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Roy Leban

Guest Commentary: In 1981, when IBM introduced the IBM PC, Apple ran a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal that said “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.” The ad was controversial at the time, the mouse tweaking the lion. But Apple actually needed IBM to legitimize the business. Before IBM shipped the PC, it was still possible for people to dismiss the personal computer as a curiosity, a toy. With IBM all in, the industry grew up overnight.

This week, Apple announced the next stage of their iBooks platform — interactive ebooks and a system to build them in. In response, we say:

Welcome, Apple. Seriously.

My company, Puzzazz, has been selling interactive puzzle ebooks for more than a year. But, as a small company, it’s been hard getting people to understand that a book is a book, not an app or a game. That’s even been true of the folks at Amazon, the leader in ebooks.

We certainly didn’t invent the idea — we’re just delivering what we all saw in Star Trek and 2001 many years ago, and, of course, the potential goes far beyond what we’re selling. Someday all books will look like this — it’s already the case that people are using the term “paper book” to mean a book that isn’t an ebook.

The biggest thing we’ve struggled with is something that has been embraced by almost every company in the space. They all seem to believe that books are apps. There are tens of thousands of individual books sold as apps in the iTunes App Store, and Amazon wants to sell our puzzle books as games.

Some of the most spectacular books as apps come from TouchPress, which produced the impressive coffee-book style apps The Elements and The Solar System. They’re amazing products and they’re only on the iPad. Apple liked them enough that they featured both in TV ads. I have to say, when the big companies like Amazon and Apple don’t seem to understand, it can be pretty disheartening.

Books Are Not Apps

In this week’s announcement, it’s clear that Apple gets it. Books are books, even if they’re interactive. Books are books, even if they have programming inside. Books are not web sites or games and they’re not apps.

Debates like this are common with new technology. People have claimed that photography was the evolution of paintings, that movies were the evolution of photography, and that video games are the evolution of movies. None of this is true. Formats may change — today, most photography is digital and people see more movies on DVD than on the big screen — but each of these types of content are fundamentally different, and they all coexist. Similarly, apps will never replace books — books are evolving on their own.

So what makes a book a book? It’s about how it feels. Books have authors, who are people, not companies. Whether it’s a novel or a textbook or a puzzle collection, a book is arranged and presented in a standard, familiar format. The standardization is an advantage, not a limitation. Readers don’t have to learn how to use each book independently, they can switch between them easily, and organize them together. And, perhaps most importantly, books are orders of magnitude cheaper to produce than alternatives such as apps. One-off applications can never realize this critical advantage.

Some people think interactivity changes this. But interactive books have been around for centuries, with interactive kids “button” books, puzzle books and other books you can write in, and even “choose your own adventure” books. We can add more interactivity without losing what makes a book feel like a book. Angry Birds is a great game, but it’s not a book.

When Apple mentioned The Elements and The Solar System in their announcement, they called them apps, not books. That was a conscious decision and it probably made more than a few people invested in the status quo mad. Last week, a traditional book author or a publisher had two choices. They could create a relatively static document-based ebook, which was only better than a paper book in a trivial way — it could be downloaded. Or, they could pay a lot of money to a company that would create them a custom interactive app. Of course, the companies creating those custom apps loved all the business they were getting.

Things Have Changed

With Apple’s push into interactive textbooks, things have changed in three very important ways:

Technology. iBooks 2 and iBooks Author are designed for textbooks, but they also will allow plenty of other books to be turned into interactive books, with authors and publishers concentrating on their content, not technology. (Not surprisingly, this is the same thing we’re doing in the puzzle world.)

Mindset. The future of books is interactive. It always has been — just ask any science fiction author. But now Apple’s added their voice, unequivocally. It makes a huge difference in consumer mindset and it certainly helps companies like Puzzazz.

Publishers. The publishers have historically moved slowly in embracing new technology. Only Apple could get them to embrace this new world as they have. Kudos!

Of course, Apple has an Apple-centric view of the world. One funny moment was in the introductory video shown at the event. There’s a huge lecture hall with about a hundred students. Most of the students open up their laptops, which are all MacBooks. Apple’s dream perhaps, but not representative of the real world.

Apple’s dream highlights one big concern for all of us. To the extent that Apple is successful in this initiative, it could hurt all of the other companies in the ebook space, including companies like mine. But I think that’s unlikely since iBooks targets only one platform and it does not accomodate all types of books. I think Apple’s strong push here is a huge boost to a more vibrant, more competitive ebook ecosystem.

And that’s why we welcome Apple. Seriously.

Roy Leban is founder and CTO of Puzzazz, a puzzle technology company based in Redmond.

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