Some standards are more open than others

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?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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