What’s the Difference Between an eBook and an App?

App vs. eBookBy Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World

Kill Your App Any Time: Section 8 makes it clear that Apple can “revoke the digital certificate of any of Your Applications at any time.” Steve Jobs has confirmed  that Apple can remotely disable apps, even after they have been installed by users. This contract provision would appear to allow that.

“All Your Apps Are Belong to Apple: The iPhone Developer Program License Agreement”, Fred von Lohmann

Amazon caught a lot of flak last summer when it remotely deleted unauthorized copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from unsuspecting Kindle owners’ accounts. Cries of “Big Brother” were heard all across the Internet, and one angry customer even sued the online retailer when he lost the notes he had taken along with the eBook.

The suit has been settled, and Ars Technica noted some interesting footnotes that came along with it:

But that’s not the most interesting aspect of the settlement. In it, Amazon’s attorneys agreed to legally binding terms that describe its content deletion policy. When it comes to blog and periodical content, as well as software, Amazon retains the right to perform a remote delete. But when it comes to books, deletions will only occur under a limited number of circumstances: failed credit card transactions, judicial orders, malware, or the permission of the user.

This was last October, when there was still hope that the Nook might successfully challenge Kindle’s dominance, the iPad was still just a rumor, and few people had ever heard of the “agency model”.

Fast forward to today, and mobile apps are all the rage, with over 27,000 book apps already available on the iPhone, and “enhanced” apps like The Death of Bunny Munro are offered up as examples of the future of the eBook. For $16.99 (£9.99) you get “the full ebook, the unabridged audiobook synchronised to the text, read by the author with an original soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and 11 videos of Cave reading from the novel.” It’s a large download (just under 1GB), and I don’t have an iPhone so I told a friend who does about it so we could check it out. He tried to download the free sampler, but it was too big for his 3G connection so he had to wait until he could get WiFi access.

That’s called #epicfail in the Twitterverse.

There’s a much bigger issue with mobile apps, though, and in light of the frequent criticism of Amazon’s proprietary approach to the Kindle, it’s surprising that it’s rarely addressed in the typically breathless media coverage of Apple and its App Store.

Application stores are the new walled gardens.
Most applications are published through walled application stores. The maintainers reserve the right to refuse your app for ethical and technical reasons. To be clear, there is content that should not be available on the Internet, but censoring is not a trivial matter and is a dream come true for institutions that want to shutout competition and uncomfortable voices.  Imagine going through an approval process to have your Web sites indexed by a search engine. There is no institution that could provide the scale of auditing the billions of Web pages. As for technical reasons there is no way around an application review process since apps can seriously harm your phone. Mobile viruses are not for the faint of heart.

–“The Future is the Mobile Web (not the Mobile App)”, Percent Mobile

As both von Lohman and PercentMobile have noted, Apple’s approach to apps is really no different from Amazon’s approach to eBooks, and they arguably take much more of a Big Brother approach than Amazon does based on their recent selective ban on sexual content (Playboy somehow made the cut) and “cookie-cutter” apps.

“Apps are the answer for many, many things, but you are ultimately at someone else’s whim. Buyer beware.”


Are publishers jumping from the frying pan into the fryer by favoring Apps over eBooks, and looking to Apple as a savior?

Are they missing an opportunity by not focusing their resources on the device-agnostic mobile web instead?

In December 2009, 63.1 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers used text messaging on their mobile device, up 2.1 percentage points from three months prior. Browsers were used by 27.5 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers (up 1.5 percentage points), while subscribers who played games made up 21.6 percent (up 0.2 percentage points).

Mobile Content Usage, comScore MobiLens

What are the fundamental differences between eBooks and Apps, and do they favor dedicated devices like the Kindle or multi-function devices like the iPhone and iPad?

What do you think?

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Chief Executive Optimist for Digital Book World.

15 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between an eBook and an App?

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  2. Adam

    Hey Guy, nice you see lunch was well served! I would agree that the current app model for ebooks on the iphone does allow for big brother actions, as Apple has done, will no doubt do, and who is not transparent in the least.

    But what changes with the iPad is that books will be sold through Apple’s Books app. The question will be, are these books like songs and movies in iTunes and owned by the user? Or something like the Kindle where Amazon has the ability to centrally delete? The iPad feels less like a net device than the Kindle (even with few porting or connection options), so I don’t think the app model will be used for ebooks. Won’t know till I test one out! You said you were getting yours on the 2nd?

    1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Post author

      No iPad for me; it neither replaces a current device, nor fills a pressing need. It’s an expensive toy, IMO, and not a huge game-changer for eBooks in the next 12-24 months. Plus, I can always play with yours when you inevitably succumb to the mania!

  3. Liam Campbell


    I’m interested to see how Apple are going to handle the explosion of AppBooks on the iPad. As an Australian developer without access to the iBookstore (or more information about the ePub formats that will be used), what choice is there but to make AppBooks?

    Of course I have a concern that Apple might remove certain types of AppBooks from the store in order to move traffic to the iBookstore in the future. However, with 27k+ Appbooks already on the iPhone, it is hard to see them doing this. Apple can’t play the same card they did when they removed the ‘sexy’ apps, but then Apple generally does what it wants despite the initial backlash.

    It’s going to be interesting. I hope the iBookstore ePub format allows for a more interesting and entertaining experience for the user than simply kindle ebooks in colour. I guess it will eventually get there, but in the meantime AppBooks will be so much better.

    On the other hand, there is a tendency for ‘rich media’ books on the iPhone to be huge in size. Do I want to watch lots of videos when I’m buying a book? Do I need them to be embedded in the app or as I likely only access this content once (if at all), would I prefer them to be accessed via an external web link if it meant the download wasn’t 1GB? Of course, the problem is that this extra content/features help to market the AppBook. And if it’s possible, (as authors/publishers/developers) we want to put it in… which makes me think about how hard Apple reps hammered developers to about resisting ‘feature creep’.

    If ‘content is king’… what ‘content’ do I want when I purchase an AppBook/iBook?


    1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Post author

      “Appbooks” (I like that) certainly offer more creative (and pricing) potential than static eBooks, but they also Norequire a completely different production process and business model that most publishers won’t be in a position to leverage for a while. (The exception, of course, being educational publishers and some non-fiction niches.) Plus, there’s the issue of rights to the various elements and the costs involved in producing them that rarely get discussed. I’ve yet to see any P&L info on any of the enhanced ebooks that have gotten so much acclaim.

  4. Edwina Lui

    It’s funny you should mention this–I just read a post on TheAtlantic.com (which references a January post on the Forrester blog) about the future of the ‘Splinternet’. It does seem that we–content producers and consumers alike–are being shepherded into a world divided into distinct platforms and content universes, which from my standpoint does not appear to be a win for any of us. Are we so taken with the shiny that we’re willing to overlook this next step in the platform/device/format wars? Or is the concept of a ‘Splinternet’ misguided?


    1. Cathy Hatterman

      The Splinternet is something the big companies have to try. The customers have to tell them they don’t want it. It’s all part of the old “voting with your feet” idea. If you don’t get the service you want, go to where you do. Change service providers, gadgets, etc., until you have more freedom. When they don’t have the market share, they’ll get the mesage. Emaling them won’t work. Not buying their product will work.

      1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Post author

        The challenge of the “splinternet” is one of resources and strategic decisions. Few publishers will be in a position to leverage every available digital platform/format, so they’ll need to know where their customers are and what formats they prefer, and allocate resources accordingly. Of course, the first step there is actually listening more to their readers and less to the fickle tech fetishists who embrace every new shiny that comes down the tubes.

  5. Theresa M. Moore

    As a self-published author who publishes under my own imprint (Antellus), I have yet to reach iPad or iPhone except through my printer source, and those agreements are beyond my knowledge. I have also gone onto the Apple site and the only thing I see is a big full page offering for the iPad, no bookstore, nor even a place where I can offer or upload my ebooks to them. Until they open the gates, I’m just standing in front of them. This is why I offer my ebooks only from my site, and I can adapt the ebooks to whatever the customer needs. DRM free, and no censorship issues. Unless Apple wants to sell nothing but nonfiction and children’s books I am not sure they will reach their goal of competing with Amazon, which only bans smut. My books and ebooks are up on Amazon, and have been there for quite some time without someone banning them, and the only adult content in them is more suggestive than anything else. Will Apple now begin to carve out every ebook which has that kind of content, too? Where does it end?

    1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Post author

      One of Amazon’s smartest moves has been to develop programs to work directly with authors, both traditional and self-published, both for distribution as well as revenue via their affiliate programs. Apple has a pretty steep hill to climb if they really want to compete with them. Of course, I don’t think eBooks are nearly as significant to the iPad as most publishers think they are, and with Amazon likely offering a compatible Kindle app, it’s not really an either/or choice between iPad and Kindle for readers.

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  7. tsmith

    I think people are becoming focused on the “one” device that will do it all. That has not happened yet. Competition is great. And competition I feel will kill the walled garden.
    I have an ereader device (Jetbook) that does NOT directly create a link between it and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, or Google. I can buy and download any ebook (even secure ebooks) to my computer and Jetbook and it is mine forever. Jetbook reads a multiple of formats. No external entity or company can delete it.

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