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Old 01-02-2010, 08:31 PM   #1
Bob Russell
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A New Year's reflection on the ePub e-book format

Not too many years back, we all lamented the state of e-book formats and longed for an open industry standard. Many of you will remember the day when the best interoperability between purchased e-books and reading devices was the proprietary eReader or MobiPocket format support on multiple platforms. Well described by David Rothman as the Tower of eBabel, the format wars didn't seem to have room for an industry standard format that was useful for consumers, retailers and publishers alike.

Fast forward to the start of 2010, and the growing industry support for ePub is an impressive accomplishment. Sure, there are still competing formats from Kindle, Microsoft, eReader, etc. And there will always be .txt, rtf, html, pdf, etc. But the increasing support of ePub for so many dedicated readers and e-book software applications is delightful for almost any fan of e-books. Some of you long time members of MobileRead probably even remember where it came from, based on the coverage here.

I will leave it to others to write the history of e-books (and I hope that many will document all the interesting twists and turns and provide many insider stories about the important steps along the way), and maybe even correct any distorted views of history that I may have. But I do want to remember and appreciate the accomplishments of one person who many may not have even heard about - Nick Bogaty.

Nick, now with Adobe, was the Executive Director of the IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum) from 2002-2007. His mission was to create an industry standard format and container (to hold all the files associated with an e-book for distribution). Many felt progress was too slow. Many felt that they would come up with something, but it would never be relevant. Many criticized the effort saying that we have too many formats already, and all a new IDPF format would do is add to the format confusion with yet another format. Most certainly, there were also many voices and opinions, making consensus a difficult challenge.

I don't know exactly who did what in the trenches, but say what you will, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Nick Bogaty and all the members of the IDPF team, as well as all the additional contributors who were unofficially a help to the work, as well as others on whose shoulders the work of ePub stands. It is significant to say the IDPF got the job done. So much so, that I it is often said these days that ePub is the industry standard e-book format. Feathers might be ruffled, and some may argue that it's not dominant enough, but it's hard to argue its place altogether as a significant e-book standard now.

So the next time you buy or load up a book in ePub with the luxury of reading it on a multitude of platforms and devices, you'll know that it didn't just appear out of nowhere. It came from many origins, and yet directly from the IDPF. When e-books are more common across the world than even mp3s, I hope that these people will be remembered for their part in moving e-books forward.

And to all those industry historians out there... start writing down your notes. The coming of e-books is much too important a story to let it pass you by!
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Old 01-02-2010, 09:57 PM   #2
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the growing industry support for ePub is an impressive accomplishment.
ePub books being able to produce professional output in practice would be even more impressive. Until then, ePub's ill-conceived lauding will just keep forcing the eBook industry to continue to wallow in its much prolonged infancy.

On the other hand, Adobe's "packaging" that supports both ePub and PDF is a step in a tolerable direction. A format capable of encapsulating PDF as well as other formats is an acceptable, if needless, compromise.

- Ahi
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Old 01-02-2010, 11:07 PM   #3
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Good post, interesting...... There will always be better formats (many prefer ogg over mp3....etc) but any standard is a move in the right direction. Can the standard be improved? Of course it can. But to truly mainstream (and IMHO move publishing into the 21st century) the masses must be able to buy any reader from any manufacturer, and load any book from any bookstore and read it. I realize that epub may not be the greatest for technical documents, or perhaps some other specialized material. But, there can be specialized devices to accommodate special needs. The most important thing is that an epub allows the hope that a simple format for the general publishing industry is soon to come.
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Old 01-03-2010, 06:32 AM   #4
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Since Bookeen published their dual firmware (forcing us to choose between mobi and epub), I've been torn. I've bought many books in mobipocket format, it looks like a huge inconvinience to update my device to ePub and loose all those books (or having to convert them, but most have DRM).

I guess we have to clean the slate sometime to start something good from the ground up. Maybe when I buy a second ereader that won't be an issue.
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Old 01-03-2010, 10:19 AM   #5
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But the increasing support of ePub for so many dedicated readers and e-book software applications is delightful for almost any fan of e-books.
I think I'm less than delighted, Bob - at least for the moment. Perhaps I don't have it correct but aren't most epub readers now Adobe Digital Editions readers? It appears to me that Adobe has simply expanded their reach from being the standard for desktop publications to the standard for desktop and portable publications with the only real alternative now being Amazon.
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Old 01-03-2010, 10:55 AM   #6
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the growing industry support for ePub is an impressive accomplishment.
Correct. But the work on epub format seems to be stopped since 2007.

What has been done since then concerning declared "Future directions"?
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Old 01-03-2010, 11:07 AM   #7
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Of course it can. But to truly mainstream (and IMHO move publishing into the 21st century) the masses must be able to buy any reader from any manufacturer, and load any book from any bookstore and read it.
And in order for that to happen the industry needs to either adopt a single, common, DRM standard (Magic 8-Ball says: Don't count on it) or give up on the idea of trying to sell us malware-infected ebooks (Magic 8-Ball says: Very doubtful). The choice of container/file format is entirely irrelevant if you can't open it because your Borders & Noble reader doesn't support the Amasony DRM scheme. Pretty much every reader on the market supports multiple file formats, and converting uninfected books from one format to another is trivial.
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Old 01-03-2010, 01:45 PM   #8
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Yawn. Until I can read it on any platform I choose, with no significant hassles, and good quality, I'll be less than impressed with ePub. It has a long way to go.

Right now IMO, mobi/prc gives an equal or better reading experience in many cases. The format is also an all-things-to-all-people hydra-headed-construct intended to cover 95% or so of all possible ebooks. That may be used wisely in the future, only for Good. It doesn't seem to have been used particularly well thus far. Show me; don't praise it until it succeeds with the customers.

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Old 01-03-2010, 02:29 PM   #9
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don't praise it until it succeeds with the customers.
Which raises an interesting point: Who, exactly, is the customer for a format standard? Device manufacturers? Publishers? Industry study groups? End users?

Having watched the wrangling over things like HTML 5 and ODF vs. OOXML, I'm not sure there is such a thing as a customer. Content consumers certainly have an interest, as do content producers and device makers/developers. I think the whole point of standards development is to find a way to get all of those interests to meet in the middle.
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Old 01-03-2010, 03:22 PM   #10
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Thanks Bob. I agree this is the right step in the right direction. No we're not there yet, but with Sony adopting the standard along with B&N we are well on the way to taking the next step.
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Old 01-03-2010, 03:34 PM   #11
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I still believe that the parameters for how an ePub "looks" should be tied to the device it's being read on (and effectively giving the control of the look to the individuals).

There are too many different types of eBook Readers to have a "one size fit all" line of parameters, and the output is usually very different from publisher to publisher.

I'll say it again : tie the parameters (margins, justification, etc) to the eBook Readers, NOT the ePub file itself. Plain and simple. Shouldn't be too complicated...
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Old 01-03-2010, 03:49 PM   #12
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For some reason I have an ingrained distrust of Adobe, perhaps something to do with their other proprietary containers which they have tight reigns over.

However sometimes companies do genuinely good things and if they are willing to help the publishing industry by providing some useful epub tools then I am excited about it. Nick Bogaty sounds like the guy to do it. Thanks for the info!
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Old 01-03-2010, 06:17 PM   #13
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I still believe that the parameters for how an ePub "looks" should be tied to the device it's being read on (and effectively giving the control of the look to the individuals).

There are too many different types of eBook Readers to have a "one size fit all" line of parameters, and the output is usually very different from publisher to publisher.

I'll say it again : tie the parameters (margins, justification, etc) to the eBook Readers, NOT the ePub file itself. Plain and simple. Shouldn't be too complicated...
Might not be too bad an idea, since ePub implementation is still so poor. However, I'd prefer it if content providers would do their job and make reasonably professional-looking files, and then Adobe or someone make a really decent ePub viewer for ebook readers, rather than the stuff that's currently being used. Then, in the cases that properly made and displayed files are still not to folks' liking, end user global overrides of things like justification/hyphenation/margins wouldn't be bad.

The ebook experience has so far been all about mediocrity, but there really should be a lower limit in my opinion. O to dream grand dreams of days when I won't be making my own PDFs.
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Old 01-04-2010, 10:38 AM   #14
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So many good points being made here that I agree with, such as the "standard" needing to identify and accommodate all "customers", and allowing reading devices to control the format/layout of EPUB books. But what I don't see being mentioned is the ADE tool that we have to use for downloading and managing Adobe books, which is an important component of the solution.

Unfortunately the ADE tool suffers from the same "one size fits all" mentality that EPUB books suffer from, and it could use a major overhaul to include flexibility for users who want to organize their books using criteria other than the default. For example, once I'm done reading a book on my pda/opus I update a spreadsheet to indicate the month/year in which I read the book, along with a rating (which follows Fictionwise's 4-star system). This is just a small sample of what ADE lacks -- I'm sure that if given an opportunity to provide input people (customers) would be able to come up with much more. But really, we're talking about digital file management, something that is also done for digital photos and music. This isn't new!

So until ebooks and their supporting systems come a lot further from where they are now, I'll continue to buy books in the Mobipocket and eReader format, and I'll continue to organize my library using a spreadsheet. This has worked for me for 10 years now, and the way things are going I see it as being my method of operating for the next few years, during which time I'm sure I'll see additional ebook formats come along and touted as being "the standard". I'll believe it when I see it...

Last edited by bkelly; 01-04-2010 at 10:42 AM.
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Old 01-04-2010, 10:54 AM   #15
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once I'm done reading a book on my pda/opus I update a spreadsheet to indicate the month/year in which I read the book, along with a rating (which follows Fictionwise's 4-star system).
And I thought I was the only one doing this I use Notepad instead of excel but the idea is the same...

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