Monthly Archives: January 2012

Apple iBooks Author aims at school textbook market, but beware the lock-in

Apple claims to “Reinvent Textbooks” with the introduction of iBooks 2 for iPad, along with an accompanying free authoring tool for the Mac.

iBooks Author is already in the Mac App Store and I had a quick look. It is template based, so the first thing you do is to make your choice.

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I picked Contemporary, whereupon the authoring screen opened and I started to make some edits. If you divide Desktop Publishing (DTP) tools into those that are more oriented towards longer books, and those more oriented towards shorter but more graphically rich titles, then iBooks Author is in the former category. You can write the text in Pages or Word, and then import to iBooks Author. You can also add images, charts, tables, hyperlinks, and a variety of widgets including HTML, Keynote presentations, 3D models and more. The format of some of the widgets seems to be Dashcode, as used by the Dashboard in Mac OS X; certainly that is the case for the HTML widget.

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I got a bit stuck on one point. I did not want the astronomy images in the template, but was not ready with an alternative. However I could not delete the image placeholder. It seems that the templates are somewhat restrictive.

Once your work is ready you can preview it. This is interesting. In order to preview, you attach an iPad, open iBooks on the iPad, and then select it in iBooks Author. A nice touch: the book appears on the iPad marked Proof.

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There is also an animation as the book opens. In the grab below, you can spot the busy icon: this is because the smart cover disappears automatically so you have to grab it on the fly.

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What about publishing? You can export your work in one of three formats: iBooks, PDF, or plain text.

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Apple emphasises the licensing agreement right there in the Export dialog. You can only sell your book through the Apple iBookstore. Note also that the book is only for iPad. You cannot read it on a Mac, let alone on an Amazon Kindle, unless you choose PDF and make it available for free.

Here is the agreement in more detail:

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

I exported the book in iBooks format and took a quick look at the contents in an editor.

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On a quick look, it seems to have a lot in common with a standard epub, but is nevertheless a proprietary Apple format.

Finally, a few observations. I have no doubt that eBook usage will grow rapidly in education as elsewhere, and the iPad is a delightful device on which to read them, though expensive.

I do have nagging concerns though. In typical Apple style, this is an only-Apple solution for authors or publishers who need to charge for their work. Does it really make sense for schools and colleges to recommend and use textbooks that can only be read on Apple devices? Of course publishers can repurpose the same underlying content for other formats, though they will have to be careful how they use iBooks Author to avoid falling foul of the licensing clause quoted above.

Is there no way to reinvent textbooks without an Apple tax and locking knowledge into proprietary formats?

Nokia Drive on the Lumia: it works

Over the weekend I took the opportunity to try out Nokia Drive, a turn-by-turn navigation app which comes bundled in the Lumia 800 I have been testing. Well, it was not so much “took the opportunity” as “try anything”, since the Tom Tom the driver was relying on had lost its signal somewhere in the depths of rural England.

I fired up Nokia Drive, entered the destination, and was impressed. It picked up a signal, displayed a well-designed screen stating what was the next turn and how far away, showed our location and progress complete with the road name, and spoke out clear instructions in a voice that was less robotic than some.

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I was a passenger in this case; how does this work if you are the driver? It turns out that Nokia Drive disables the screen saver (which developers can do with a couple of lines of code – check out UserIdleDetectionMode) so it runs continuously. This is a battery drain, so for longer journeys you will need some sort of car kit; you can get by with just a bracket to hold the phone and a standard micro USB power supply.

For basic navigation this seems to me as good as a Tom Tom though there are a few things missing. You cannot calculate a route offline, it does not show time to destination, and it does not have speed camera warnings.

Nevertheless, a significant benefit for Nokia’s Windows Phone users.

How many clouds is too many? AcerCloud announced in Las Vegas

Acer has announced its AcerCloud in the run-up to CES in Las Vegas. This is a service that spans mobile devices, PCs and the internet, the aim being that pictures, documents and multimedia are available from any device. Take a picture on your smartphone, and it appears seamlessly on your PC. Download a video to your PC, and view it on your tablet. Play music stored at home from your tablet while out and about.

The press release is short on technical details, but does say:

AcerCloud intelligently uses local and cloud storage together so all data is always available

That said, it is more PC-centric than some cloud services. It seems that Acer considers the PC or notebook to be the primary repository of your data, with the cloud acting as a kind of cache:

Professionals can update sales documents on a PC and save them, and the documents will be put into the personal cloud and streamed to other devices. They can then go to their meeting with their notebook or tablet PC and have immediate access to all the updated files. The files will be temporarily accessible for 30 days in the personal cloud and on the devices, or they can choose to download the files on to other devices for long-term storage.

One of the features, which failed in the CES demo, is that a PC which is in hibernation can be woken up through wi-fi to deliver your content on demand:

As long as the main PC is in sleep (standby/hibernation) mode, Acer Always Connect technology can wake it up through Wi-Fi® so media can be retrieved via a mobile device.

This whole thing would work better if the cloud, rather than the home PC, were the central repository of data. A PC or notebook sitting at home is unreliable. It has a frail hard drive. It might be a laptop on battery power, and the battery might expire. The home broadband connection might fail – and most home connections are much slower uploading to the internet than downloading from it.

Another question: if you one of the professionals Acer refers to, will you want to put your faith in AcerCloud for showing documents at your business meeting?

Acer wants to differentiate its products so that users seek out an Acer PC or tablet. The problem though is that similar services are already available from others. DropBox has a cloud/device synchronisation service that works well, with no 30 day expiry. Microsoft’s SkyDrive is an excellent, free cloud storage service with smart features like online editing of Office documents. Google Music will put all your music in the cloud. Apple iCloud shares content seamlessly across Apple devices, and so on.

The problem with this kind of effort is that if it is less than excellent, it has a reverse effect on the desirability of the products, being one more thing users want to uninstall or which gets in the way of their work.

We will see then.

Finally, I note this statement:

AcerCloud will be bundled on all Acer consumer PCs starting Q2 2012. It will support all Android devices, while future support is planned for Windows-based devices.

Android first.

Microsoft puts carriers before users in new Windows Phone update which you might not get

Microsoft has posted a new update for Windows Phone, update 7.10.8107.79. The list of fixes is here, not huge, but including one fix for an issue that has irritated many users:

On-screen keyboard. Fixes an issue to prevent the keyboard from disappearing during typing

But will you get the fix? The real news in Microsoft’s blog post announcing the release is this:

The update, available to all carriers that request it …

Microsoft is also discontinuing its Where’s My Phone update site:

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Why? Microsoft General Manager Eric Hautala is blaming growth in the number of model, country and carrier variations. That makes the site more work to keep up to date, but no less useful for users.

So what is going on? When Microsoft ditched Windows Mobile for Windows Phone, it sought to learn a lesson from Apple and to provide consistency in user experience, hardware and software. One important part of that is to control updates, so that users do not have to wait for carriers to authorise updates (or not to bother), but get them in a timely manner. This is a potentially a selling point against Android, where users have difficulty getting updates, especially on older devices.

In March last year, Hautala said:

There’s one more thing I want to clear up. I’ve seen a lot of speculation on blogs and forums lately about whether carriers can “block” an update. We work closely with carriers to test and schedule updates. They may ask us for a specific date to start an update. They may ask for updates to be bundled together. But you should ultimately receive all the updates we send out [emphasis mine].

Microsoft now seems to be back-tracking on this commitment, though we need clarification. It is possible that all devices will eventually get the fixes, though not necessarily in this release but in a future roll-up. Check the comments though: users fear the worst.

For background, I recommend you read my piece from February 2010, before the launch of Windows Phone, where Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Joe Belfiore and Andy Lees discuss the partner problem.

One further thought: if Microsoft is losing control over its partners, this represents an opportunity for specific partners to make the commitments that Microsoft is backing away from. How about it Nokia?

Update: Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore tweets:

ps – on updates, pls don’t overreact, our focus is on users first! As greg said “nothing has changed” in how we work w carriers on updates.

Greg is Greg Sullivan, Senior Product Manager on Windows Phone.

This still strikes me as a worrying development for users though. The disappearing keyboard bug is troublesome. How can a user find out when they will get the fix? “Ask your carrier” is all very well, but many find carriers unresponsive on this kind of issue.