Some standards are more open than others

Some standards are more open than others

Summary: Ace Apple-watcher John Gruber thinks Apple is perfectly within its rights to build a proprietary, incompatible version of the open EPUB digital book standard. It's not their business to reduce the cross platform burdens of the publishing industry, he says. So why do they still belong to a standards body pledged to do just that?


As I wrote earlier, Apple has decided to throw the open EPUB standard for digital books under the bus with its new iBooks format. It's built on the EPUB standard, but it's filled with proprietary and undocumented extensions that make it completely nonstandard. Others can and probably will reverse-engineer it, but that's a dangerous game to play.

I've gotten an earful from readers who defend Apple's decision. Their bookstore, their rules, the argument goes.

The top defender is ace Apple-watcher John Gruber, who has been slowly and publicly changing his mind on the new iBooks format and accompanying license agreement over the past few days. First he said it was "Apple at its worst,"  And then he began backtracking.


The output of iBooks Author is, as far as I can tell, HTML5 — pretty much ePub 3 with whatever nonstandard liberties Apple saw fit to take in order to achieve the results they wanted. It’s not a standard format in the sense of following a spec from a standards body like the W3C...


Apple’s concern is not what’s best for the publishing industry, and it certainly isn’t about what’s best for the makers of (and users of) rival e-book reading devices.

And most recently:

But again, Apple’s not in this game to reduce the cross-platform burdens of the publishing industry. If the publishing industry wants to reduce the number of formats it supports and the hassles of converting from one format to another, Apple’s pitch would be to go exclusive to the iBookstore.

OK, everyone, you got that? It's just capitalism! Why should Apple care about other companies in the digital publishing industry? Let them go build their own tools and design their own formats!

Except for one little thing. Apple is a member in good standing of the International Digital Publishing Forum, which identifies itself as the "Trade and Standards Organization for the Digital Publishing Industry."

As a member of the IDPF, Apple most certainly is on record as agreeing to do what Gruber thinks they don't have to do: reduce the cross-platform burdens of the entire digital publishing industry.

The charter of the IDPF is clearly spelled out on its About Us page. I've bold-faced the most interesting parts:

The work of the IDPF promotes the development of electronic publishing applications and products that will benefit creators of content, makers of reading systems, and consumers. The IDPF develops and maintains the EPUB content publication standard that enables the creation and transport of reflowable digital books and other types of content as digital publications that are interoperable between disparate EPUB-compliant reading devices and applications.

Among the goals of the IDPF, to which all of its members subscribe, are the following:

  • Promote industry-wide adoption of electronic publishing through standards development, conferences, best practices, and demonstrations of proven technology.
  • Develop, publish, and maintain common standards (e.g. EPUB) relating to electronic publications and promote the successful adoption of these specifications.
  • Encourage interoperable implementations of EPUB publications and reading systems and provide a forum for resolution of interoperability issues.

As I noted in my earlier post, Apple has bragged for nearly two years about its support of the "industry leading" EPUB standard, "the most popular open book format in the world.”   There is no question that the new, proprietary iBooks 2 standard is based on that work. Except none of that work has been shared with or submitted to that standards body.

Perhaps if Apple no longer wants to support open standards in digital publishing, it should resign from the IDPF.

Footnote: Several other readers have pointed out that Amazon uses a proprietary format as well. Indeed they do. But to my knowledge they have never claimed to support open standards—quite the opposite—and they are not members of the IDPF.

Topics: Apple, CXO

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Some standards are more open than others

    One word: APP?????
    • RE: Some standards are more open than others

      @jkohut A textbook should not be an App!
      • A textbook should be ... what, exactly?

        @jatbains People who want to write textbooks can continue to use Adobe content management tools and they will continue to spit out ePub documents that work across a wide range of platforms; they can be easily modified to work through others' (Amazon's; B&N's, etc) stores.

        But Apple is using the word ???textbook??? loosely; they are trying to help people build interactive learning experiences. Not different from the notion that my phone's calendar does things like alert me when a date is coming due, which a real, paper calendar can't/shouldn't do.

        Go ahead and keep using those textbooks; I, for instance keep my stat and math texts close at hand despite having MUCH more functionality in Mathematica and Excel that's not quite yet as useful in learning how Bessel functions, for example, work.

        But some of these new ???books??? are gonna be killer great.
  • Your new MacDefender Crusade, Ed?

    Perhaps Apple will do just that. (Give the specs of iBooks 2 file format to the IDPF)

    To use Jason Perlow's favorite word of late, "if" this digital textbook format really proves to be popular with McGraw-Hill, Pearson and other Publishers and "if" the IDPF body REALLY WANTS this file format as an EPUB standard, than Apple "may" do just what you suggest and supply the IDPF with the technical specifications.
    • That's not how standards work


      Normally a company that is a member of a standards body submits proposals to that body. It doesn't create a finished product with an incompatible bvariation of the standards-compliant format and then decide at some point in the future, "Oh, maybe we'll tell you about this now."
      Ed Bott
      • Normally ...

        @Ed Bott Normally, a group like MPEG-LA <b>solicits</b> patent-holders to identify patents that are necessary to a standard they are forming, to prevent submarine patents and facilitate the common good. That in no way prevents them from doing similar work in graphics. In fact, that handcuffing would pretty much guarantee nobody with an ounce of innovation would join a standards consortium.

        Especially when they derive no direct revenue from the consortium. You are making up rules or standards that do not exist on the face of this planet.
      • RE: Some standards are more open than others

        @Ed Bott isn't Apple doing pretty much what MS tried to do with HTML support? Look how well that went, both for MS (now supporting standards) and web users who had to put up with sites looking radically different on different browsers. In the end, MS didn't so much climb down as climb up onto the next standard, but only after causing themselves and lots of web users massive pain.
      • RE: Some standards are more open than others

        @Ed Bott You seem to be missing the point (which Walt French mentions, below, too) that Apple or any company can be a member of a standards body and support those standards and -- at the same time -- do pioneering work that pushes beyond existing standards.

        Apple does, in fact, support the EPUB format: iPads and iPhones can read EPUB files using iBooks. That's unequivocal proof that Apple _supports_ EPUB.

        But Apple ALSO chooses to support its own proprietary extensions to EPUB. That's their right. And they don't necessarily have to share those extensions with their competitors. That's not the nature of business in a free-market economy. Apple is taking a risk (albeit a calculated one) that folks will embrace its new format -- that publishers will choose to produce ebooks in the new formats, and that consumers (or schools) will choose to buy ebooks produced in that format. If it doesn't work, if people don't buy Apple's iBooks textbooks, Apple will lose its gamble, and probably millions of dollars of development time. But if it works, they get to reap the rewards. That's how business works.

        Support standards are pushing the boundaries aren't mutually exclusive.

        This is no different than when Microsoft created the .doc file format for Word. Before Word, we had .txt, which worked just fine -- it was (and is) THE standard for text files. But MS wanted to do more than just stuff ASCII characters into a file and save it. They wanted to allow us to store tags that allowed for bold, italic and underlined content. They wanted us to be able to mess with tab stops and paragraph spacing. They wanted us to be able to embed tables and pictures. And later they added countless other advanced data like change tracking data, hidden text, and more. All of which has significantly advanced word processing. But MS still doesn't fully document the .doc file format for competitors to convert and work with. And yet, Word still opens .txt and .rtf files and a ton of others, too.

        By your standards, we should be vilifying Microsoft for deviating from the .txt file format standard all those years ago -- or forcing them to share their trade secrets with the world, so that everyone can properly parse and present .doc-formatted data. Or perhaps you'd prefer that all written documents contain only a single font and no styling or formatting?

        History shows that Microsoft made a better mousetrap. And people liked it -- enough to choose it over the standards that were (and still are) readily available. Apple is attempting to do the same sort of thing now, with iBook Author.

        Remember: the nice thing about standards, is that there are so many of them. And just because a company chooses to "support" one doesn't mean that they have to support _only_ that standard.
      • jscott69: but people did vilify MS

        "By your standards, we should be vilifying Microsoft for deviating from the .txt file format standard all those years ago"

        But MS has been vilified for their proprietary formats and their practice of taking standards and improving upon them. That is historical fact. The DoJ even forced MS to do exactly what you claim should never be done:
        "And they don't necessarily have to share those extensions with their competitors"

        MS absolutely was forced to share their Active Directory protocols with Linux.

        You aren't the first person here to suggest that it isn't fair that Apple is being vilified for this behavior since MS isn't. The problem with your argument is that it is factually incorrect. MS has been vilified for years for doing exactly what everyone is defending Apple for doing here and now.
      • RE: Some standards are more open than others

        @Ed Bott

        Point taken about your "incompatible bvariation" comment.

        I have no experience with this particular IDPF committee. I do have some experience working with a standard's governing body in the automotive manufacturing area, however.

        Case in point. Blueprints were undergoing a transformation to Geometric and Design Tolerance based prints during my career. Fun stuff. However, these standards sanctioned by the appropriate governing body were constantly evolving. That didn't stop our engineers from designing product to print GD&T specification callouts that were not sanctioned in the current standard version but were anticipated to become part of the standard in a future standards revision. (Some callouts didn't and the prints had to be reworked at a later date.) But the product still got built.
      • Could IPDF stop Apple?

        @Ed Bott. Everyone agrees that the new Apple iBook format is based on EPUB, right?
        Now the companies that developed EPUB in IPDF gave IPDF a license to use their ideas (i.e. Intellectul Property) in creating EPUB - see section 3 of the IPDF IP policy at [1]. However I don't think the IPDF IP policy gives the rights to those ideas to anyone else, e.g. Apple, to create their own specifications.

        This could mean that the other companies in IPDF that contributed to EPUB may well have a claim against Apple for use of their IP in the Apple variation of EPUB and, in theory, force Apple to pay royalties.

        If Apple really wanted to create their own format then they should have started from scratch with original ideas that didn't infringe anyone else's IP - this would be very hard for them to do.

        I think the only ones who are likely to be happy with this are the lawyers.
      • RE: Some standards are more open than others

        @Ed Bott Err, you're new aren't you? Apple telegraphing a product launch; that goes in the column labeled "Things that don't happen".
      • RE: Some standards are more open than others

        weird duplicate thingy...
      • RE: Some standards are more open than others

        @Ed Bott : you definitely are coming over the the dark side.....
      • RE: Some standards are more open than others

        @Ed Bott

        MS have been doing this for years
        Alan Smithie
  • Is this going to be a daily thing?


    You know this whole etextbook enterprise may turn out to be a big fat flop. Have you read the reviews? Crash, crash and more crash (yes I got to see this FIRST hand) and when it works right the exams are loaded with errors. In which case submitting new standards, only to have to wait for them to be approved, then trying them out would have been an even bigger waste of time than it already may be.

    Just saying.
    • RE: Some standards are more open than others


      I heard about the crashes and errors from other sources. I downloaded the Algerbra, Geometry and Chemistry textbooks in order to check them out for myself. (I sort of aced those topics in high school but I have a 16 year old nephew who asked about Algebra and pre-Calc textbooks. It seems their high school doesn't even have a geometry textbook to teach with???)

      Anyway, I did have a few issues with an initial download problem. It seemed that, for whatever reason, when I downloaded them first into iTunes, the files did not transfer over correctly to my iPad. I ended up deleting those files from both my iPad and my iTunes library and then re-downloaded them into both my iPad 1 and iPad 2 tablets without going thru iTunes first. It worked then.)

      So far, I haven't come across crashes in the Algebra textbook and I am still working thru the problems. (I'm retired .. I have time. Grin)
    • Daily?

      @oncall If it is to be a daily thing, @Ed can go take a cold shower because his hyper-paranoia about Apple controlling our brains won't work. Whew!
  • Every taxpayer should petition their school district to ban all eTextbook

    purchases in non open standard format and from single source markets and with non transferrable licenses. Period. Apple, android, windows, kindle, et al. can complete on who has the best reader(s) and who's markets have the lowest mark up to get consumers and or schools to purchase their hardware. Apple is clearly in this for the money and this is set up to take the maximum amount of cash out of the education budgets with the maximum amount of lock in. There's no benefit for the students thats not also available outside of the apple ecosytem. They completely dont care that the money they're grabbing comes at the expense of cutting something else.
    Johnny Vegas
    • RE: Some standards are more open than others

      @Johnny Vegas

      You forget about the Publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearsons that submit these textbooks into Apple's iBook Store distribution system.

      You seem to be against example of free enterprise and the process of how standards come into existence and evolve over time.

      The free market will dictate whether this Apple initiative is beneficial both in cost and student learning potential. People are forgetting this.