Don’t be (more) evil

There hasn’t been a tech post in a while. Granted, this only marginally qualifies…

Watching last week’s roller coaster response to Apple’s iAuthor app, and this week’s gaining response to Google’s account-information merge with no opt-out, I’m again thinking about needs vs. wants, standards, and the greater good.

I have no answers.  I can’t tell you how devious the intent was when Apple shifted iAuthor’s product from epub standards and towards an iPad-only model.  I can’t tell you why Google wants All The Info in one spot, though I have some guesses.

What I know is that both decisions limit the choice of the individual (producer or consumer), in favor of what benefits the company providing the technology.  From a programming standpoint, less individual choice may make some sense – it’s easier and cheaper to manage; from a marketing standpoint, it means your audience is captive, not just captivated.  But.  Technology is about personalization.  Which doesn’t just mean a company gets to offer me more things that I might enjoy reading/buying/liking.

It also means that I, as the consumer of technology, should be able to personalize my level of control over the information I create to use on that system.

and, truth be told, I would love to play with HTML5 in my ePubs.

Hopefully, someone out there sees this the same way I do.  Or, perhaps, I’m completely in the wrong here.  Hoping someone can tell me so.



  1. Definitely a slippery slope. For me, the problem rests in the shifting concept of “free.” Google products are free and useful; if you don’t want to play by their rules, you’re also free to opt out. But when those products reach a level of ubiquity where it’s difficult *not* to use them, then “free” means something else entirely–much in the same way that I’m “free” not to use money. The threat of the consequential, rather than the consequences themselves, is what keeps us in the cage.

  2. Apple creates really neat stuff, but they don’t pretend to be free or open about it. Now they are pushing into school textbooks, and there’s really icky feeling that education will get locked into their format, and then not be able to re-publish or step away when the price gets too high. Education is awesome when it is offered to all freely, as part of our society. If there’s a privatization of a major part of it? Risky business!

    On the other hand, I’ve heard that the iAuthor concern is overblown. It isn’t the CONTENT that Apple is making you sign away, it’s the format. You can take your text and pictures and your custom HTML5 widgets and go off and pack them in some other way and resell them. They just don’t want iAuthor Reader Programs running on the Kindle Fire. They don’t want content creators just using Apple’s playground without paying anything. They are giving away the tools for free, but the tools package stuff up for THEIR store. Five years from now, whether iTextbooks succeed or not, it would be interesting to see a comparison between this format rollout and Adobe’s PDF. Everyone creates PDFs, some folks even pay licenses to Adobe, and most don’t. (It’s a bit of a mess, if I understand it right.)

    I’ve never had any illusions about Apple. They make the best possible everything that they can figure out how to make, and they long ago decided that this could best be accomplished with a walled garden, with limits on hackability, and so forth. Some open standards, many CLOSED. I usually agree with them, actually. We sacrificed certain freedoms and flexibility when we started using iTunes and iPhoto and so forth back in the day, but I discovered that giving up some of that freedom allowed me to focus more on the content itself. Enjoy life, stop playing with folders and custom scripts and so forth. And iTunes still let me use MP3s instead of AACs, and iPhoto still let me export the original, full-rez file to any third party I wanted. So it was “not open, but open enough”. With both the App store and this new Author initiative, they are going deeper… they are a publishing company, sorta kinda. It’s a different ballgame, but the same equation: Is the walled garden worth it? Yep, I think so. For now.

    I’m more worried about how Amazon destroys small bookstores and thereby changing the culture of reading as we know it for the worse than I’m worried about Apple destroying books and the publishing industry.

    (Disclaimer: I own stock in both Amazon AND Apple. :-))

    • > It isn’t the CONTENT that Apple is making you sign away, it’s the format. You can take your text and pictures and your custom HTML5 widgets and go off and pack them in some other way and resell them.

      Very true. It’s also the time that a developer spends putting text and pictures and HTML5 together into the package – and that’s not transferrable. I’d argue that it is valuable, however.

      I think in both of your examples, the narrowing of options for access is what’s most alarming to me, both regarding textbooks for schools and small bookstores.

      • Mmm. Good point. I don’t really know enough about book creation to know where to place the value. As the writer, I think, “My text is the valuable part, not the packaging-it-up-part,” and my text remains portable under Apple’s fine print. But textbooks and interactive features are a pretty intensive piece of what they’re trying to do here.

        My company builds old-fashioned (not-Web-based) software that we compile for Mac, Linux, and PC… we use several different handy cross-platform APIs that do some of the work for us, but if we were using one specific and tailored by Apple, and Apple said, “And don’t you go porting this to any other platform!” well, it would be a really weird, fuzzy gray line.

  3. xactly, Doug. Portability is a huge issue – across all forms of media, and data storage. I give you ye olde floppy disque as an example. And celluloid film. And…

  4. If only someone would write a novel about a world where transaction costs have evolved…

    I don’t know enough to comment about HTML5, but I can say this:
    1. I won’t start buying eBooks until I can get them or turn them into a durable, accessible format (EPUB, for now). There are now ways to do this with Amazon’s AZW format, so I’m back to buying from them.

    2. I don’t buy MP3s because of the quality. I buy CDs instead and rip them to FLAC. I do buy FLAC directly when it’s available.

    What I take from that is that e-publishers who offer a durable/open, high quality format will get my business. Apple is gambling that they’ll be big enough in this market to become the de facto standard (the .doc). Much as I admire Apple, I wouldn’t put money on them here.

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