Are books applications?

August 14, 2008

O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing blog has a nice series of posts on books as ebooks as applications:

I just want to voice something that has been bothering me a little about this (and given some current projects, may come back to bite me):

Books are not applications, or software. They are words.

I think there’s a danger inherent in regarding books as something to be run rather than something to be read. This argument is a bit hazy because a lot of book apps (such as booksinmyphone‘s Java apps) are really just wrappers for the text.

But by creating multiple versions of books – rather than agreeing on a single format (e.g. but not necessarily, ePub) and building separate software to display that – we’re heading down a road of locked-down, device-specific book technology that is antithetical to the nature of the medium, and costly to publishers. If only those publishers that can afford to spend the time (not necessarily money, the time alone has a cost) creating huge ranges of different applications can get their books onto the marketplace, it won’t be the rosy future for niche literature that some versions of the ebook story predict.

The sheer replication involved – reproducing the same lines of code over and over again for each book in a library – bothers even my low sense of efficiency and programmatic elegance too.

Of course, this development is not of the choosing of anyone in books. It’s a short-termist, technological hack, to get books onto closed platforms like the iPhone and other smart phones, and in large part it’s caused by the development of the App Store, which provides us with a sneaky way of getting book texts onto phones while there’s no equivalent of the iTunes Store for text files. But I’d much rather see a Book Store selling files to be read by standalone ereader apps than this glut of mini-apps.

Such a path would not prevent publishers building their own, branded and self-promoting, ereader apps, as I’ve previously suggested, but it would massively widen the interoperability of ebooks and ereaders, which readers will only thank us for. Perhaps we should be looking at some other hacks instead?


  1. As you mentioned, the application aspect of early book entries in the App Store feels like an end-around rather than a definitive destination. But I applaud those who saw a loophole and took advantage. Perhaps this hacky proof of concept will lead to something more concrete and user-friendly.

    Personally, I’ve resisted the urge to download app-based books because there’s no good way to catalog them on my device (I have the poor man’s iphone, the iPod Touch). I imagine others are encountering the same obstacle and I have to believe an enterprising software developer is already developing an organizer/aggregator/downloader that can handle multiple file formats (I’ve got my fingers crossed on that one!)

    Comment by Mac Slocum — August 14, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

  2. I have to disagree with you a bit. This is a generalization of course, but I would argue that books are *not* words — books are one type of package that does a particular “job” for a person. In some cases, that job is “distract me with an entertaining story”; in others it may be “tell me where to eat when I’m visiting London.” When I listen to an audio book on my iPod, that’s certainly “running” something, not reading something — but I’m still quite satisfied, because the product I’ve hired to entertain me has done a great job.

    Books-as-apps are a great fit for something like a travel guide, or in our publishing space here at O’Reilly, a portable reference to a programming technology.

    The closed platform issue is an important one, and cannot be overstated. On the one hand, that’s why we’re publishing multiple open-format versions for customers who buy directly from us; on the other hand, a customer who impulsively picks up a $10 app of our HTML pocket guide is likely placing more value on convenience than on openness.

    We see apps (be they iPhone or otherwise) as another way to do the “job” for our customers that our books have long been so great at doing. I’m confident that the market will favor open formats and platforms in the long run.

    Comment by Andrew Savikas — August 14, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

  3. Andrew – I do agree with you, really, and I didn’t phrase anything very well. I did think about audiobooks too, and weaseled out of including them, or of mentioning that paper books are just as much standalone applications… I applaud O’Reilly’s open strategy, and agree that things will most likely level out in the long run, and thank you for stating it better that I managed.

    Comment by James Bridle — August 15, 2008 @ 10:28 am

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