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Review: What's New in the Apple iBooks Author Update 2014
Iain Anderson on Tue, November 18th | 0 comments
Apple recently provided an unexpected update to iBooks Author, their creation app for (primarily) fixed layout ibooks for iOS and Mac. Iain Anderson gets interactive with it.

Although InDesign recently received an update to its Fixed-Layout EPUB features, Apple’s not been sitting idle with its competing iBooks Author option either. Though both can produce books which iBooks can display on a Mac or an iPad, each has strengths and weaknesses. The most recent update for InDesign expanded the animation, previewing and hyperlinking abilities of EPUB, but what have Apple added to their offering? Let’s find out.

Rarely has a list of new features excited such interest.

Rarely has a list of new features excited such interest.

Interactivity Without Asking

In a bit of a breakthrough, it’s now possible to display HTML animation (AKA Widgets) as first-class elements on a page in an iBook. Previously, widgets had to be activated by tapping on them, and couldn’t play automatically. Now, they can animate on their own, and don’t need to be tapped first. Users of Tumult Hype and Adobe Edge Animate can rejoice in their new-found power.

Plays automatically is the checkbox you want to tick.

Plays automatically is the checkbox you want to tick.

For example, in a kids book I wrote and illustrated, I was able to use Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite to add chunks of HTML animation on top of the regular pages, to animate parts of the illustrations—mostly making the eyes move around. That’s been impossible in iBooks until now, and it’s also going to enable animated advertisements.

If they play automatically, they can’t be online.

If they play automatically, they can’t be online.

Limitations

It’s not all roses, however. Apple tend to keep security in mind, and so for better or worse, HTML animations that automatically load are not allowed to access the internet. Two consequences spring to mind:

  • Web fonts and javascript libraries had better be local, or there’ll be trouble.
  • Oh no, what are we going to do about ads?

If this limitation remains, and I imagine it will, then ads will need to be redesigned to incorporate a link area on the edge of each ad, rather than being integrated into the ad itself. While it’s not ideal, and I can imagine some confusion at not being able to tap on an embedded URL, the consistency of a fixed, clickable, static zone will likely be appreciated. 

Yes, you can import a chapter from InDesign as well as Pages or Word now.

Yes, you can import a chapter from InDesign as well as Pages or Word now.

Importing from InDesign!

You read it correctly; Apple’s iBooks Author can now import the IDML format. This is InDesign’s version-agnostic markup format, which CS4 and up can export to, and we simply haven’t had anything like this interaction between these Apple and Adobe authoring apps before.

Styles come across too.

Styles come across too.

It’s not just text, either: it’s text, images, captions, the whole deal. Yes, text will reflow, yes, some fonts will lose bolding, and yes, some complex column layouts will be jumbled—it’s not perfect. But it’s a pretty good start.

Here’s an original layout in InDesign.

Here’s an original layout in InDesign.

Given that most print publications have already been laid out in InDesign, this means that iBooks becomes a pretty reasonable option instead of a complete re-do. Certainly, simpler layouts are going to come across without too much hassle, and it’s probably going to be the easiest way into the iBookstore for many publishers.

And here’s the layout after importing into iBooks, mostly intact—though some other pages did much worse.

And here’s the layout after importing into iBooks, mostly intact—though some other pages did much worse.

Conclusion

iBooks and InDesign’s fixed-layout options can now fight it out on a much more even playing field. iBooks allows a few more interactivity tricks and bells and whistles, while InDesign exports in a more open format to suit a variety of viewers. It’s the classic argument repeated: open, wider distribution, but possibly unreliable results, or closed, with more limited distribution but reliable, interactive results.

Time will tell how successful each format will become. We’re in format flux right now, but there’s no doubt that some kinds of publications are poorly served by reflowable EPUBs, and we need a solution. It’s great to see two titans of the industry racing to give it to us.

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