Software, Hardware, Silverware

The Perils of Proprietary Formats, or: Why IM Sucks

Apple recently released iBooks Author, a Mac application used to create rich and interactive .ibooks files for consumption in iBooks on the iPad. The .ibooks file format is based on the open ePub format, but is very different and very incompatible. Files created with iBooks Author will not render in anything but iBooks for iPad.

Which got me thinking. I thought about some widely-used messaging protocols: email, SMS, and instant message. Email and SMS are open standards. Devices made by Apple, Dell, and Samsung can run email software by Mozilla, Windows, and Google, and email messages sent with any of combination thereof can be received and viewed on the others, and vice versa. SMS is pretty much the same: different phone makers build different phones for different networks, but all of them exchange SMS messages between all the rest with ease. That’s what makes SMS the most widely-used messaging standard in America and email the de facto standard for all web registration services.

But IM is different. If Person A has an AIM account and wants to talk to Person B on Yahoo Messenger, he/she can’t. Person A has to create a Yahoo account or Person B has to create an AIM account. Sure, there are great multi-protocol applications out there, but this is a workaround. Instant Messaging is fundamentally broken by the fact that there is no universal standard1. While it enjoys success amongst mostly-heavy Internet users, it has never and will never become universal.

While I don’t disagree with Apple’s decision to build their own CSS commands into .ibooks, seeing as there’s no way to build such interactive eBooks with ePub 3, I still believe there’s something to be learned from the world of messaging.

  1. Apple’s iMessage, while being proprietary and not universal, cleverly breaks this pattern by working without any prior user action. ↩︎