The Checklist: fix iBooks image handling

Mike Cane suggested that I put together a checklist of problems that need to be fixed in ebook format handling so those at fault could be made accountable.

So here goes the first entry:

Hey Apple! Fix iBook’s image handling! Because it is totally broken.

When building an ebook with images you have two options today for how to prepare images for iBooks:

  1. None of them will display properly
  2. Some of them will display properly, seemingly at random

The difference lies in a metadata toggle called “ibooks:respect-image-size-class”. It may say respect-image-size, but it lies! A more appropriate name would be respect-image-size-sometimes-if-I-feel-like-it-and-you-sacrifice-a-chicken.

But I guess that would be to long. Maybe the name used is the abridged version.

Of course, Apple’s crazy madcap plan for worldwide sensible image sizing might have worked if every ePub production app in the world followed Apple’s rules, but they don’t. So, please stop.

So, here’s my suggestion to Apple: just render images like the browser does, paying attention to the attributes on the element and its style declarations. Don’t try to be smart because when you fail (which iBooks does frequently) you just look extra dumb.

Amazon’s biggest ally is Apple

I’ve never understood why people position Apple and Amazon as rivals in the ebook game. While it’s true that the two have clashed that conflict is a result of incompatible platform goals, not rivalry.

Conflict is not rivalry and two organisations that conflict occasionally may well be allies in the bigger picture where rivals may not.

Let me elucidate…

The Apple/Amazon conflict has presented itself in a variety of ways:

  • Direct competition. Apple entered the ebook retail game and broke the law when it enabled big publishers’ price collusion.
  • App restrictions. Apple prevents vendors from integrating ebook sales into their ebook reading apps.
  • Apple entered the proprietary format game by forking EPUB with iBooks Author books.

—How can you say those two aren’t rivals? I mean look at that!

Easy. These conflicts are not a result of an Apple/Amazon rivalry but of Apple’s ambitions for its platform.

Apple wants three things for iOS:

  • Lock in. It very much doesn’t want people to be able to switch easily to Android. (This is abundantly clear from the emails published as a part of the DOJ’s investigation into agency pricing.) An iBooks ebook platform that only works on Apple devices serves that end goal nicely.
  • It wants its platform vig. Apple would rather a digital transaction not take place at all than for it to take place on iOS and it not getting its cut.
  • It wants large-scale education contracts for iPads in schools. For that it needs textbooks and, since it wants its vig, it can’t just work with one of the existing vendors.

None of these things are specifically directed at Amazon except insofar as they are the biggest ebook vendor. Apple can’t claim it is doing these things out of concern for the consumer or in an attempt to make its platform more secure against fraud. If that were the case hey would have done what Google did with its Play Developer Program Policies: on Google Play services and cross-platform digital goods such as ebooks are specifically exempt from the requirement that apps use Google Play’s in-app billing service.

—Okay, okay. So, maybe Apple isn’t specifically targeting Amazon but there’s still conflict. I don’t see how you can claim that Apple is Amazon’s biggest ally.

Because Amazon is the default choice for ebooks. It is what your average consumer first thinks of when somebody mentions ebooks. They have a mindshare that is even bigger than their marketshare (which is big enough to begin with).

Amazon isn’t hurt at all by Apple’s demands. A reader who can’t buy an ebook in the Kindle app will just go to the website. It only hurts the Kindle app for iOS development team.

Apple’s demands hurt Amazon’s true rivals—other ebook vendors—much more that they hurt Amazon. These vendors would benefit enormously from being able to directly integrate ebookstores into their apps. They even have a standard that would let any vendor offer their ebook catalogue for sale within any ebook reading app: OPDS.

The EPUB faction of the ebook world is hurt more by Apple forking the standard and by its general platform behaviour than Amazon is. Apple’s tactics have weakened the standard and made it less competitive.

If Apple added an exemption for ebooks to their developer policies, something similar to Google’s exemption, we’d get a more competitive landscape for ebooks on iOS. If Apple went all in on EPUB, extending it instead of forking it when necessary, the modularised EPUB ecosystem would be stronger for it. If Apple made ebook development tools that targeted EPUB and not a proprietary format, the non-Amazon side of ebook retail would have more diversity of titles and would be more competitive. If Apple turned iBooks into an iBooksView, a general purpose widget for rendering ebooks, every single ebook app on the platform would improve as a result.

Doing all of these things would strengthen iOS by improving the apps available for the platform. That, in and of itself, should be enough reason for Apple to do so.

But, no. Apple wants lock-in and a vig.

Caught between madmen and mercenaries

This is not a comment on the recent court ruling on Apple, agency contracts, and price fixing.

But a cursory glance at the history of ebook retail makes one conclusion crystal clear:

Ebook retail is a horrible horrible business to be in.

On one side you have self-destructive madmen like the big publishers who have done the following lovely things to their ebook retail partners:

  • Abruptly changing all ebook distribution contracts to agency. Which would be fine if delays on their part hadn’t meant that smaller ebook retailers in many cases spent months without any inventory from the big publishers.
  • Complete refusal to even consider tactics that would level the playing field for the retailer, such as going DRM-free or adopting a wholesaling strategy that would let ebook retailers implement in-app purchases on iOS devices.
  • Near nonexistent quality control of ebook formatting, shipping titles with errors ranging from extensive spelling errors not in any other format, to garish formatting errors, even to the point of text being missing from the ebook edition.
  • Next to zero participation in developing ebook format and ebook-related standards, mostly letting tech-oriented companies run rampant with no consideration to production or distribution costs.

This is without even considering the things publishers could be doing to specifically help ebook sales such as creating ebook-optimised covers.

On the other side you have the cutthroat mercenaries. Amazon seems willing to run its entire Kindle business at break-even, which would be fine if it didn’t also make massive development investments in hardware and software. Investments that it seems content with never recouping. Apple seems willing to butcher lucrative product categories because of its inability to let any buck pass by an iOS device without demanding a thirty cent cut.

Anybody planning to start a new ebook retail store would be stabbed in the back by publishers or cut to ribbons by ruthless competitors before the first year is out.

Your suppliers have no concern for the viability of your business and are quite willing to ruin it for little to no personal gain. Your competitors have corporate parents who are willing to run the ebook retail unit either at a loss or break-even (and that’s without taking their substantial R&D investments into account, most of which are focused on developing or protecting vertically integrated silos, not innovations that actually benefit the customer).

In short, it’s a sector that desperately needs new, competent, and innovative entrants but is too irrational to sustain any sane business development or investment.