Archive for June, 2006

eBook pioneer Jim Baen, RIP

Jim Baen, one of the first traditional book publishers to really embrace eBooks passed away Wednesday night. I enjoy science fiction and a Baen Books best-seller 1632 was the first eBook that I read as immersively as if it were a paper book – a credit to the content, much more than to the e-Reading experience.
Groundbreaking efforts by Jim Baen to market digital and paper forms of work in combination include the Baen Free Library, the Webscription program , Advance Reader Copies. While perhaps not well known outside Baen’s particular segment, his programs have paved the way for other publisher programs such as O’Reilly Rough Cuts.
And, most of all, he demonstrated that draconian DRM is not a sine qua non for effective monetization of digital works. Both selling and freely distributing unprotected content, Baen Books increased, rather than decreased, their revenue and profits. 1632’s author Eric Flint makes an impassioned case against DRM – and Jim Baen took a big risk and proved a good part of this case.
Yet, IMO there’s still a reasonable role for digital rights management in protection of eBooks and other digital content. Publishers will make different decisions about how openly to allow access to works, and Adobe is committed to offering the tools to support content protection and to working to increase the interoperability of DRM solutions. But we are also committed to supporting openly distributed, unencrypted content that can be deep-linked, mixed-in, and mashed-up. And I personally welcome publishers who, like Jim Baen, bravely experiment in a partnership of trust with their readers. Meantime I also want to soften the rought edges of DRM – when publishers deem it necessary at all – so it becomes more of a gentle reminder, a way to help “keep honest people honest”. Hackers will be able to crack any DRM, so in reality that’s the most that a rights holder can expect. iTunes DRM forexample, is a joke cryptographically. But as a user I have to intentionally decide to defeat it. If publishers and eBook sellers fairly price their wares I believe that most users will respect their licenses and that we can all increase our customer base and revenue.
Jim, I never had the pleasure of meeting you, but I thank you.

Flash Player 9 & Flex 2 Released

I don’t typically plump for Adobe products in this blog. But the official release tonight of Flash Player 9.0 and Flex 2.0 is a special case, and IMO is also significant for the future of digital publishing.
The extended Web/browser ecosystem largely is based around three client-tier file formats: HTML, PDF, and Flash SWF. People are finding that Flash is not just a great solution for interactive animations and video, but also a great cross-OS platform for rich internet applications (RIAs) that break the page-at-a-time barrier of typical Web applications. The new Yahoo! Maps , the new Google Finance, Zillow, Redfin, and many others are Flash-powered. But despite growth in adoption of Flash for interactivity and applications, AJAX web apps are getting all the attention. One reason is that Flash has been challenging to program, with a timeline-based authoring metaphor and a scripting language (ActionScript) that, while bytecode-based, offered no real advantages in either language capabilities or performance over browser JavaScript.
Well, now Flash app development is even more compelling and a lot easier. Flash Player 9’s new ActionScript 3, compatible with proposed next-level of ECMAScript, is a powerful language that supports direct XML processing (ECMAScript for XML, aka E4X), strong types, inheritance and mix-in interfaces, exceptions, and other robust software-engineering capabilities. It’s also got a JIT compiler which means a lot closer to native-code performance. Adobe folks don’t like it when I call AS3 “Java Lite” but that’s not far off the mark (and not a bad thing either IMO, given the API bloat of J2SE). And, unlike Java, AS3 is built on an optimized graphics and media engine which enables a far richer user experience than typical Windows desktop apps, much less HTML-based web apps.
And Flex 2.0 makes developing these rich interactive apps much easier – goodby timeline-centric designer-focused UI, hello IDE and XML UI description language for MVC applications and structured data binding to visual controls. Adobe is also easing in to the open source community by building the new development tooling for Flex, Flex Builder, on top of the leading open-source IDE, Eclipse. I’m a useless manager, and even I have been able to whip up cool things with Flex Builder. With 10x less code than, say, a Swing or SWT Java application, and 100x less time than it would take me to debug an unmanaged-memory C++ app or the JavaScript spaghetti of an AJAX web app.
I’m truly impressed with what the Flex and Flash Player teams have pulled off here, and we are eating our/their dogfood. Our team’s forthcoming eBook solution (codename “Twist”) leverages the Flash platform, with a Flex-based UI layer.
And I believe the potential importance of the Flash platform to digital publishing goes a lot further than how app UIs will be put together. As eBooks evolve, they increasingly will not be just digital replicas of paper. They will have interactive multimedia and the line between “document” and “application” will further blur, especially in publishing segments like K-12/higher-ed textbooks and STM. I don’t believe that HTML, even with AJAX and SVG, is going to cut it for representing this interactivity and richness in digital books. AJAX apps are tough enough to make work on the browsers du jour, much less to be expected to be usable on browsers of the future. PDF’s great but is really optimized for representing electronic paper, not interactive applications or free-form rich media. Microsoft’s WPF has a great “spec sheet” of capabilties but a Windows-lock-as the industry-wide cross-platform solution is repugnant. Java is way too heavy and not content-centric enough. Thus Flash SWF seems like an obvious choice to deliver the “surround sound” richness for the books of the future.
OK, sure, SWF and MXML can be viewed as “proprietary” – at least for now. But ActionScript 3 is fast becoming the future of the ECMAScript standard, and there are an increasing number of open source Flash solutions. And Flex is a great way to consume standards-based XML data. It certainly seems possible that some or all of SWF could, like PDF/A, follow the road from vendor-developed innovation to ISO standard. Meantime – trying to be neutral about it – if I were a publisher and had to choose between a cross-OS solution from a vendor like Adobe and a Windows-centric solution from Microsoft for interactivity and rich media in my digiital publishing strategy… or sticking with static PDF or XML documents that don’t deliver the richness that users increasingly expect… the choice seems pretty easy.
Anyway it should be an interesting next twelve months. I congratulate “Macro-Adobians” on FP9 & Flex 2. They rock.

More Progress on Digital Publishing Standards

The IDPF today issued a press release covering a number of positive developments in standardization of digital publishing formats. To me the key underlying messages here are improved cooperation within the digital publishing industry and across standards groups.
Successful industry standards should codify and “bless” established best practices – trying to do invention in committee leads to “castles in the sky” failures. It’s critical to have multiple parties committed to implementing a proposed standard. Appropos is Michi Henning’s just published article in ACM Queue, The Rise and Fall of CORBA. So it’s great to have multiple vendors announcing implementation plans around IDPF standards for reflowable eBooks. While PDF is firmly established as the standard for paginated fixed-format content, we need to get past the “Seven Dwarfs” of competing proprietary approaches for “liquid” reflowable textual content. Coalescing around enhancing OEBPS, the incumbent standard interchange format for reflowable eBooks, supports the general principle for standards success.
Of course the last thing we need is a splinter “fork” of OEBPS but luckily this is shaping up to be a non-starter. Kudos to the OpenReader folks though for keeping the lights on after the eBooks 1.0 bust, for acting as a prod to the industry around the need for open standards, and for contributing to the IDPF standards development process.
Another important principle is appropriate cooperation across standards groups and industry consortia. Unnecessarily duplicative standards fragment the market and block interoperability, which is after all the main goal of open standards. IDPF is well along the way to taking the approach of successful industry-specific groups like the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA). OMA has the means to create industry-specific standards when necessary, but by preference leverages and cooperates with broader industry standards like W3C and OASIS. IDPF joining OASIS and working to align OEBPS Container Packaging with OASIS OpenDocument is a positive development, and should lead to further cooperation. Working more closely with DAISY should lead to open standards that meet requirements for profitable commercial digital publishing as well as accessibility requirements such as NIMAS.

Microsoft and PDF and openness

I’ve received many questions about the recent Microsoft PR campaign about changes to portable document features in Office 2007. My colleague Mike Chambers posted a definitive summary of Adobe’s perspective last night. Recommended reading.
Note that I posted on Microsoft monopolism and PDF (here and here) back in October 2005. Needless to say these were personal opinions of someone not involved in our discussions with Microsoft.