Thursday, 26 January 2012

iBooks and KF8 - Learning about Apple and Amazon

The last ten days have seen the release of the new iBook Author program from Apple and a new version of KindleGen from Amazon, each producing eBooks to their own proprietory standard, iBooks and KF8.

How they've gone about this though, reveals much about the companies and their approaches to this market.

Apple launched iBooks almost two years ago now with some ballyhoo, but have never really made a dent in Amazon's market share. The Nook might have done, and Kobo has nibbled a piece here or there, but Apple? Not so much.

So they flipped the strategy with iBA. Keep the lockin (iBooks only available and readable through Apple devices/channels), but provide better tools for publishers/authors and target a different market - textbooks. Instead of trying to convince the consumer, they're deciding to convince the supplier. It's the "killer app" strategy.

And you have to say, the samples they've put out are stunning. The EO Wilson "Life on Earth" really does redefine textbooks. By all accounts iBA is also a great tool. The backlash has been about the Apple walled garden and restrictions about the sale of works produced by the tool. I don't really understand much of this reaction - Apple is a business, not a university or library. If the Library of Congress produced a proprietory tool, then I'd get the outrage.

So, if you want to play Apple's game, there is now a compelling workflow from production to distribution, with QA thrown in along the way. Slick, if you can live with the terms.

Amazon launched KF8 then in to a market it dominates, working from a position of strength. But the KF8 launch has been confusing. The specs were announced in October, and missed elements like audio and video, present in mobi files as well as Apple's iBooks. The Fire launched in the US in mid-November, with some books being demo'd that had been made to the KF8 standard, so some publishers had access to the tools. Then last week, the tools were announced, but the guidelines were incomplete (since updated), but the Fire is still US-only and the Apps haven't been updated. So, although we now have the tools, there's nothing for us to target and test on outside of the US. And even there, do you just want the Fire as your entire potential market?

So it feels like a mess. Simultaneously late and rushed.

What these two launches tell me is that Amazon is not a technology company. Sure, it uses technology better than almost anyone, and it even re-sells spare capacity in a way that has changed the technology landscape (EC2, S3), but a real technology company understands developers.

And make no mistake, if you're in the business of ebook production, you're now a developer.

Amazon has the market right now, but, as Steve Ballmer memorably once said "It's about developers, developers, developers!". He may, at that point, have thrown a chair.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

10 Great Things About iBooks

In the last post I outlined 10 things Apple need to fix in iBooks. Who knows, maybe tomorrow at DBW, they'll tick off some of my list.

But in the meantime, here are 10 things I love about iBooks.

1. Technical
The way I see it, Apple read the epub3 specs ahead of time and cherry-picked some cool bits they liked for the iBooks specification. It's epub with a twist. So, for 6 months now we've been selling books made up of CSS, HTML, Javascript (even JQuery). We can animate and transform and bring our books to life. KF8 doesn't even come close. Check out the Yellow Submarine iBook if you haven't seen it.

2. Quality
Being able to drop in 2 million pixel images means we can get fantastic image quality in our books. Add in the slick page turns, the freedom to view landscape, portrait, big or small, and whatever we make as an iBook looks great.

3. Fixed width
We make digital facsimiles of rare books, so this is a deal-breaker for us.

Apple were the first to do this. Without this we don't have a business.

4. Audio and video
iBooks handle video really slickly. Tap to play anywhere in your page. Bring it up, full width, rotate the screen to landscape and you've got a 720p video playing. Tap to stop and the video resizes back down into it's slot on the page and you pick up where you left off. Elegant.

5. Apple people
The people I deal with at Apple want us to succeed. They're helpful (within their constraints) and smart. They know how the deck is stacked and are trying to make things better. I don't get a re-hash of unhelpful documentation I just read online.

6. Unified platform
It's hard to over-stress the ease of developing for a unified platform. Compared to the apocalypse that developing an Android app must be (x different OS versions, y different screen resolutions, z different processors) or even Kindle (Fire, iPad App, iPhone App, Windows App, Android App etc etc) we can test and release in hours. Sure Apple's walled garden approach has some downsides, but this is the reason iBooks (and apps) look consistently great.

7. Growing fast
When you publish a print book, you're releasing into the wild a product with a fairly finite market. Our universe is much smaller - just those with iOS devices. But it's growing at a breakneck pace. Maybe 32m iPhones last quarter, 11m iPads. Our potential market is doubling every year or so.

8. Great devices
People love using iPhones and iPads. They come at the top of consumer satisfaction surveys. Having our books run on great devices means we have happy customers. Imagine if we had to support all those buggy $99 e-readers that are made of tinfoil and glue. That bad hardware experience rubs off on us.

9. Some UX aspects
Despite my criticism of the iBooks UX in the last post, some of the iBooks UX works well. The navigator is great, multiple table of contents views is great, and the integration with dictionaries and notes is cool. We're really not there yet, but the foundation is solid.

10. Ongoing improvements to IBooks
This seems to come in fits and starts. The first 6 months from release didn't see much action, then we seemed to rocket from 1.0 to 1.4 with all sorts of improvements. Then a hiatus and recently some more changes. It seems like Apple have some resource to throw at this, and there is a commitment to improve the platform.

So tomorrow will be interesting. 

It really feels like the future of publishing belongs to those who can make the numbers work for content-creators. That means self-publishers, lean indie publishers and legacy publishers who can reinvent the business model and articulate their value.

I wrote my first multimedia app using Hypercard in about 1991. Right now our tools aren't even that mature yet. All of us could do with better tools and a bigger market. Here's hoping...

Monday, 16 January 2012

10 Things Apple Need to Fix with iBooks

Ahead of this week's iBooks announcements (likely around textbooks) and 2 years from the initial iBooks launch, I did a little thinking about iBooks in general and the successes and failures of the platform and the store.

First up, I have to say I'm surprised at the iBookstore's lack of success. It's impossible to get hard numbers on market share, but, reading around, and from my experience of publishing to iBooks and Kindle, I'd guess Apple has somewhere around 10% of the market. Probably less in specialised areas, maybe more in top 100 fiction titles.

Last summer I came across this graph from Asymco:
Damning, no? Their report contains some other, equally scary charts on download rates. It may not be 100% accurate, but other data, 18 months in, pointed to 180m book downloads (10m/month), which pales next to the App Stores 1bn a month.

Making the App Store 100 times bigger than the iBookstore.

So, if I was Tim Cook, giving my end of year appraisal, how would I score iBooks. Maybe a 5/10. Shows promise, hasn't delivered yet. Should have done better.

What can Apple do to fix this? Here are 10 ideas, some consumer-related, some for developers and publishers.

1. Mindshare
Despite the number of iBooks app downloads, the public do not think of either the iPad or iTunes as a book purchase/consumption channel. They're habituated into going to Amazon. Apple is probably the best tech marketing company in the world. Get on and produce some great ads that articulate what a great platform you have. Kindle is in danger of doing what Google and Hoover before them managed - becoming a verb.

2. Titles
When Random House declined to pitch in with iBooks early on, Apple just didn't have the catalogue of Amazon. That still feels like the case. Embrace more publishers, make it easy for them to come on board.

3. Learn to love self-publishers.
It's hard to self-pub on iBooks. What with ISBNs, EIN numbers, Apple IDs, tax sign-ups and what have you, self-publishers are mostly thinking "why would I jump through all these hoops just for a few more sales". What Apple is missing here is also the publicity that self-pub success stories generate for your platform. How many column-inches has Amanda Hocking generated for Kindle in the last 6 months? Make it easier for the next Hocking or Konrath.

4. Intelligence
The iBookstore doesn't currently have a high IQ. Apple must know a load about you, what with all your iTunes/iBooks purchases, but in terms of pushing appropriate content your way, all they can offer is "people who bought this...". Make it smarter.

5. Don't hide it.
iBooks still isn't a default iOS app, you have to download it. Why is that? When you load up the iTunes Store, the front page runs like this (from the top down): music; music; music/miscellaneous; music; music; films; tv programmes; miscellaneous; music. The charts on the right-hand side: singles; albums; films; tv programmes. Books just have a text drop-down menu at the top of the screen. If you want to sell more books, give them some prominence.

6. Development Tools
iTunes Producer and iTunes Connect handle iBook creation (from epubs) upload and management. There's a lot of overlap in the tools, and one's web-based and one an app, and they're both clunky. Want to run a promotion on all 32 territories for a week? Try having to change 3-4 fields for each book in each territory. I just did it for 3 books, and I actually gave up. It was so painful, and Connect was so slow, I just ran the promotion in our key territories (sorry Slovakia). The only way to create epubs from within the Apple ecosystem is also Pages, which wasn't designed for an epub3 world. Give us some great tools - if you can build iLife, this should be easy.

7. Documentation and Approval
Approval can take from 2 days to 4 weeks. You have no way of knowing which it will be when you upload. I understand the need for QA, but an indication of expected approval time would help us plan launches. And when building a book, it sometimes feels like you're playing a game to which you don't know all the rules. The documentation just isn't comprehensive enough. Sort the documentation and when a book uploads give us a status "Approval expected in 5-7 days".

8. Viewing Books in iTunes
How about allowing users to view books on their Mac (or even PC). Unless you have an iOS device (realistically an iPad), iBooks don't exist.

9. Other platforms
Or, even more radically, what about an iBooks app for Android/Windows. Buy an iBook, read it anywhere? Yeah, I know. Not going to happen #walledgarden.

10. iBooks UX
iBooks still looks like an intern designed it. The IKEA-style bookcase and the limited functionality (nothing social, nothing from iTunes) could do with a refresh.

When all's said and done, I love the experience of using an iBook, and I want iBooks to succeed. You can do things on iBooks right now that Kindle haven't even addressed in their forthcomg KF8 format. I show people the books we make and they're blown away.

So in my next post, I'm going to run through some of the things that Apple nailed with iBooks.