Apple iBooks Author and Adobe FrameMaker?

First let me point out that I’m a bit of a Mac-head. After 30+ years of using “IBM PCs” I made the switch to Macs a little over two years ago. Mac desktop (Mini), Mac Server (Mini), Mac laptops (MacBook and MacBook Pro), not to mention the iPhones and iPad. Yeah, completely jumped ship. I do still perform most of my work on Windows, but it’s all in VMs (Virtual Machines) on Apple hardware. It was the best move I’ve ever made .. far more productive, and far fewer problems (both hardware and software). From my perspective, Windows runs best on a Mac.

So, because I’m a late-comer to the Mac world, I wasn’t terribly bothered when FrameMaker dropped the Mac platform (in retrospect, it seems like a bad move, but that’s not the point). Frame works great in my Windows VM .. no problems at all. The fact that it’s not a native Mac application doesn’t really matter to me since I’m usually working in that VM.

I’ve been using FrameMaker for 20+ years, and not only use it for authoring and publishing of content (mostly software and technical manuals), but I also develop plugins and tools for FrameMaker. FrameMaker has its detractors, but in my opinion it’s a very solid authoring and publishing tool for both structured and unstructured content. I like it.

I’ve also been involved with eBook development for the past couple of years, and find that to be an exciting new option for publishing. There is no “perfect” path for creating an eBook from FrameMaker .. lots of options, some better than others depending on your needs, but they all have issues that typically require manual tweaking of the output.

With the release today of Apple’s iBooks Author application (free, but requires the Lion OS), I thought it might be good to explore how this tool potentially fits into the technical document publishing workflow. Also to see if this tool might be a replacement for FrameMaker in certain situations.

In case you missed all of the hype (info and video here), iBooks Author is Apple’s answer to making it easy for authors and publishers to create beautiful and highly interactive eBooks. This syncs up with their effort to provide interactive textbooks for students as eBooks. One caveat is that these eBooks can only be used on the iPad (not even the iPhone, for now), and in fact the license agreement requires that the output from this application can only be used on the iPad and sold through the iTunes bookstore. I won’t get in to whether that’s a good thing or not, but if the iPad is a target device for your content, this may be a useful tool.

If you’re familiar with Apple’s Pages application, you’ll feel quite comfortable with iBooks Author .. it looks like they cloned Pages to make this tool.

First hurdle .. how do you get content from FrameMaker into iBooks Author? IBA appears to only import content from an Apple Pages file or a MS Word DOC file. (No XML import and not even an RTF import.) FrameMaker exports to RTF, which you can open in Word and save to a DOC file. Once you’ve got a DOC, you can then insert that file as a “chapter” or a “section” into the IBA file (iBooks Author files have an IBA extension). When adding the DOC file to the IBA you have the option of preserving your document styles, but regardless of the setting of this option, your style names are all lost (as far as I can tell). All paragraphs are tagged with a style name of “Free Form”. YIKES. As a hard-core style user, that sounds like a really bad thing to do. Hopefully I’m missing some option to maintain style names .. if not, that’s a serious flaw. However, even without any style tweaks, the default appearance does look pretty decent.

Update 29 Jan 2012! Sorry .. looks like I was wrong about that. Selecting the “Preserve styles option” does maintain paragraph and character styles (and style names) on import.

When I tried the import process on some of my content, it seemed to have trouble with conditionalized text. This text looked fine in Word (after the export from Frame), but after importing into IBA, the first character of each conditionalized paragraph was missing. If you make use of conditions in FrameMaker, be sure to watch for this. Also, it appears that cross-references don’t convert into anything useful on the IBA side, and referenced images are lost.

Let’s assume that your content has been successfully imported into an IBA file. You’ll need to create the cover and title pages as well as set up the copyright and other frontmatter. You can import directly into pages of these types, or just insert a copyright section page and copy+paste into that page. An interesting “feature” of eBooks created from IBA is that there is a separate table of contents for each chapter. You’ll need to be sure to tag paragraphs appropriately for them to show up in each TOC.

One of the really interesting things about this tool is its ability to add various types of interactive graphics (called Widgets). These can be simple things like a gallery of images (swipe left and right to see more) and movies or audio files. Or, you can create more complex objects like multiple choice review questions, or interactive images with callouts that pop up when tapped. You can also embed a Keynote presentation, interactive 3D images, and HTML content. All of this must be manually created.

When you want to preview your book, just plug your iPad into your computer, and click the Preview button. Within a minute, you’ll be able to page through and review/test the iBook you’ve created.

If Apple is really hoping that people will create lots of these iBooks, they should work a bit more on getting a cleaner import process. Graphics and cross-references should definitely not get deleted, and maintaining the source style names would be very helpful. Otherwise, there’s quite a bit of manual work to import your existing content and creating a new book. Granted, any of the interactive media will need to be created manually since that didn’t exist in the source.

While a conversion from FrameMaker to iBooks Author is probably not the most common workflow scenario, it may be worth the effort if your goal is to create an interactive book for the iPad. I don’t see this application replacing FrameMaker (or Word for that matter) since it really only allows for a very limited type of page-based formatting, and you can’t export to anything other than iBook, PDF, and text.

I’ll be playing with this more over the coming weeks and will post more as I explore the options.

17 thoughts on “Apple iBooks Author and Adobe FrameMaker?

  1. Michael Müller-Hillebrand

    Scott, I agree with all your statements about running Windows software in a VM and using Mac OS X as the basis for the rest of your computer environment. Just yesterday I upgraded to Lion. Why? To be able to test iBooks Author.

    What I envision here is to use iBooks Author purely as a design tool to create the “frame” (pun?) of an interactive book and then use XML processes (from FrameMaker or a CMS) to fill it. What do you think?

    1. saprentice Post author

      Michael .. I was thinking along the same lines. This is really just an enhanced fixed-layout EPUB3 file (as best as I can tell) .. so there should be no reason you can’t create a “template” in iBooks Author, then deconstruct it and use that as the basis for an XSLT that could fill in the content. It’s too bad that you can’t open an “IBOOKS” file in iBooks Author .. then you could generate the file programmatically, then open it in IBA to make some final tweaks.

  2. Error7103

    Groklaw reports on this term found in the iBA EULA:
    “IMPORTANT NOTE: If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.”

    1. saprentice Post author

      Error .. Yes, as usual, Apple has outdone themselves with the EULA. However, I’m wondering what would be the key to determine if a file was created with IBA. I could hand-code one of these using an extracted file as a guide. Technically that’s not “created with IBA”. Are they claiming that you can’t create a fixed-layout EPUB3 file and use it elsewhere (if any other readers could consume it)? I know that the IBOOKS file has some extra bits that are outside of the EPUB3 spec, and even beyond the “typical” fixed-layout file .. but it seems that there is some room for fuzzyness here.

    2. Stefan Gentz

      Actually that’s just one more reason to “author” in a professional software like InDesign or FrameMaker and publish to iBooks format directly (considering the existing ePub Support that will be a snap for Adobe).

      Interesting question: You author with InDesign / FrameMaker > PDF > Print > bookshelf. Then you use InDesign to additionally publish to iBooks format (direktly, not over iBook Author). Lawyers will have to discuss this.

  3. NancyD

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Especially appreciate the info about FrameMaker and the gotcha about Conditional Text.

    Have you checked out whether ‘books’ created using Adobe InDesign (which adopted many features from FrameMaker) will flow any better into IBA?

    1. saprentice Post author

      Nancy .. The big problem with any workflow that tries to import existing content into IBA is that it has to go through a DOC or PAGES file .. and it appears that much of the problems happen in the DOC to IBA import. InDesign source would need to be saved to DOC, which would end up in a similar boat to the FM source. In both cases, simple content will probably be OK, but anything complex will need a fair amount of re-tagging.

  4. Pingback: ePUBSecrets » Blog Archive » iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and iTunes U: Changing the Textbooks Game?

  5. Error7103

    > However, I’m wondering what would be the key
    > to determine if a file was created with IBA.

    The EULA terms are ambiguous as to whether “the work” is only the post-iBA product, or “the work” in any form (i.e. pre-iBA as well). Doing your source authoring on some other platform might not cover you. I wouldn’t touch this app with an Apple IIe until that is cleared up.

    1. saprentice Post author

      Error .. I’m thinking of a workflow like that described by Michael. Use IBA to create a “template” .. then develop a programmatic means for pouring in content using that template for the container, but leaving out any IBA-identifying code. The resulting file would never have been edited in IBA. It’s really just an enhanced, fixed-layout EPUB3. The key would be to determine which bits are necessary and which aren’t. I guess also that using any of the special interactive “widgets”, might cause a problem.

      The main question I have is .. when does a “standard” fixed-layout EPUB start to infringe on the IBA-EPUB world, and who makes that call?

  6. Robert C. Leif

    If the native mode for FrameMaker were html5 and preferably xhtml5, it would be much easier to use FrameMaker with EPUB. CSS could be used as the format. The contents of individual FrameMaker paragraph styles could each be described by a CSS statement. Since html5 is a public format, its use should significantly improve FrameMaker’s marketability. The risk in using an internet file format for storing one’s documents is minimal compared to using a proprietary format, which is supported by a relatively few users.
    In fact, if FrameMaker’s tables were enhanced, it could be possible to create an effective competitor to Microsoft Office.

    1. Error7103

      The last attempt to sell FM against MSO drove Frame Technology Corp. to the edge of bankruptcy and resulted in Adobe buying them out.

      Anyway, MS Office isn’t just Word, it’s also Excel, PowerPoint, and a bunch of other stuff I never use because LibreOffice does all the “office” stuff I need.

      What Frame needs is to deliver the promise of write-once, re-flow to everything. When I get to the point where I really need that, I suppose I’ll have to see if Madcap Flare does any better.

      1. Chris S Markham

        A small if belated correction is due.

        “…drove Frame Technology to the edge of bankruptcy.”

        Hyperbole to make a point, perhaps, but untrue. I was there pre-IPO until Adobe first killed then revived FM. Frame Technology was healthy when sold to Adobe for half a $billion. Word was never seen as a competitor to FM. FM was and is still the long document champ, though 20 years later MSW is still making inroads.
        That said, as pretty much the sole tool in this space, FM has been pressed to Swiss Army Knife service. All input and output formats are desired. Witness this great blog post. In this particular case we might suggest that IBA would have more import formats as surely Apple knows that repurposing existing content is where the bulk of the iBooks library is going to come from. XML import would be a great start; XSL transforms are much easier bridges to build than proprietary format (MIF not withstanding) filters. Thanks ‘saprentice’ and Leximation for putting out the fruits of your early research; you’ve saved me a lot of time 9 months later.

        Lastly, I should say that wishing for FM to store in anything but native .fm format is a pipe-dream. I’ve been in the core source code. The formatter is brilliant, despite all its shortcomings (25 years!) but could not survive such a rewrite. If I might wax nostalgic a little longer, I’d relate that Adobe’s effort to rewrite Aldus PageMaker code into what became InDesign took 5 years and a lot of $millions. That isn’t going to ever happen again.

  7. Jan Wright

    Scott, did you happen to drag an indexed Frame or Word file in? If you did, tell me if the index codes disappear. We have been having our lion machine crashing, so i haven’t gotten to that experiment yet. Have done a prototype book to test out the glossary/index features. We need to find an easy way to get a chapter-like index with links working. Hah.

    1. saprentice Post author

      Jan .. as far as I can tell, the only way to get content into IBA is to import a PAGES file. So, you’d need to import your content into Pages first, then you can import that into IBA. As far as I know, Pages does not support proper indexing (no Index object or marker that is aggregated into a generated list). However, just to see what happens, I tried opening a Word DOC with Index markers in Pages .. once in Pages, the Index marker appears to be gone. (Same as cross-references.) At this point I think the best you can do is to get the basic content imported, then you’ll need to manually apply formatting, cross-refs, any index, and interactive widgets.

  8. saprentice Post author

    I updated the article on 29 Jan to strike out the issue regarding preservation of styles on import. Not sure what I was doing to miss this, but the styles are definitely maintained on import if you select the “Preserve styles” option.

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