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.
Hindawi is a commercial STM (Science, Technology, and Medicine) publisher, publishing 100+ peer-reviewed Open Access journals. They are beginning to adopt EPUB, using LaTex-based workflow to generate SVG from MathML. The results look great, both on PCs with Digital Editions and on the Sony Reader 505 (with latest firmware). The equations are “live” including selectable text. This is the kind of content that, prior to EPUB with its support for vector graphics and embedded fonts, one would have expected to see only in final-form PDF. It’s also nice to see EPUB starting to gain organic adoption to deliver the advantages of adaptive-layout plus visual richness beyond the trade book market.
Samples can be seen here . Props to CEO Ahmed Hindawi and his team in Cairo, Egypt.
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.
It’s great news that the Association of American Publisher (AA) last week published an open letter endorsing IDPF EPUB as a standard eBook distribution format. On the O’Reilly TOC blog Andrew Savikis dinged AAP Director Ed McCoyd’s letter for missing the boat in its calls to action from the AAP to the IDPF. From my perspective, it’s Andrew that missed the boat: the AAP points he criticized were on target and fully appropriate given the real-world situation.
Andrew says he’s “not clear why it’s the IDPF’s problem to deal with conversion into non-standard formats” and quality assurance of the results. But this is the AAP, comprised solely of publishers, speaking to the IDPF, a broader group that in particular includes the eBook format and device vendors. It seems perfectly appropriate for AAP to make sure it’s on record with vendors that the job isn’t done just in having a neutral open standard for intermediate distribution of reflow-centric content. Ideally all the proprietary distribution formats will go away over time, but meantime the conversions and resulting quality issues are very real.
Andrew also pooh-poohed the letter’s request that the IDPF consider how to handle books that benefit from a particular final-form presentation. At one level I agree with Andrew on this – there is a perfectly good open standard for handling final-form content: PDF, an AIIM/ISO standard (PDF/A subset and soon the full magilla) – my own quibble with Ed’s letter was the poor wording choice that made it sound like AAP was lumping PDF in with proprietary eBook formats. Anyway, the IDPF has wisely steered away from reinventing the wheel in this area. However, there is demand for distribution-ready eBooks that can deliver both a high-quality final form printable representation as well as a dynamic reflow-centric structure-oreinted representation.
There are a few ways to skin this cat: PDF and EPUB versions could be combined into a single distributable file, and it’s possible to extend EPUB as Adobe has done in Digital Editions and InDesign CS3 to support master page templates and dynamically switching between them based on variables such as screen size and user font size preference. IDPF could have a role to play in standardizing the PDF/EPUB combination approach, and Adobe has committed to submitting our XSL-FO based template extension for consideration for future standardization under the EPUB umbrella. Where PDF is full “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get”), EPUB w/ page templates could be considered “WYSIOO” (What You See Is One Option). Base EPUB simply doesn’t deliver this capability – it was deemed out of scope for the last round of working group efforts.
But there’s certainly a broad range of use cases for richer presentational delivery combined with the ability to adapt content to different sized screens. AAP includes publishing segments with different levels of requirements around page fidelity and printability, so it seems perfectly reasonable for the AAP to put IDPF on notice that while it’s great to have an industry standard reflow-centric format, our work is not yet fully complete so long as choosing that format (w/out extensions) means giving up any ability to describe preferred page-level layout information. Certainly Adobe agrees – thats’ why we chose to implement the XPTG template extension in our software.
Stepping back, I totally agree with Andrew that “making the transition from designing books to be consumed primarily in print with ebooks as an afterthought, toward designing books intended to remain digital throughout their lifecycle ” should be a major focus. I just don’t see the AAP’s requests as being out of synch wiith that over-arching goal. It’s been over six months since EPUB 1.0 was approved, so from where I sit, it’s not too overly demanding for the AAP to start asking the IDPF “what have you done for me lately?”.
Today Adobe announced with a number of partners the Open Screen Project, an initiative to increase the richness and consistency of Internet experiences across PCs and devices. As part of this initiative, we are making our Flash Player implementation free on devices – eliminating the license fees previously charged to device manufacturers. We have also made the Flash SWF and FLV video file format specifications completely open, no strings attached. This initiative provides one more motivation for adopting Flash for rich media and interactivity to take eBooks beyond static paper-like experiences and make digital content more compelling to consumers. Adobe has already worked to enable Flash content within PDF and EPUB eBooks, in our authoring tools and our Digital Editions consumer software, and we’ll be further enhancing this solution over time.
Digitally representing printed content is only the first step in digital publishing’s evolution. More and more, digital publications – whether downloaded or consumed online – are going to incorporate interactivity and rich media in order to deliver more value to their readers. Digital textbooks are going to integrate eLearning experiences, such as simulations and assessments. Trade books are going to incorporate value-added elements, a la DVDs, such as video interviews with authors and socially-networked play-along whodunits. Flash is already widely adopted and a de facto industry standard, and so is an obvious choice to utilize for implementing such experiences. Adobe taking steps to fully opening Flash specifications and increasing the proliferation of Flash implementations only makes this even more of a no brainer.
Those who predict the Internet and digital content will spell the end of general trade publishing houses may feel supported by today’s Wired article How the Self-Published Debut Daemon Earned Serious Geek Cred. The article portrays a success story as “demonstrating that if you can get the geek grapevine on your side, you don’t need Random House”. All well and good… until the part about total sales adding up to mouse nuts: “A dozen or so bloggers wrote posts about the book, kindling sales of up to 50 copies a month”… then the big guns started promoting it, and sales got really hot: “As of March, more than 1,200 copies had been shipped”.
No insult intended to author Zeraus nee Suarez who “is planning to release a sequel”. It may be great stuff. But these are not stats to write home about, much less to hang a “who needs Random House” thesis on. Per an established literary agent:
Less than 5000 actual sales, result: misery… A solid midlist novel would reap on the order of 3,500-7,000 hardcover sales and 10,000-25,000 paperbacks in the US.
Was Daemon the best self-publishing succes story Josh McHugh could come up with? If that’s the case, and a Silicon Valley social-network-savvy marketing campaign and the support of A-list bloggers was insufficient to yield interesting sales, then predctions of imminent trade-publishing doom start to sound a lot less realistic.
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.