Reflections on Apple’s Education Event

I’ve been thinking about Apple’s education event today. Apple announced several initiatives relating to education and textbooks. These included a new version of iBooks that allows book publishers to create media-rich ePub books for use on the iPad, a new ePub authoring tool, and an iTunes U app that improves upon the consumption of iTunes U content.

The Education Part

It seems Apple is walking a very careful line here. They are embracing traditional textbook publishers and making content deals to sell existing textbooks on the iPad while at the same time enabling the rest of the world to make next-generation textbooks with iBooks Author and iPad technologies. I’m sure there are some interesting stories about how they managed to pull this off. Notably, Apple did not announce they are producing their own textbooks to give away for free on the iPad, as referenced in the Steve Jobs biography.

Every time I spend any time with iTunes U content, I kick myself for not consuming more of it. Why in the hell am I watching mindless TV with free lectures available from some of the smartest people in the world? I think this new app is a way to make this accessible to even more users. (A lot of people are intimidated by the all that has become iTunes.)

The New ePub

What really caught my attention today was iBooks Author. With this app, Apple jumped squarely in the ring of producing next-generation online books. Geeks everywhere have, thus far, been underwhelmed with the world’s attempts to leverage upon the new opportunities available with tablet computers when it comes to books. By and large, electronic books are not much different from their dead-tree counterparts. You turn the pages and you look at static pictures. I was very pleased that I was able to include links with my recently published iPad at Work but why should that make me happy? Links have been on the web for years. Why should I think I was all that for convincing my publisher to let me include links to the App Store? Because I didn’t know better.

I just spent several hours playing with iBook Author’s media tools inserting movies, keynote animations, and interactive pictures into my new secret project and it ruined me. There is no turning back. As an author and a reader, I will never look at a static page e-book the same. While for some types of books, like novels, words on a page are fine, for a lot of books the failure to include media just became inexcusable. I can’t imagine going back.

There once was a time when everyone watched silent movies. Technology advanced and a few weirdos started adding sound to their movies. At the beginning, it was just a trickle and nobody paid any attention to it. Then at some point, the technology became so accessible that everybody did it. It changed the way we watched movies. I believe the iPad’s new media friendly book format combined with this authoring tool is just such a watershed event as the widespread adoption of talkies. Media rich books are going to become the norm, not the exception.

There still are a few spots that need work. I’m not convinced Apple’s table of contents implementation is right. Also, while I understand that ePub is an open standard, I have my doubts as to whether anything produced in iBooks Author could ever work on any device other than an iPad. I suspect this implementation of ePub is just as proprietary to Apple as the Kindle format is to Amazon.

Another strange change is the reader’s typography disenfranchisement. On the prior version of iBooks, if the publisher released a book with a lousy font (Cough Times Roman), I had others to choose from. With this new ePub implementation and iBooks Author, the publisher sets the font and that is all the reader gets on the iPad. I think this is intentional. The book lays out in landscape view exactly as produced in iBooks Author. If you have text squirt around an icon on your Mac, it does the same on the iPad. You can’t even change the font size in landscape view. If the user is allowed to change the font or font size in landscape, the layout goes wonky. (You can change the font size in portrait view but that changes the layout entirely, including moving your media to the left margin so iBooks doesn’t have to worry about putting something in the wrong place.)

There is also the lingering question of exactly how far Apple will go sticking its nose in our business. I’m not going to get too exercised about this just yet. Frankly, it is too early to tell. Over the next few months, I suspect several sacrificial canaries are going make the dark trip down that mine shaft and we’ll know a lot more soon. It would be a shame for Apple to empower us with these excellent tools and distribution channels only to screw it up up overreaching and legal mumbo-jumbo. At this point we can only ask questions. How far does Apple intend to go in deciding what does and does not get approved? What are the real limitations of what we can do with content we produce using the iBooks Author application? Can publishers use different formats of the same data and other platforms without getting into any hot water? Everyone can speculate. Nobody really knows at this point. I’ll tell you one thing that I like about the iBookstore: 70/30. Having made contracts with major publishers I will take 70% with no questions asked every day of the week.

Although the event was couched in terms of education, I can think of many uses for this new technology. Not only will textbooks benefit, but the communication of any idea. This is particularly true for tech writing. When I think of the thousands of words I had to write in my two prior books that could’ve been explained better and faster with a short movie, I shudder. Also, think about how much easier it will be for software developers to make user manuals with all of this embedded media. Make no mistake. This is going to change the way we learn about technology.

Applying the iBooks Author tools to text from a hypothetical third book, I’m reminded of The Daily Prophet, Harry Potter’s newspaper. In the Daily Prophet, the content moves around and react to the reader. Pictures move and talk to you. It all seemed wildly magical at the time but I just created it on my Mac.

Wither iWork?

Going into today’s event, one of my wishes was for iWork ‘12. We are currently using iWork ‘09. There is a tricky bit of math to explain why that situation is unacceptable. 2012-2009 = 3 years. Now having spent some time with iBooks Author, I can see why this wasn’t tacked on to a new version of Pages. It is a different beast creating a different output. In a lot of ways, iBooks Author shares more of a pedigree with iWeb than it does with Pages. This new app is certainly not the best writing environment you’re going to find. I doubt I will be typing much text into iBooks Author. Where the workflows shakeout with this new application still is unclear. Part of the problem is that we still don’t have iCloud support for iWork on the Mac which gets back to my original question. Where is iWork 12?

When Steve Jobs first announced the iPad, he explained how he set the entire iWork team on to creating superior productivity apps for the iPad release, that explained the missing iWork ‘10. When I began kicking the tires on iBooks Author, it occurred to me that the iWork team spent a lot of time on this over the past year. That explains the loss of iWork ‘11. Now Apple needs to move on iWork. It is time for an update to my favorite productivity suite and past time for full iCloud document syncing support in the iWork suite. Hopefully, soon.

Today’s Announcements and Me

As I’ve been teasing throughout this post, these new ePub authoring tools hold particular interest for me. While I haven’t said anything publicly yet, I’m neck deep in my third book. This book is not part of the “at work” series but something else entirely. I’m self publishing. I’m betting on myself. I’ll talk more about exactly what I’m up to in a month or two. After my three hours of experimentation, I can report that I’m seriously reconsidering the entire model for this new book. Specifically, I may now only release this new book for the iPad and not bother with other versions. The ability to embed, manipulate, and demonstrate concepts with rich media will render this new work so superior on the iPad to anything I could make for any other platform, that I may not bother with the others. Stay tuned.