Wishes almost granted

Just before Christmas 2011, I wrote the following commentary piece, which was published in MacUser volume 28 issue 03, 2012:

Gutenberg’s gloriously-printed Bible (ca 1455) demonstrated how sophisticated the first moveable-type printing was, but it was not until the combination of Mac, Aldus PageMaker, and LaserWriter (in 1985) that individuals could readily create their own personal publications. Since then we have all been able to develop our own websites, process our own digital photos, then shoot, edit and burn our own movies to DVD.

Pundits have been falling over one another to tell us how the iPad changes everything, putting print, speech, music, images moving and still, and more into our new media palette. There are plenty of exciting products showcased at sites such as The Literary Platform, but two years after the iPad’s launch it remains remarkably hard for the likes of you and me to create our own rich content.

Not everyone has the all-round creative skills of the true Renaissance (wo)man, with most of us faring better at either words or pictures, seldom both equally. Creative publications reflect this well, with magazines for authors parsing topics such as print, narrative, and literary matters, whilst those for visual artists focus on techniques, composition, and criticism.

Many of our best-loved TV comedies were the products of scriptwriting pairs like Galton and Simpson, so it should not be hard for similar partnerships to spring up to develop new media. Perhaps their toughest challenge is to master the little-studied skill of visual narrative, as exercised in the cinema and graphic novels.

The greatest surprise, though, has been Apple’s lack of support. Having treated us to user-empowering products such as HyperCard, Final Cut, Aperture, and the more consumer-oriented iWork suite, the official answer for the iPad is still Xcode: power for the pro software developer, but a brick wall for most of the artistically-inclined.

Maybe Apple’s executives have been too dollar-delighted watching the growing success and profits of the iTunes App Store to appreciate how they have neglected the artists that Steve Jobs felt were kindred spirits.

Royalties seem to have driven Adobe’s efforts too. Even if there had not been the entrenched war with Apple over Flash, I struggle to make sense of its development tools, and the Digital Publishing Suite is hardly aimed at the rest of us. Whatever happened to the spirit of PostScript, PageMaker and Freehand?

There are some interesting offerings from newer entrants, such as Ansca Corona, but these disappointingly still want us to cobble code rather than craft narrative. At present, the most promising platform seems to be Sophie, free from www.sophieproject.org.

Last autumn this gained the ability to export rich media in HTML5 format, which couples with its own iPad Reader app. This neatly bypasses the many issues surrounding the installation of your own private applications, and is well worth trying out if you are a budding author.

Sophie also begs the question as to whether HTML5 will prove itself as the mainstream language for new media production. It is certainly proving itself to be the darling of the social networks, and has already enchanted a third of the leading hundred websites worldwide.

Steve Jobs tipped it to succeed, but that may just have been in his fervent desire to identify something that might rival Flash. It has certainly been a long time in the making, with another two years to run before W3C aspire for it to achieve ‘Recommendation’ status.

I hope that someone, possibly Apple living up to its heritage, sees this void and fills it quickly. My iPad is itching for more leading-edge new media.

Just a few weeks later, as we entered the New Year, Apple released iBooks Author. Here was my response, written at the beginning of February 2012, and published in MacUser volume 28 issue 06, 2012:

Writing for print is like performing in a sit-com without an audience: sometimes I wonder if many read these words.

Passing quickly over arguments about whether, like the putative tree falling unheard in the middle of a deserted forest, there is an existentialist case that they would not exist unless read, your valued comments confirm that not everyone skips past them.

It is spooky, though, when my words seem to have been read before they have even appeared in print. This was the case when three issues ago I challenged Apple to come up with an iBook authoring application that the rest of us can use. In the brief interval during which the production team transformed my text into ink, and your copy winged its way into your hands, Apple shipped iBooks Author through the App Store.

Those with an eye for detail will have noticed that what I had asked for was not quite what Apple delivered.

Whilst iBooks Author is a big step in the right direction, it is not, you will already have discovered, the ultimate ePub 3 (or for that matter HTML5) authoring application. But then you will also have discovered that the free “E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth” was a tantalising taster rather than the whole nine yards.

Set in the context of its ingenious licensing scheme and format tie-in to the iTunes App Store, iBooks Author is a very good tool for adding to the wealth of content that Apple (and only Apple) can offer iOS (and only iOS) users. iBooks Author is true to the spirit of iWork applications, or Final Cut Pro X, in doing what it does rather well, but stops short of supporting the full gamut of wonderful features of ePub 3, or providing remotely decent typography.

Indeed, recent interactive book releases have been as likely to be delivered as apps – such as the stunning Cyclepedia and Van Gogh’s Dream – as books to be read using iBooks 1 or 2.

iBooks Author is unlikely to bring any substantial shift in that, as most of the techniques used in those apps and their ilk are still not available to those authoring books. This is good news for entrepreneurial iOS developers, but keeps them securely interposed between creatives and consumers, which is not necessary.

The main deal in iBooks Author is quite explicit: whatever you develop in it can only be delivered by Apple’s online vending system, and can only be delivered to iOS devices. If you have experimented with PDF export, you will have realised how impractical that is for use on OS X or other platforms.

Unless someone comes up with a free tool to convert its idiosyncratic ePub 2.5 output to a format accessible on another platform, even free books created using iBooks Author are locked to Apple as distributor and iOS as destination.

I see nothing wrong in this, no sharp practice or sleight of hand. As has been pointed out, Apple is staking no claim to your content, just controlling how and where you can distribute it, should you choose to use its free authoring app.

However it is manifestly not the modern equivalent of what the Mac, PageMaker, and LaserWriter were to the birth of ‘desktop publishing’. Maybe my New Year’s aspiration, to cultivate the geek in us with full-bore pro tools, will inspire someone else to develop a product with serious ambitions.

For that – what I was really asking for three issues ago – we have to wait a bit longer. Unless someone else has read these words before you do.

Despite several different publishing platforms becoming available since, I fear that I am still waiting for pro tools at a sensible price and without all sorts of royalty tie-downs. It is strange to think that the ‘desktop publishing revolution’ happened without Aldus, Adobe, Quark, or Apple seeing the same need to constrain our output, charge royalties or exact leases through their products. Perhaps avarice has changed their business model?