Patrick Truchon's Web Portal

Can iBooks do … ?

Posted by Patrick on January 28, 2012

Since the iBooks app [1] came out a few days ago, it’s been hard not to read about it. One thing is for sure, there’s a lot of varied opinions about it, particularly, about the impact (or lack-there-of) that it could have on education if used to its full potential. Personally, I didn’t get a chance to see it first hand until yesterday when one of my colleagues showed me a physics textbook she had bought, and a book she started writing to experiment with it. I have to admit, I thought it was pretty cool. The idea that students could finally ditch bulky textbooks and carry gigabytes of information with them in their tablet, or that teachers could customize and make media rich textbooks for their students, is very exciting. In some geeky way, at least for me, it taps into the utopian ideals of the treky universe: “Computer, what is …?” Now, I know that in the end, books are just books; they don’t (in themselves) revolutionize education (at least, that’s my opinion). I have a few questions, though, about the iBooks app that I think are important (for education).

Looking at the book my colleague is writing, the first string of questions that popped to my mind was : can this be exported as a website? Can students read this on their laptop or their phone? Can I read it on my Android tablet? Or is this just for iPads. In other words : is the format platform agnostic or does it bind us (or worse: our students) into a “vendor lock-in” [2] relationship with Apple? There are different degrees to this question.

At one extreme, programs like Apple’s iWork office suite (Keynote, Pages, etc), produce files that are completely incompatible with other office suites. Documents can be exported as PDFs or other more open file formats, but at the cost of loss of functionality or formatting. In the middle, programs like Apple’s iWeb produce work files that can only be edited with iWeb, but the “publishable” output they produce can be viewed by any web browser on any computer or mobile device. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum are Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) like LibreOffice [3] or NeoOffice [4], which use open file formats [5] that any program (no matter the operating system) can fully support.

In the past, I have argued that as educational institutions, we have an ethical responsibility to use the latter kind of software [6] with our students. For computers, this isn’t so hard anymore since there’s a lot of very good (and arguably better) FOSS out there. For tablet, though, the selection is a little slimmer, which is why I think we should at least regect apps that use closed file formats in favour of those that use open file formats that are platform agnostic. My question about the iBooks app is: where does it fall on this continuum?

I am not a software developer, so please correct me if I’m wrong here, but it seems that something like the iBooks app could easily produce a “book” that any web browser (or modern e-Book app) could read without loss of formatting. Maybe it already does (I don’t know). But I guess to me, the whole point of producing a book is that anyone can read it, no matter what kind of device they use.

The second string of questions that later came up in my mind was: Could iBooks be used by students to produce work collaboratively? At the most basic level, could students easily share their files with each other (like an office document for example)? But to take it one step further, what would it take for a group of students to work on the same project at the same time a la Wikipedia or Google Doc? How difficult would it be to have a wiki-like editor that would allow groups of people to write a book collectively?

But maybe that’s not what iBooks is about in the first place. Maybe it’s about the publishing industry clumbsily trying to survive in the new landscape of digital media. Or maybe, it’s another step closer to the big brother state [7]. Maybe, it’s not about openness and education.


  1. Apple, iBooks,
  2. Wikipedia: Vendor Lock-in,
  3. LibreOffice,
  4. NeoOffice,
  5. Wikipedia: Open File Format,
  6. Patrick Truchon, Free Software (Part 2: In schools),
  7. Copyfight, Stallman on E-book Evils and Privacy,

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