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In early January, Apple released iBooks Author, a groundbreaking drag-and-drop e-book authoring environment that promises to democratize the production of complex, structured books, notably including textbooks.

But iBooks Author could also presage something else: the eclipse of open e-book standards. From the beginning, Apple has been an integral player in the development of EPub3, an open format that takes advantage of HTML5. Along with Google, Apple has also been one of the principal developers of the WebKit rendering engine that has helped HTML5 spread further and faster than might have otherwise been the case. But the format generated by iBooks Author, observers note, is not pure EPub3, as there is significant use of new, proprietary, CSS descriptive language to build the e-book layout.

“The differences between the iBooks 2.0 format and EPub3 seem all but trivial,” blogged Baldur Bjarnason, a well-respected commentator on e-book design. “But when that format is built around nonstandard extensions to the CSS rendering model, and all of the XHTML and the CSS are built around that extended model, the file is likely to forever be useless and unreadable in other reading systems.”

Forked

It’s yet another fork in the road for e-books. Clearly, Apple had a choice to make as it built iBooks Author. The company could either remain fully EPub3 compliant, or it could throw in a dash of proprietary display language that would provide the best possible e-book experience to users of its tablet devices. It chose the latter. From Apple’s perspective as a competitive technology company, it’s hard to imagine any other decision. Yet Apple’s choice has raised eyebrows. “One of the [EPub3] format’s biggest proponents and supporters,” Bjarnason notes, “has forked EPub3.”

In hindsight, Apple has been consistent in its direction. The company took a divergent step from EPub with the release of “fixed-layout” files in 2011, optimized to take advantage of the iPad’s screen. Technologist and Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber summed things up: “If you see the goal of EPub as serving as an expressive, standard, cross-platform format for e-books, Apple remains fully on board with that,” he wrote. “If you see the goal of EPub as serving as the only commercial e-book format—i.e., that all e-books should be cross-platform—I don’t see how you can argue that Apple was ever on board with that.”

Of course, we’ve been down this road before. In 2005, Amazon bought a small French company called Mobipocket, which based its e-book format on a modified version of the open standard backed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (then called the Open e-Book Forum), and Amazon continues to en­hance the Mobi forum with proprietary extensions. With an overwhelming share of the e-book market, there’s little suggestion that Amazon cares about what any other format does. And while Amazon could switch to vanilla EPub3 and arguably still be the dominant e-book player, there’s no compelling reason to do that—and competitive reasons why it wouldn’t.

Creators

What’s most interesting about Apple’s forking of EPub3, however, is that it came through the release of a software tool for authoring, not for reading. With the explosion in popularity of new, cheaper, higher-end tablets (like the Kindle Fire), which offer rich media functionality far beyond simple e-ink reading devices, it was inevitable that the focus of software development would shift to e-book creation that could take advantage of these capabilities. Clearly, these new tablet devices are what will drive innovation in the e-book market.

One of the key long-term questions now is what this all means for EPub3 and the prospects of a common e-book experience standardized across platforms. In the short-term, IDPF’s Readium, an open source development project aiming to deliver EPub3 reading support in Web browsers via a reference WebKit extension, will likely slow the rush into proprietary design patterns. That’s good, because one of the best ways to create a truly competitive e-book market is to have open standards that are widely utilized across different retail channels, including libraries. Imagine being able to buy, rent, or borrow an e-book by just dragging and dropping it into an open browser window. That’s a compelling vision, enabled by open standards, and not too dissimilar from the world of music, where most every player today can handle MP3 files. Drag; drop; read—that’s a world most of us would appreciate living in.

The retail market for e-books, however, is evolving quite differently. Unlike music, e-books are closely tied to different, usually incompatible device families and versions of DRM. And with Apple’s latest move, there is now a dangerously strong possibility that there may never be a single, open, consumer-facing e-book standard.

That doesn’t mean the end of EPub3—it could still serve as a vital transshipment format, for example, a vehicle to carry content and digital book behavior preferences from one party to another. That’s an unrequited future for EPub3, though, the equivalent of Blu-Ray for e-book formats, technically superior to its predecessor, but bypassed by designers in favor of other, more attractive options.

As Steve Jobs famously said, “Design is how it works.” For e-books, it is looking like design may be proprietary.

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