Archive for February, 2006

Open eBook Standards Get Rolling

I’m a big proponent of open standards, but I must admit that standards group processes are often painfully slow, to the point of resembling Entmoots. But I’m very pleased, even a little surprised, to see ePublishing-related standards groups producing timely work products. I recently posted about the completion of the ISO standard PDF/A last Fall: the core of PDF becoming a full-fledged ISO standard is a very significant step for open standards in the publishing community.
Now, IDPF is moving aggressively to push forward open standards for reflow-centric documents. The IDPF Unified Container Format working group started last fall to develop a single-file packaging for XHTML-based OEBPS content has published finalized requirements, a public working draft is in the offing, and expectations are that a final standard can be completed within a matter of months. The IDPF Board has also unanimously approved creation of a new working group to complete a similar focused process to create an OEBPS 2.0 during this year.
The IPDF (originally OEBF) took some heat for having fallen asleep at the wheel after the crash of the original eBook hype bubble. But even IDPF critics acknowledge that the group moved with alacrity early on in creating OEBPS in the first place. I’m hopefully that the progress we’re seeing, in connection with re-engagement by Adobe and other participants, indicates a return to a rapid pace of standards development.
One reason for this is that IDPF technical experts are applying two key principles that served OEBF well “back in the day” : don’t renvent the wheel (adopt existing core standards where possible), and stay focused on concrete real-world requirements (don’t try to “boil the ocean” based on theoretical concerns).
With this approach, I could even see IDPF evolving into a similar role in the publishing industry as OMA plays in the mobile data industry: primarily a marketing group, with a technical arm that focuses on rapidly assembling industry-specific standards from existing primary standards developed by vendors or more ideally groups like W3C, and ultimately influencing the direction of these horizontal standards.
Since the new IDPF combines active participation of major publishers and other industry players, with a well-defined standards-development process that has been successful in the past and has a head of steam up once again, I’m optimistic that the group can be a powerful force in advancing the next stage of the digital publishing revolution. And after all, once the Ents finally got moving they defeated Isengard in a day.
Some long-time critics of IDPF inaction are even starting to grumble that the group may be moving too hastily. Ironic, yes, but also a good sign.

Survey Highlights PDA Popularity for E-Reading

IDPF has just release results of a new eBook user survey. While highly unscientific, the report nevertheless offers some valuable insights that track what I observe anecdotally among friends and colleagues: most early adopters of e-Reading in North America are reading on PDAs. PDAs are the preferred devices of a whopping 79% of respondents, PCs of only 15%, with dedicated reading devices and mobile phones a scant 4% and 1% respectively. I commented in an earlier post on the increasing number of VGA displays on PDAs/smartphones, which should further this phenomenon.
The “unscientific” ding is because the vast majority of the 700+ surveys came from visitors to two particular eBook etailers, ereader.com (formerly Palm ‘s Peanut Press operation) and Fictionwise. ereader.com markets primarily to PDA users via their own PalmDoc-based platform; Fictionwise also substantially markets to a PDA user base. As the report understatedly notes “the survey pool may not represent industry distribution of the various reading platforms. Well, no. Nevertheless it’s true that ereader.com and fictionwise are two of the largest eBook etailers so their preferential marketing to PDA users is arguably itself indicative.
Unsurprisingly, these PDA-centric users prefer reflowable formats, which can readily adapt to small screens, to pre-paginated PDF. Even if you throw out the eReader.com half, PDF is still the preferred format of just 12% of the remaining responses, with MS Reader and Mobipocket more than doubling that number. Our quite stale Palm version of Adobe Reader also undoubtedly didn’t help PDF’s eBook cred with this group. Well, we do realize the realities of small screens (for dedicated devices like Sony Reader as well as multi-purpose handhelds), so stay tuned for more soon on how our overall platform will expand beyond the strengths of today’s PDF.
The survey also highlights unmet needs for high-quality eReading devices, with 80% rating this important or very important, and 34% rating their satisfaction with this issue as only fair to poor. Perhaps surprisingly, the ability to lend eBooks to family and friends is only important to a moderately low 44% of respondents, which is a good thing given that DRM schemes have made this problematic to the point that 78% feel fairly or poorly satisfied in this regard. Reading out loud and multimedia enhancements are important to only 14% and 11% respectively, while the ability to read in a comfortable font size is important to a whopping 96% – so it’s a good thing that 83% seem well-satisfied with this latter feature (yeah, I know, most of the other 17% are probably trying to read a certain page-oriented format on their PDAs).
The free-form comments from respondents are also well worth a read. DRM gets slammed, no surprise, but there are also some surprisingly positive comments to the effect that the experience of e-Reading can be an improvement over paper (again to this small sample of bleeding-edge early-adopters). Well, it’s nice to see some positivity, and we’re working to make it even better!

Stealth eReader Devices

Early adopters have been consuming eBooks on PDAs and mobiles for a long time, but a 320×240 display affords at best a mediocre reading experience, even for reflowable text-centric content. While I’m a big fan of dedicated reading devices, and especially like the upcoming Sony Reader, I think it’s too soon to write off multi-purpose devices. One sea change is the emergence of higher-resolution displays on small devices.
There are now over a dozen VGA PDAs. I skimmed an eBook on one of these 640×480 VGA PDAs and found it surprisingly readable. And SVGA (800×600) device displays are available, at least on keitai in Japan. At least for the next several years dedicated devices will provide a far superior experience for immersive reading (at a price), but we should not ignore the millions of users who will have multi-purpose devices that are capable of consuming text content. Even the Sony PSP handheld gaming device is generating interest as an eBook platform. And, while Tablet PCs are much mocked and scorned, the folks in Redmond are nothing if not persistent and I think we can expect more on this front later (not to mention the eventual Apple tablet device).
As with digital cameras, dedicated devices will be first to achieve parity with the analog world: eBooks will not supersede pBooks thanks to a Treo. And like digital cameras (and unlike music players) every choice will involve compromises, no one model will be “good enough” along every dimension. But as with camera phones, the combination form factor should eventually prove popular as well. Reading is a ubiquitous human behavior and we should be striving for open cross-platform solutions for eReading that are able to be deployed pervasively across the spectrum of devices that we will be using. Well, except for the living-room TV – even a decade of Microsoft persistence hasn’t been able to make “lean back Web surfing” appetizing to users, much less immersive reading.