, shaping their business model, trying to ‘monetise’ their creation. Amazon, for example, was launched in 1997, but didn’t become profitable until 2002. Facebook only became profitable last year, and Twitter still doesn’t make money, despite all the people that use it. Nonetheless, when these technologies take off they often make a lot of money.

Most big technology companies have become massive by creating platforms that have ended up being the de facto standard. A platform, in the technology sense of the word (rather than a raised piece of floor), is the system used to manage certain kinds of content. Facebook, for example, is a social media platform. The iTunes Music Store is a platform for music. Amazon’s Kindle is a platform for digital books. The most useful outcome for consumers is that a single platform ends up delivering a single type of content. In the days of physical media platforms – CDs, DVDs, audio cassettes – there was a certain amount of disconnect between the company that owned the rights to the platform and the people who sold the content.

Digital media has changed this. Nowadays, the iPod and the iTunes Music Store are synonymous with buying music digitally. Amazon would like to make the Kindle synonymous with ebooks. Apple would probably like to do the same with their iBooks software on the iPad (and as of this week, the iPhone and iPod Touch too). People in the industry call this eBabel – as each new company enters the fray, they bring with them a different format with a unique type of DRM. This situation is absolutely horrible for consumers. People are locked into a single platform with their purchases because digital media cannot be transferred between competing platforms. I’m not going to try and stretch this into an awkward physical media metaphor – there is no equivalent. It’s just bad – frustrating, confusing and annoying for readers.

It’s easy to argue that a single format will win out in the end – it’s what has tended to happen with physical media (we have Bluray instead of HD-DVD, and had VHS instead of Betamax), but with digital media the result of a single format ‘winning out’ is dramatically different. The only settled digital format so far (digital video is still up in the air, as is the format for ebooks) is Apple’s iTunes platform. This model has succeeded by Apple being in complete control of the platform and the content delivery. In order to use the iTunes Music Store and the iTunes platform, you need to use an iPod. In order to use an iPod, you need to use the iTunes Music Store.

In the future, it’s easy to foresee a company like Apple or Amazon being the only place you can buy ebooks from. They control the hardware and the software – the platform and the content. Is this what we want for ebooks? I think the answer is an emphatic no (though by all means, please disagree in the comments!). Unfortunately there is no clear solution to this problem. Getting rid of DRM would be a nice start, but publishers are very unlikely to stop using it – even though it demonstrably benefits technology companies far more than it does content providers. I’d love to hear what you guys think – sound off in the comments if you have an idea or even just an opinon. How do you want to get your books in the future?

Review: iBooks on the iPad

Click on any of the pictures for a closer look

So, I’ve had my iPad for a couple of weeks now, and it’s high time to review Apple’s answer to the ebook question. I’m not going to review the entire iPad – unlike the Kindle, the it’s not a dedicated reading device, and there are plenty of other options for reading books, newspapers, magazines and blogs on it.

The iBooks app does not come pre-loaded on the iPad when you buy it, a choice by Apple that has more to do with their relationships with international publishers than it does with their determination to turn the iPad into a reading device. Unlike Amazon, Apple do not want its users to associate the iBooks app with no books on its bookstore.

Having said that, we don’t yet have much of an idea how much content will be available on the Australian version of the iBookstore (can I point out right now that I’m already getting sick of typing lowercase ‘I’s in front of every bloody proper noun in the Apple vocabulary?). When it launches in Australia on 7 June, the iBooks app will be available from the App Store, but we don’t yet have any idea what the range will be like. The US iBookstore, for what it’s worth, seems well stocked enough (by all reports, somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 titles). It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 400,000 available on the Amazon Kindle store, at the moment, but that’s likely as much to do with how long it has been available as anything else.

So what’s it like reading on this thing? Absolutely fine. Unlike the Kindle, the iPad uses an LCD screen, a source of much consternation for ebook nerds. I’ve heard comments that the backlit screen makes it ‘useless’ as an ereader. But this has not been my experience at all. For those of us who already spend a proportion of our days reading backlit screens on computers, the iPad is no worse and arguably a lot better than this. You can easily set the brightness levels to suit the ambient light, and the advantages of the backlit screen are obvious – it can show colour, embedded video and the refresh rate (how quickly each page turns and illustrations are shown) is light years ahead of the Kindle. You can also almost instantaneously flip the orientation of the book between a double-page spread and a single larger page by just turning the device as it suits. There are disadvantages as well, of course. The screen is not a patch on the Kindle for reading in direct light – you can forget bringing it to the beach with you (though I’ve never been inclined to bring my Kindle to the beach anyway). The ten-hour battery life is also nowhere near the Kindle’s ten days – though this is mitigated by the fact that the iPad can and would be used for more than just reading books.

For anyone used to reading ebooks, the iBooks app has most of the standard ereader features. You can look up words in the dictionary (I really like the implementation of the dictionary – it pops up in a small window overlaying the text so you can quickly check without having to leave the page), you can also search the book and bookmark it. For some reason iBooks does not have any annotation capability, though this may be something addressed in a future update.

One thing that really bugs me about iBooks, however, is the way you load books. If you buy books exclusively from the iBookstore, you can do it from anywhere and start reading instantly. However, if you want to load up your own DRM-free, out-of-copyright books you might have downloaded from somewhere like Gutenberg.org, then the only way to add books to the app is to plug it into iTunes, add it to the library and sync the iPad. For a device that sells itself as internet connected and as a netbook replacement, this feels like a massive (and unnecessary) step backwards.

Ultimately, the iBooks app is a very strong contender in the realm of ebook readers. However, the comparative feature set of this single app is not going to be what sets it apart. That’s because the iPad is not just iBooks. For readers who are hooked on the e-ink experience, I’d say that there’s no huge advantage to buying an iPad. Stick with your Kindle, your Eco Reader or your Sony. For people who are curious about e-reading, but can’t decide whether to an ereader is a waste of money – then an iPad is for you. It’s more expensive, but it does far more than an ordinary ereader. It is also much more likely to be future proof – whether it’s Amazon, Apple or Google books you’re after, it’s very likely that they will all be able to be read on an iPad long into the future.

How I Cracked The Slap And Lived To Tell About It

One of the first Australian ebooks I ever purchased legitimately through an Australian e-tailer was The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. And in order to read it I had to crack the DRM. DRM (digital rights management) is the extra bit of software attached to ebooks to stop people from copying digital products as they like. It’s a divisive issue, but it is at the centre of publishing ebooks in Australia.

At the time it was the only place I could find this book electronically (legitimately – there were plenty of pirated copies floating about). I was about to travel overseas with my Kindle and wanted to bring it with me without carrying the whole book. The book was sold as PDF with DRM by Adobe. Before I bought the book I googled whether it would be possible to crack the DRM, as I knew my iPhone and Kindle were not capable of reading the DRM on a PDF. There are thousands of people around the world interested in this kind of thing, so it took only a few minutes before I’d downloaded the software, downloaded the book and had cracked it using the software. These kinds of cracking programs pop up with different software authors every few months before getting shut down and then reopening somewhere else. They’re very difficult to stop, and I believe that as long as there is DRM there will be people willing to spend time and effort cracking it and making it available on the internet. From what I’ve read there is not a single major type of DRM that has not been cracked (the DRM used on the iPad is the only one that I haven’t seen a crack for – but I’m sure the situation is temporary).

All in all this is not something the average internet user would be bothered doing. Instead, they just wouldn’t buy the book at all. The current crop of people who read ebooks in Australia don’t significantly overlap with readers of paper books. If I want a book electronically, I either get it electronically or not at all.

The cracking process wasn’t difficult, but it helped to know a bit about the ins and outs of ebook formats and computers in general. However, the longer ebooks are available, and the more ubiquitous ebook readers become, the more readily available and easy-to-use these types of software packages will become. DRM generally makes early adopters pretty angry with publishers and record labels, because it makes the process unnecessarily difficult for legitimate purchasers. In general it is far easier to download a pre-cracked pirated version of a book than it is to crack the DRM on a legitimate purchase. DRM tends to push early adopters towards the easiest option – which in this case happens to be illegal.

I prefer to buy legitimate copies of books, because they tend to be formatted and typeset properly, unlike the scanned and digitised copies you are likely to see on pirate book websites. The care and attention given to them is (or should be) equal to a published book, and it pays off while you’re reading. However, I’m increasingly frustrated by DRM. Most of the people I know reading ebooks are doing so on their iPhone, their Kindle or their Sony Reader. Out of these three dominant readers (likely to be followed by the iPad shortly), very few Australian publishers support files readable on any of these devices. This type of scattered support is very frustrating for readers of ebooks – no publisher is ever going to be capable of covering every version of ebook format with DRM that can be read by every type of ebook reader. However, if books were sold without DRM in the first place, legitimate buyers of ebooks would be able to easily convert the book to the format of their choice – with the added benefit that the book would be ‘future proof’ (most types of current DRM will eventually become defunct and render reading of the copy-proof versions impossible).

Australian ebooks are currently sold at the same price as their paper counterparts. This is an economic decision I understand, but when you take into account how crippled the formats that are sold actually are, it is little wonder legitimate ebooks are selling so slowly.

What do you think? Have you ever cracked the DRM on an ebook? Does DRM turn you off purchasing ebooks? Are you willing to break the law in order to truly own a book you have paid for?