Samsung recently demonstrated for the first time a new carbon nanotube color active matrix electrophoretic display (EPD) e-paper display, in an impressive 14.3 inch size. This new technology springs from a partnership between Samsung and Unidym, the company that developed the carbon nanotubes used by the device. The usual benefits of e-paper are touted: readable in bright sunlight, very low power consumption, no need for continual refresh. How this display technology stacks up vs. others I can’t say, nor do I have a real clue how the carbon nanotubes fit in. The reason I’m writing about it is mainly to highlight that we are still in a stage of rapid innovation in this segment of display technology. So don’t get hung up on the small 6″ display of today’s Sony Reader or Kindle, the lack of color, fragile glass frontplate, or the stately and black-flash accompanied refresh. These are within a few short years going to be distant memories, totally transcended by future devices. I’ve had a chance to see some of the enhanced display technology coming in the next year or so, and it’s already going to be light years ahead.
We need pioneers to start this virtuous cycle of CE refinement going, and we need early adopters to buy the Mavica’s and DynaTac’s. But as we consider what ultimate mass-market adoption will look like, we need to look beyond the limitations and quirks of today’s “breakthrough” devices. It’s hard, and as an early-adopting digital reader and industry participant I often fall into the “tomorrow is going to look like today” mental trap. I don’t have a great cure, although re-watching Minority Report seems to help…
We squeezed EPUB export into InDesign CS3 before the final IDPF standard was approved, when even the name of the format was still in doubt ( thus the feature name: “Export for Digital Editions”). The just-released InDesign CS4 takes EPUB support to a whole new level, adding embedded font support and TOC generation (which we had made available as a separate update after CS3 shipped), as well as floating anchored images, option to emit CSS for local (non-style-driven) formatting, and improved mapping of TOC structure to XHTML heading levels. But the biggest feature by far is the new option to choose DTBook (aka DAISY XML) content within EPUBs, compatible with the NIMAS standard that has been mandated in the U.S. for providing access to K-12 instructional materials for the visually impaired. Our lead tools developer writes about the new features here, in our digital publishing tech blog. A very important next step on the client SW side is enabling “screen reader” support for DRM-protected eBooks, something we are committed to doing ASAP.
Sony recently announced a new touch-screen Reader model PRS-700. Having gotten a little hands-on time with the new Reader, I’m sold! It is by far the most polished eReader product have yet used. Touch-screen works well, and to me is far more appropriate for a reading device than a space-consuming keyboard like the Kindle, and the back-light makes total sense and eliminates the one arena where traditional light-emitting displays have been superior – reading in the dark. CNET published a first look review here. I won’t repeat its points, other than to confirm that, yes, the touch screen does not yield the same instantaneous swoosh as the iPhone (the 700 uses a totally different technology, not to mention being handicapped by the E Ink display’s sluggish refresh rate). Yet, the touch screen is still a vast improvement over buttons, and I quickly got the hang of it.
Both the PRS-505 (with latest firmware) and PRS-700 fully support the PDF and EPUB standards, both open access and protected with Adobe ACS4 DRM, which means commercial eBooks can be purchased from hundreds of retailers and borrowed from thousands of public library systems. To me this is table stakes interoperability for a device worthy of my investment and attention. As a consumer, lock-in sucks. Sony has their own Connect eBook store, which they have been steadily improving, but I am not stuck with it as my only choice.
I’m on record as saying there isn’t going to be an “iPod of eBooks” – that the market will evolve more like digital cameras, with devices from many vendors meeting different sets of requirements. I still think that’s the way things will play out, especially with the desire to read on smartphones and notebooks as well as dedicated reading devices. But, from a pure consumer electronics lust perspective, the Sony Reader PRS-700 comes the closest of any offering yet released to causing me to change my mind. No doubt about it, it is worth the price bump from the PRS-505 model (which is still available) – that would be true just for the faster CPU alone, much less all the other additional features.
I don’t like to be overly commercial on this blog, but will make an exception to express how delighted I am that our new Adobe Content Server 4 solution is being quickly embraced by publishers and content distributors worldwide. ACS4 (as our marketing folks prefer we not refer to it), is server software for copy protection (DRM) of PDF and EPUB publications for use with Adobe Digital Editions and compatible devices (such as the Sony Reader models 505 and 700).
The major content aggregator Ingram Digital last week announced that they are already delivering secure e-books via the Content Server 4 technology. Since we only shipped ACS4 on Sep 22 (US), that means they were live in production within a matter of days of commercial release. Anyone familiar with enterprise software integration and deployment timelines will realize that this implies a light-speed rollout. And only a few days after Oct 10 worldwide availability, we already have gained ACS4 customers worldwide, including regions like Scandinavia and the Middle East as well as the US and Europe.
Content Server 4 represents a tremendous achievement by our engineering team. Despite the “4″ suffix it is not in any direct way a successor to the previous Content Server 3. The underlying DRM protocol and cryptographic technology was modernized and extended to support new features and a more seamless consumer experience, and both the client and server implementations were all new. The server code is now portable Java which can run across platforms and integrate with a variety of back-end databases and content repositories.
Now, Adobe is not advocating that DRM is an essential element of a digital publishing strategy. There are a lot of situations where online consumption may be a good alternative, or where a publisher has a trust relationship with users or a marketing angle that makes non-copy-protected downloads suitable. But I do think that those who suggest the book publishing industry should learn from the music industry and “Think Beyond DRM” are making false analogies and suggesting a path that could be highly deleterious to publisher revenue and, ultimately, availability of quality commercial content to consumers. Authors and publishers are what make great books, and they ultimately need to get paid or they won’t create. A certain level of copy protection is common to most forms of digital content, be it electronic games, DVDs, or general software. The music business set itself on a path to a poor outcome by making their pure-digital physical product (audio CDs) completely DRM-free, and thus able to be easily copied by legitimate software and hardware devices. Books of course can be duplicated or even re-keyed without too much trouble, so there’s no point in insisting on draconian hard-core DRM, but they are not “snap your fingers” copiable. So as publishers start to make their books available digitally, especially in a world where paper books remain the lion’s-share of the revenue and cannibalization is an important concern, supporting a reasonable level of “copy resistance” in the digital product, essentially to help honest people stay honest, seems like common sense for the baseline case. I think of it like DVDs: almost every DVD uses a basic level of DRM (“CSS”). Those who really really want to copy such DVDs can easily find illegitimate SW to do so; but that basic DRM protects billions of dollars of business, and by staying lightweight and reasonable, doesn’t get too much in consumers’ faces. Many of those who rant about how “evil” DRM is probably are consuming DRM-protected DVDs every day, content they simply wouldn’t have (legitimate) access to without basic anti-piracy support.
How this will all evolve over the real long haul is anybody’s guess. Perhaps in the ultimate fully-connected world we won’t need downloadable content at all, and the issue will shift to access control over online consumption. Perhaps we will find ad-based and other business models displacing paid content. But in the forseeable near-term future I think DRM is going to remain a “necessary evil”. Adobe is committed to giving publishers, online retailers, and libraries the tools they need to create and distribute content, and they certainly are asking for DRM. A couple of years ago we even thought we should phase out the Content Server product line: the ultimate test of customer demand is to stop selling something and see how beat up you get. In this case it wasn’t just “black and blue” – more like “torches and pitchforks”. So I’m extremely happy about our shipping Content Server 4. As a reader, I’m confident that the experience is going to be great, and that I will have access to a lot more digital content, fairly-priced: a decent tradeoff IMO for accepting reasonable limitations on my ability to make and distribute copies of the content I purchase.