I was reading this article which describes how iTunes supports the download of PDF files through podcast feeds. At first, this came as a surprise, but then I remembered that iTunes supports PDF files originally as album booklets which can be downloaded when you buy (some) whole albums from the iTunes Store.
I then started to speculate on the possibility that Apple would extend the reach of its online store from music, TV shows and movies to ebooks. Ok, ok, people say that ebooks will never take off, but couldn’t the same be said from legally downloadable music before Apple decided to take its chances on this market?
And surprisingly, Apple already has all (or almost all) it would take for a successful online ebook purchase service.
First let’s talk about the software. The iTunes Store is perfect for the distribution of DRM (FairPlay) protected files in standard format which are precisely tagged with metadata. When Apple decided to add video support to it’s store, it didn’t had to create a new file format, but only add the FairPlay DRM to standard MPEG-4 files. It required some small updates on the iTunes interface to support the playback of video files, but the categorization of metadata used in iTunes was mostly enough, if not by requiring some new fields.
What would it take iTunes and the iTunes Store to support FairPlay protected PDF files? There would be no challenge at all, and the needed modifications would probably be less than those necessary when video playback was added. iTunes would probably support PDF display, which is already a system wide feature of MacOS X through the PDFKit Framework, or just open up the Preview application which is already used for PDF displaying.
But of course the killer feature of ebooks is not reading them on the computer, but in an appropriate handheld device which has a nice screen and good battery life. That is, the hardware part of the system.
And Apple already has some proved hardware technologies which can download purchased digital files from iTunes and let users use it on the go: the iPod. Of course, the current iPods do not present a screen large enough to make the reading of ebooks comfortable, or even don’t have the software resources to render PDF files. But these two requirements may be met with the release of the iPhone. David Pogue’s ultimate iPhone FAQ mentions that Steve Jobs has confirmed that the iPhone will be able to display PDF files. If indeed the iPhone runs a trimmed version of the full MacOS X, all it would take for the device to support the format is to develop a port of PDFKit to the device’s lightweigth OS X. Of course, supporting ebooks exclusively in the new iPhone is a strong limitation, but do people really believe that Apple took this hard work of putting MacOS X on a diet for a single device? It seems clear that this new software environment will be the foundation of future non-phone iPods as well.
The iTunes store is the reference implementation of how to develop a user-friendly, feature rich, stable “media assets” store: while it originally sold songs exclusively, it has expanded its businesses to deal with TV shows and more recently feature movies. The technology is in place, all Apple needs to do is to negotiate rights with book publishers and apply its FairPlay DRM system to PDF files.