I've been thinking a lot about the Apple, Inc. in the last few weeks. After spending the holidays reading the Steve Jobs biography, I returned to work to find a major announcement around ebooks in the offing. So I start blog watching around the big A. One post in particular caught my eye. In his upcoming expose-style book on Apple, Adam Lashinsky talks about Apple's policy of not providing lunch to its employees.
The culture at Apple is described as "the polar opposite of Google's," and one small but noteworthy difference between the two rival companies lies in lunch. Unlike at Google, where lunch is free, Apple employees must pay for their "quite good and reasonably priced" lunch at the company cafeteria. There is one exception: new employees are given free lunch during their first-day orientation.
At first, I was astounded that this would be considered in any way remarkable—so unlike Google, apart from your first day, Apple is just like every other employer in the world—but a picture of the company's mindset emerged from this strange and kind of stalkish anecdote. Any largesse is short-lived at best. You know you're going to have to pay for those sandwiches, right?
Apparently this was still in the back of my mind when I sat down early Friday morning to watch Apple's Phil Schiller take the stage. Schiller duly proved the rumour-mongers right when he unveiled the first major revision to iBooks, Apple's ereader app for the iPad, and iBooks Author, a new authoring tool to create media-rich electronic books.
But first an admission. While I've never considered myself an Apple advocate (I really couldn't care less what technology you might choose to use), I have been a pretty solid user of Apple's stuff since I ditched my Dad's grumbling Windows 95 oatmeal box and crossed over to a translucent blue iMac way back when. I've never looked back really. While its aesthetics are nice, what really sets a Mac apart is in the thought given to every part of the experience from the software and its integration to the the and so on. It's the same philosophy of control they applied to the iPod and subsequent iOS devices to great success. But at what point does such control become restrictive instead of assistive?
So the guys at Apple make their presentation and I watched along at an ungodly Australian hour. On the whole, I really liked what I saw. The interactive features iBooks incorporates makes good on the promise of what electronic publishing can achieve.
And iBooks Author is a great application. So many of the niggly problems with putting together interactive ebooks is taken care of and made easy. At last we can create books that are aware of the device in which they reside. We can be confident of what a book will look like and how it will behave. The ability to design an ebook properly using the kind of simple and intuitive interface we have come to expect from our software is long overdue and the kind of thing Apple does with incredible style. I watched them drop images into free-flowing text. I watched image galleries, three-dimensional objects, even straight up html integrate seamlessly into the book. And I thought this is exactly what has been needed in ebook development for years.
Then I had an unsettling thought. There comes a time in any Apple demonstration where they begin talking about the value of the thing they're showing off. It's a slightly more sophisticated version of the old infomercial schtick: 'How much would you expect to pay?' So when that moment arrived for iBooks Author, only one thing came to mind: Please don't tell me it's free. I said it over and over: 'Don't say it's free!'
Then a little sparkly animation crossed the screen, revealing the word I had dreaded: Free.
Remember, your first is free, but thereafter you must pay for your "quite good and reasonably priced" services. And indeed, this is what we find in the End User Licence Agreement (EULA).
B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
- (i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
- (ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.Apple will not be responsible for any costs, expenses, damages, losses (including without limitation lost business opportunities or lost profits) or other liabilities you mayincur as a result of your use of this Apple Software, including without limitation the fact that your Work may not be selected for distribution by Apple.
You can create what you like in iBooks Author and you can distribute in any way you like as long as it's free. If you want to charge for it, you have to sell it through Apple and solely through Apple. And if they refuse to sell your work for whatever reason, stiff.
In other creative environments, it works like this: professional creative software is pricey and feature packed, but the results of your work are yours and yours alone to do with as you wish including sell it in whatever way you choose. That's how Final Cut works in filmmaking, that's how Pro Tools works in music. That's why I was hoping iBooks Author would have a price tag. Pay for the software; what you do with it is your own business.
This EULA is an attempt to change the game, to tilt the ebook market in Apple's favour at the expense of their competitors and authors be damned. Imagine if Microsoft had distributed Word for free, then claimed a piece of the action on every document ever created, just so they could stick it to WordPerfect.
Now, you might wish to point out at this stage that an iBooks file could only realistically be sold in the iBookstore anyway. Other ereaders and tablets just don't have the capabilities to display these books properly so why quibble? But that's shortsighted. Devices can catch up for starters. And what if you wanted to sell books yourself through your own web site, you know, independently. At the very least an author should be granted the option of distributing their work however they choose and making their work available on as many devices as possible.
You might also wish to point out that Apple aren't trying to claim the content of the books, just the format. The author is free to reformat the text in as many ways he or she pleases as long as it wasn't made using iBooks Author. But that does mean the author is surrendering any creativity inherent in the design or layout of the book. That the supremely design-conscious Apple would so breezily dismiss the creativity of book design would seem to betray a serious lack of insight at best. In any case it's just a shitty way to treat creative professionals.
I spent much of the weekend fuming and I'm glad I waited a few days to post this. A lot of that initial anger has given way to a kind of resigned sadness. As many a great man has said: "You've changed, man. It used to be about the music."
A wonderfully simple and intuitive tool has been created to help authors and designers create ebooks that can truly fulfill the promise of electronic texts and yet I worry about the consequences should it succeed. Really, I hope it fails, at least in its current form.
How depressing is that?