Last week Sony announced the long-anticipated firmware update for the Sony Reader PRS-505 model, improving its PDF support and adding EPUB support. This new model includes compatibility with Adobe Digital Editions Windows PC software, which can transfer secure and regular PDF and EPUB to 505′s via USB. This represents a major step forward for EPUB adoption. Sony PR – Mobileread coverage – ZDNet’s Matthew Miller
As well Sony and Waterstones announced the forthcoming availability of Sony Reader in the U.K.. Waterstones will represent one of the first major EPUB-focused online booksellers. Sony PR
More on all of the above after I dig out from the aftermath of a completely disconnected vacation.
Dear Author‘s Jane has posted a timely article It’s Time to End the Format Wars in the eBook Industry I completely agree that:
It doesn’t make sense to me to have a retailer like Amazon dictate to a publisher the market for their product. Having an agreed upon standard that is open to other manufacturers creates competition and can serve to open the market for digital … An end to the format wars is a win for publishers. It’s a win for consumers
However, it would appear that Jane is not fully aware of of recent progress toward this goal.
Of course, PDF is already the clear winner as the open standard for final-form paginated content. The “eBook Format Wars’ of which Jane speaks were never about alternatives to PDF for print-fidelity content, they were about formats to represent reflow-centric content. It would be nice if we could have had one file format for all eBook purposes, and indeed Adobe was insistent for quite some time that PDF was that format. Yet, while PDF became the most popular eBook format, it has always fallen down when it came to mobile device support. In a world where content will be consumed on a wide variety of screen sizes, binding to a particular paginated representation is unhelpful. Arguably the PDF “capabilities gap” and Adobe’s stubborness helped foster the eBook format wars, as a plethora of reflow-centric formats emerged.
Those who took the other extreme – arguing that PDF is entirely unnecessary for eBooks – missed the point that some content is heavily designed around a particular paginated representation, and may not make sense to recast in a “liquid” representation. Many textbooks and children’s books may just not make sense to target for reading on a 3 inch mobile screen. Digital publishing is not just about linear texts such as novels.And printing is not going away any time soon. The preferred representation for many books, magazines, and newspapers will remain high-fidelity PDF .It’s not that PDF is bad, it’s just not sufficient. And, for many eBook use cases such as novels, it’s not necessarily the best solution as a distribution format.
But now we finally have a distribution-ready standard for reflow-centric conten to complement PDF: IDPF EPUB . EPUB evolved from the existing OEBPS interchange standard, and was approved as a final standard last Fall by a unanimous vote of the IDPF membership, and is rapidly gaining adoption. EPUB adds single-file packaging – the lack of which was the Achille’s Heel of OEPBS – as well as support for structured table of contents, SVG vector graphics, DAISY DTBook support, and embedded fonts. So EPUB supports design-rich distribution-ready publications, wtihin a reflowable structure-centric content model.
I’m hearing more and more from eBook conversion vendors who are being asked by publishers to create EPUB, as well as from publishers who want to directly create EPUB. And Adobe’s going all-in on supporting both PDF and EPUB for digital publishing. Adobe supports EPUB export from InDesign CS3, which we have been actively enhancing. We are also working with the open source community to develop EPUB validation tools and scripts to convert other XML formats such as DocBook to EPUB. Adobe Digital Editions natively supports both PDF and EPUB, and we’ve had over 1 million downloads of Digital Ediitons 1.0 since its launch last June (a beta of Digital Editions 1.5, which supports content portability with our DRM solution, is now out on Adobe Labs).
We aren’t quite over the hump yet – we still need to establish a significant EPUB inventory gaining retailer and library support, deliver on device support, etc.. And there are still a few additional issues to be attacked – such as DRM interoperability. Meantime, publishers need to remain vigilant and reject any “yet another eBook format” attempts (whether from Redmond, Cupertino, or elsewhere). But the big picture is that the industry is finally on track to end the eBook format wars of the last decade, and start reaping the publisher and consumer peace dividends. Tellingly, one major eBook retailer, despite promoting their own proprietary format, has quietly begun accepting EPUB submissions from publishers. To me, that says it’s all over but the shouting.
I posted earlier today about intensively using Kindle on a Mexico trip. While it was a positive experience overall, I definitely encountered some issues with the reading experience. In no particular order:
- Painfully slow current-location-relative navigation. Going to any but the next or previous page is a real chore. There’s a non-reliable “type ahead” with repeated presses of the page buttons, but with the almost full-second time to show a page it can most charitably be described as “stately”. Any mostly you end up in a “press-wait-press-wait” loop. Even with fiction I found this problematic, especially given the propensity to accidentally press the awkwardly located next/prev page buttons. But with non-fiction this was an out-and-out hair-pulling experience. A paper book of course is quickly
- Cumbersome menus. For example, pressing the font-size button brings up a menu, warping the “cursor” on the LCD stripe up to the top of the screen, with the “Close” menu item selected. So you need to move your eye focus from the very bottom (where the font size button is located) up to the top, move your thumb up to the cursor roller-button, take note of the current value (which has an arrow indication), roll the cursor down to the desired font size, then click to select. The Sony Reader’s simple font-size button function simply increments around the set of sizes, providing immediate visual feedback via the updated page view. In contrast, the Kindle implementation seems incredibly cumbersome. Implementing a volume control on an MP3 player by popping up a modal menu would be crazy – the font size feature seems analogous for a reading system.
- Slow text input, which makes searching a chore. If I raced a person reading a paper book to read all the pages containing a given index term, I’d lose by a country mile. The fact that searches always return results from all content was also distractive. Digital should kick butt over paper in searchability – so this is almost shameful. The frequently-displayed tip on using accelerators like “@store” to constrain searches was almost laughable – given the s-l-o-w typing experience, the term “accelerator” hits an ironic note.
- No intrinsic lighting, plus glare with focused light sources. Let’s face it, a lot of reading goes on in bed, much of it next to a sleeping spouse. The opaque reflective display that makes E Ink excel in sunlight leaves it no better than paper in the dark. I had thought that the lack of an edge LCD was just a cost issue, but after more use I think there may be deeper issues. Using various book lights and flashlights, the glass frontplate of Kindle caused a lot of reflective glare. Best results with Kindle were obtained from diffuse light sources at a wide angle; but these days most portable book lights tend to be of the high-intensity LCD variety and angled acutely to the display surface.This was a situation where I found paper still delivered a significantly superior reading experience.
For most of these issues the Amazon Kindle team at Lab 126 can’t be blamed; they are hamstrung by the limitations of the current generation of E Ink display subsystem and overall Kindle is a very usable breakthrough device. And, pioneers are destined to take some arrows. Luckily, this display technology is rapidly improving, especially in refresh rate, so these issues should be much improved even within just the next year.
One suggestion for the Kindle team: you went to all the trouble of putting a quick-refresh LCD “strip” on Kindle, why don’t you use it more? For example, why not support navigating to a location by using the LCD as a scroll bar, which it already resembles: e.g. hold down the “ALT” key and the strip shows your relative position in the current book, and as you roll whenever you pause it moves the page view to that location – bingo, fast navigation, like thumbing through a paper book. Hit back button and you are back to your previous reading view. BTW after a week of heavy use it seems obvious that the separate LCD strip is more clever hack than fundamental user interface concept; Scoble’s Kindle review was overly harsh but I completely agree that a touch-screen UI is eventually going to be a much better way to go – and even with the current E Ink technology the iRex iLiad delivers a nice experience with touch screen.
On a holiday visit to beautful-but-isolated Yelapa, Mexico, I took along an Amazon Kindle for a real-world test. I read 5 books on Kindle, along with several more on paper (I had to time-share the Kindle with the family), and I can now say definitively: eBooks have arrived! I was a little concerned about Kindle in the salty, sandy beach environment but it never faltered or felt fragile, readability in bright sunlight was great, and battery life was excellent – lasting over 6 days before needing a charge (wireless off, since the Sprint network wasn’t available anyway).
But I’m already a convert – the real evidence was the attention I received from a procession of people wanting to know what I was doing, which invariably led to the inquirer getting excited and expressing keen interest in adopting eBooks. Never once did I get an “oh, OK” kind of response. And it’s clear why: the gringos of Yelapa are truly desperate for reading material! Yelapa is accessible only by a 30 minute open boat ride, and the local book supply is a few slim shelves of left-behind paperbacks at various restaurants and casitas. Even those who only spend a week at Yelapa are likely to exhaust the reading supply they are able to reasonably include in their luggage budget – and there are people here who stay months on end or year-round. So these folks – by no means gadget-philes, after all this is laid-back car-free Yelapa that only got electricity 4 years ago – immediately realized that eBooks were a compelling, practical solution to being able to read what they want, wherever they are.
I did come up with a laundry list of usability issues with Kindle that I’ll post about in a separate review, and will compare and contrast with the Sony Reader, but to me the bottom line is that I finally feel confident in saying that eBooks have really arrived as a consumer-relevant media type. Market forces and the continuation of Moore’s Law will lead to radically improved reading systems in the coming years, but it’s already become a no-brainer. My ever-practical spouse questioned whether it was a good idea to bring an eBook reader on this trip. It’s clear that next time she’ll be questioning whether we should take up space and weight with any books of the paper variety.
Possible ou Probable?… is a thought-provoking video short from leading French publishing conglomerate Editis. It’s in French but vision is almost entirely visual.
I found the presentation of digital reading, and reading-optimized devices as an integrated part of daily life, very compelling. Of course, this may be because it tracks very closely to how I see the future unfolding.
One thing that wasn’t so compelling to me, at least in terms of the long-term vision, was the portrayal of digital content acquisition at the traditional “High Street” bookseller, via display copies of paper books. The idea of coming across a desired physical book and then instantly “beaming” the content to a personal device certainly sounds cool. But by the time digital books are widely adopted I believe that they will no longer be merely text and pictures – the integration of rich-media content and interactivity will ultimately make digital publications a new and distinct category of content, not merely a digitized version of paper. And after all most of us don’t acquire songs for our MP3 players by going down to Tower Records and rummaging in CD racks. And online browsing of books is already here.
Yet there will surely be a transitional period where most books are still sold as paper products, and marketed in large part via bookstore display, and where most digital works still have essentially the same content as their paper editions. During this perhaps lengthy period integration of digital and paper bookselling may well transpire as portrayed. As someone who loves bookstores, I would like nothing more than to see things play out this way.
Computerworld yesterday nominated 21 failed technologies for reader voting for biggest all-time technology flop. The article by David Haskin is worth a read for amusement value, the rogue’s gallery includes all the obvious suspects: Newton, DAT tape, DIVX, Flooz, Microsoft Bob, IBM OS/2 and PC Jr. and… of course… e-Books. I doubt e-Books will win top “honors”, but I think the description in the article is relatively fair (albeit a bit hard on the Sony Reader):
E-book readers started being sold about 10 years ago and are still being developed. The most recent entrant into the market is the Sony Reader. But they’re still a flop.
The idea is attractive because, theoretically, e-book technology allows you to load many books and periodicals on a reasonably small handheld device, making it easier to travel with lots of reading matter. Also, e-books are easily searchable, another huge advantage over paper books.
However, e-books are much in need of standardization. Specifically, the number of potential formats for e-books remains huge — the Wikipedia entry for e-books lists more than 20 formats. It’s not pleasant to contemplate buying an e-reader and then finding out that a book or periodical you want is available only in an incompatible format.
Furthermore, the devices themselves just aren’t good enough yet. Some folks find them unwieldy; others say they’re difficult to use. And for many people, there’s just no replacing the old-fashioned, reassuring feel of paper.
To me the real punch line of this article is that almost every listed flop has subsequently given rise to major technology successes. DAT tape paved the way for CDs, Newton for PDAs/smartphones, even the PC Jr. arguably was a forerunner, at least conceptually, of the very successful iMac. The paperless office hasn’t exactly come to pass, but I sure get a lot less inter-office mail, and I print way less than I used to.
As far as the sucessor to e-Book failures: a large-scale digital publishing market is inevitable and it’s starting to happen. Yes devices need to get better: they are. Yes, we need format standardization: it’s happening. And (sigh) yes, many people will never want to replace the “old-fashioned reassuring feel of paper”!
But habituated bookophiles are getting older and a digital-centric generation is coming up. And globally there are billions of people who have no practical way to get books: I can’t imagine the feel of paper being very reassuring if you have to share one outdated textbook with 10 other students. And many people like the reassuring feel of a V-8 engine in a full-size SUV too, but that’s fundamentally an elitist perspective: irrelevant for most of humanity, arguably irresponsible for the rest. I love books, and don’t want or expect paper to go away entirely, but I won’t have any regrets if we achieve a world in which access to all the world’s content is instantly available on a global basis, without killing trees, burning diesel, or building warehouses. Especially if authors and publishers are making more money, because more premium content is being consumed, by more readers.
(thanks to the indomitable Jon Ferraiolo for the tip).
A provocative thought piece by Steve Jobs today, arguing that the industry as well as consumers would benefit from the elimination of DRM on music sold online. It’s covered here by Forbes.
Whether or not this is an entirely serious proposal or more in the way of a smokescreen for Apple’s refusal to license its Fairplay [sic] DRM to other device and music store vendors is open to debate. And Jobs pointedly limits his discussion to music, where as he points out more than 90% of the sales of digital content are entirely DRM free CD audio. DVD videos have a sort of DRM with copy protection and region coding, and physical books arguably have this as well given the inconvenience of scanning paper.
Nevertheless Jobs has clearly elevated the DRM debate to a new level. His offer to stop selling DRM protected music altogether on the iTunes Store, if the top four music companies agreed to eliminate the DRM requirement, certainly raises the ante. As a consumer and advocate for maximum access to information, I hope that the “Jobs Principle” that DRM hurts content publishers as well as consumers spreads, not just for music but for other forms of content. For eBooks, I really like the “social DRM” approach of The Pragmatic Programmers, who “stamp” PDF eBooks with a “For the Exclusive Use of …” and the name of the purchaser. Given that they are making more than 30% of their total sales on eBooks, far more than any other traditional publisher, it’s hard to argue that this approach is infeasible.
Adobe is committed to continuing to supply DRM technology in our solutions as required by our publisher partners. We will continue to work to make DRM as seamless as possible for end users, while also protecting rights holders from piracy or unauthorized use, and we are poised to deliver some innovative new capabilities in this regard.
Yet, I would like nothing more than to have DRM technology just fade away. After all the main challenge we have in digital publishing is to get it adopted by mainstream consumers. And the main challenge 98% of book authors and publishers have is to get people to be aware of their books, not to prevent piracy. So my challenge to print publishers and authors: why not support “social DRM”, rather than heavyweight DRM? If that’s a direction you are willing to go, Adobe will back you up, 1000%.