An iBook By Any Other Name

A question came to my mind earlier today, what are the books in Apple’s iBookstore called?  Are they called iBooks, or ebooks, or simply books?  The question occurred to me after reading Horace Dediu’s article titled “Measuring the iBook Market” in which he referred to the actual books Apple sells in the iBookstore as ‘iBooks.’ The reference seemed off in some way because I still have the lingering association of iBooks to the discontinued line of laptop computers Apple sold for most of the last decade.  I tweeted Horace questioning whether that was the correct term to use and he quickly tweeted me back that he made a mistake and updated the article to refer to the books as ebooks instead of iBooks.  But thinking about it, did he actually make a mistake or was his use of the term justified?

I decided to first go to the canonical  source and looked on Apple’s website.  I should note, the actual iOS application that lets you access the iBookstore is called iBooks, but that is merely the name of the application and does not refer to what the books inside the app are actually called.  Looking at Apple’s description of the iBookstore on its website, it says, “[t]hen fill your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad library with books from the iBookstore.” (emphasis added).  They also state “you’ll find over 1.5 million books” and “[f]ind a book you like” and “[p]urchase a book.”  Therefore, clearly Apple refers to the books from the iBookstore as simply ‘books’ and there is never any official mention of calling them iBooks. 

However, Apple is known to have somewhat strange ways it refers to its products, outside of which the public actually refers to them. The perfect example is the way they refer to the iPhone or iPad without ever using the definite article ‘the.’  Simply look at the iPhone section on Apple.com and you see numerous examples:

“Learn more about the features of iPhone 5”

“iPhone give you outstanding battery life”

“iPhone is the same width as iPhone 4S”

Never do they say what most people would say, “The iPhone gives you outstanding battery life” or “The iPhone is the same width as the iPhone 4S.” The ultimate example of this is when Apple introduced the original iPad it had signs that simply said, “Meet iPad.”  I assume the underlying reason they refer to the products this way is they want to personify the iPhone and iPad and make them seem friendly and nonthreatening. They treat their names as if their products are actual people.  So just as you wouldn’t say, “the David is a good guy,” you also wouldn’t say, “the iPhone is a great product.”

However, while this is the official corporate policy of Apple to only refer to the iPhone and iPad this way, its extremely rare for an actual person to refer to them this way.  In almost any piece of writing you will read (including the one you are currently reading) the writer uses ‘the’ in front of iPhone or iPad.  Also, in real life most people would say “my iPhone is acting buggy today,” as opposed to “iPhone is acting buggy today.” Saying it the way Apple apparently wants us to say it would sound strange and almost robotic.

Thus, there’s a disconnect in the official naming convention and what most people call those things in real life.  The same is true about the slangy way people refer to an iPod Touch as an ‘iTouch.’  That riles some people up as wrong, but those people that say it’s wrong know exactly what the person is referring to, so it achieves its goal of communicating information.  That is all language is anyway, a way to communicate information to another person. 

This all brings me back to using the term iBooks to refer to books from the iBookstore.  While I don’t think the fact Apple doesn’t officially condone the use of that term means no one should ever use it, I do think the term itself has to be clear from ambiguity.  I think in the context of an article about the iBookstore, its pretty clear that using the term iBooks is referring to the books sold through the iBookstore.  Yet, using it by itself, say in a tweet, it can me more ambiguous.  To me, simply saying, ‘Apple reports sales of millions of iBooks,’ makes me think the they are referring to something that happened in 2003, not 2013.  Of course if I thought about it a second I probably would realize what they are talking about, but it has a little bit of ambiguity, at least for someone who actually owned an iBook back in the day.

In addition, I think the term has to be in widespread use in the general public for me to think using it was acceptable.  I did a quick search on  Google and there are a couple articles that do use iBooks to refer to the actual books, but there doesn’t seem to be a huge consensus in that direction.  So, I think as of now, I’d frown upon using the term iBooks to mean books from the iBookstore.  However, I do believe language is a living thing and can evolve over time, so maybe the term iBooks will eventually garner widespread public support and be free of all ambiguity.  We will have to wait and see.

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