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Old 11-27-2008, 02:15 PM   #1
Bob Russell
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Why supported formats don't matter to me (very much)

When we think about comparing e-book devices, we care mostly about some basics:
* Screen quality
* Battery life
* Size and ease of use
* Supported e-book formats

Sure, there are many other features like screen lights that people care about. And the price certainly matters when deciding whether or not to purchase. But I think this pretty much covers the basics. (I'm sure that if I left out something obvious, we'll see it pop up immediately in the comments!)

Okay. Now let's focus for a moment on the issue of supported formats. First of all, I am going to surprise you by saying that I don't care what format the reader supports natively. As long as there is a way to easily and accurately create that native format (on Linux and Windows), it's okay.

So you might think that lots of formats are very important, but I only care about the following two things:
1) The ability to convert HTML and PDF files for use on the device.
2) Support for my favorite DRM'd format

The only reason I include #2 is obvious - there are always books out there that are only available in DRM'd formats, and I want to be able to purchase and read them. Conversion programs aren't going to do the job unless they strip out the DRM, which is a whole other discussion.

So why don't I care about native text support, for example? Or any of the many other formats? It's simple. Because e-books represent a significant amount of time investment as I read them, I don't mind spending a little bit of time doing a format conversion beforehand. I rarely need to read something particular "by surprise" so I can plan ahead. As long as it's a popular non-DRM'd format, I feel confident that there will be simple ways to convert most files into a simple universal format like HTML, and then from there is can be converted to use on the device.

The only reason I include PDF conversion in the picture is because there are documents that are not-text based, or require special layout. HTML isn't very good for that. Plus, one can grab a free PDF print driver and create a PDF file out of anything that is printable.

There is one huge caveat, however. The software that puts HTML or PDF files on the device must actually work. All the time on every "reasonable" file without problems. It must come out looking good. And the software must be available and continue to be updated for a period of time, and support all popular platforms. Already, that is reason enough for some people to say "I must have native PDF/HTML format support, or the equivalent".

Some people will also object because they don't want to have to do a conversion step at all. They want to pop in an SD card with an RTF file and just start reading. I agree. That is also a nice feature. For me, though, it's not essential. Just nice.

And, finally, I should add one more comment with respect to the e-book format wars. You might think I don't care. Not true. Even though I don't care too much personally about formatting beyond what HTML gives us, there are two huge reasons I care a lot about a universal reflowable e-book format. Number one, I want to eliminate every concern about conversions entirely. If, for example, everyone creates and supports all e-books in ePub, then we all win in terms of reduced complexity and improved compatibility. Ideally, it would be like .txt or .html files, but with more features. Just the way HTML improves on text files, but retains the universality, so might a standard format like ePub if everyone uses it.

And number two, formats matter because there is a feint hope for the holy grail of a common DRM scheme. Imagine every protected e-book using the same interchangeable protection scheme and the same interchangeable key mechanisms. Any e-book reader could read any DRM'd book if you have the right to read it. If you buy a new device, you can still read the same books that you bought. If a company goes out of business, it doesn't stop you from keeping usage of the books. I don't have a lot of hope due to the various disincentives for book sellers and publishers, the need to have a community DRM key server of some type, plus fears of a single DRM-breaking program making everything available to pirates. But we don't know the future, and who knows what can be achieved if people are forced to work together.

I'm sure I've ruffled a few feathers by saying format support is of secondary importance to me in an e-book reader. So let me have it. Why do you agree or disagree?
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Old 11-27-2008, 03:23 PM   #2
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I quite agree. Nor is this rocket science. I like HTML because it is open-source, commonly used, and therefore isn't going to go away. It can do the job as well. Maybe not perfectly for really fancy formatting, but good enough. RTF is not open source but very common and easy to convert to HTML if needed. PDF is more for images than text, and is not open source, but is very common and what it is needed for, it does well.

Gower software's mu-book reading software has been out for years on the WinCE, and reads HTML, RTF, TXT, and some other formats (not PDF). It does it well, and I have had no complaints after having read a 1000 books on it. Which is why I've wanted a WinCE based e-ink reader. For mu-book software.

But what do we get? Half-baked firmware, slapped together in a hurry, that sort of works, so they can shove it out the door. Maybe I'm paranoid, but why hasn't some firm checked with Gower and asked? "How much to port your software to my machine?" The only software that seems to work well is the propriatary format reader software on the machine. So you can be trapped on a single vendor machine, with a pile of books you can't convert to anything else. HTML will be around 20 years from now. Anyone want to make book on LRF or DRm'ed MOBI (or even Kindle) formats for the same time frame? And for those who say "who cares?", I have pieces of software that are 25 years old, and still work fine. Software is immortal, as long as you can find hardware to run it on. E-books should be the same way.

Finally, nobody wants to go back and fix the limp-along software they already have, unless its for a highly propriatry format (like MOBI). They just add new formats, (probably just as limp-along) and boast about the new formats.

When, oh, when, can I get an e-ink machine as good as the CYbook gen1 I bought in 2006?
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Old 11-27-2008, 04:01 PM   #3
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I can agree that supported e-book formats are not very important for some group of people who can spend 2-5 minutes to convert original ebooks from one format to TXT, PDF or any other formats but the problem is that not ALL people who read books and ebooks familiar and know how to do it. Many people have zero knowledge how to do it and don't want to study how to do it - they just want buy ebook, download it and READ.
The supported e-book formats and resources where to buy books in this format very important for these people and open ePUB format can be a good solution in the future.
For example when I buy MP3 player I don't think how to convert musik from different formats to MP3 format. I just know that MP3 files will be available and it will work on my player. The same situation with eBook readers - if users can download ebooks in universal ePUB format they will make sure that it will work on ANY eBook reader. It just takes time to make ePUB format more popular and many big publishers already work on it now.
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Old 11-27-2008, 06:27 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bob Russell View Post
When we think about comparing e-book devices, we care mostly about some basics:
* Screen quality
* Battery life
* Size and ease of use
* Supported e-book formats

...

So you might think that lots of formats are very important, but I only care about the following two things:
1) The ability to convert HTML and PDF files for use on the device.
2) Support for my favorite DRM'd format
Disagree.

Your third item in the top list is "ease of use" and you then write at some length about conversion issues and software. Epic fail - the average user is not going to want to or be able to deal with format conversion. And they shouldn't need to. The average user should never, ever need to consider what format the book they want to read is in, and the fact that they have to do this is a clear indication of the immaturity of the ebook ecosystem. The idea that to read ebooks requires some degree of computer expertise is something that is really going to hold back ebook uptake.

In addition, you seem to be dealing with ebooks as a standalone format, without considering how it might integrate with other activities, for example using office software or how ebooks integrate with web browsing (important to me - see http://hindesite.wordpress.com/articles/plucker-e-book-workflow ). And yet you assume that using a PC is a prerequsite for ebook reading.

One of the things that the Kindle does absolutely right is remove the requirement for a PC, while making the device even easier to use. What turns many people off of this though, is the DRM and lock-in; very important given the expected life of these relatively fragile devices.


While formats may not matter to you personally, (you clearly don't mind jumping through the hoops that the publishers have set up for you) they matter a lot to me. Discrimination amongst formats and the imposition of DRM is how vendors achieve lock-in, and continuing to support this behaviour is in the long term only going to make things continue as they are.

It is interesting to note that the Big Two (Sony and Amazon) both introduced new formats and DRM with their products, even though existing formats would have done the job just as well, and in Amazon's case, they even owned one of the existing formats!

I agree with your comments about HTML and PDF (yuk) but disagree about DRM - I see absolutely no future in it; it doesn't prevent piracy, it is a huge hassle for the audience, and it increases complexity and cost unnecessarily. The only people who benefit from it are the hardware vendors and publishers

I'd like to see all ereaders support all DRM free formats as a starting point, because I really don't want to have the inconvenience of converting my entire library everytime I change to new hardware supporting different formats. It makes managing a library unnecessarily complex, and I'd rather spend the time reading. besides, have you tried converting from some of the ebook formats if the source document is not HTML or no longer available? Even without DRM it can be a nightmare - for example, try convert Plucker documents to something else.

I have never bought, nor do I intend to buy, any DRM protected book. Life is short and there is just too much else available to read that doesn't require subscribing to this stupidity.

Formats may not matter to you, but they certainly matter to me - from both a practical and an ideological point of view. I'd never consider them to be secondary at all.

Last edited by rjh; 11-28-2008 at 04:28 PM. Reason: Added link expanding on integration with web browsing
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Old 11-27-2008, 08:59 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ralph Sir Edward View Post
I like HTML because it is open-source, commonly used, and therefore isn't going to go away.
Well said.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kris777 View Post
I can agree that supported e-book formats are not very important for some group of people who can spend 2-5 minutes to convert original ebooks from one format to TXT, PDF or any other formats but the problem is that not ALL people who read books and ebooks familiar and know how to do it.
That's why my article is "Why supported formats don't matter to me (very much). I realize that this is an issue for the general public, but not some of us who are more familiar with format conversions. Still, a very good point to bring out.

Quote:
Originally Posted by rjh View Post
...Your third item in the top list is "ease of use" and you then write at some length about conversion issues and software. Epic fail - the average user is not going to want to or be able to deal with format conversion.
As noted above, this doesn't apply much to me, but you make a good point. As far as item #3, I was thinking of the features involved in actually reading a book, like where the button are and how the menus work. But you are right - ease of use is about the entire experience.

Quote:
Originally Posted by rjh View Post
In addition, you seem to be dealing with ebooks as a standalone format, without considering how it might integrate with other activities, for example using office software or (important to me) how ebooks integrate with web browsing.
Wow, that's a really great point. Well said... I never really thought about that integration issue before.
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Old 11-27-2008, 09:44 PM   #6
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multi format books

I may just be a bit backward when it comes to ebooks, but I don't see much of an issue when it comes to DRM. I started out with Mobipocket on a Palm device before I knew anything about ereaders and had several books in mobi's format before I decided to buy a sony reader.

Gues what? 95% of my books were bought through fictionwise.com or baen or downloaded from manybooks.net, which means that I can redownload them in what ever format I choose. I had a few DRM books in mobi and that sucks, bt I had already read them and still can reread them on my computer or phone. It is a pain to convert to a new type of reader, but there is a lot of support for multiformat ebooks, so really, why raise so much dander over a minor issue?
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Old 11-27-2008, 10:07 PM   #7
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I understand and yes, I can do it, but…

eBook readers, and by extension eBooks, will prevail only when they become normal utilities… the stuff one uses not thinking about, besides getting instant gratification = read!

eBooks will have space (commercial space I must say) when one gets from them (and the hardware where they are read) at least the same experience (and easiness) one gets from pBooks.
Of course they will flourish when they will offer more then pBooks, but… maintaining (at least) the same easiness.

Until then… they will be restricted to the… usual suspects.

So, in the end and answering to the question: I disagree.
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Old 11-27-2008, 10:19 PM   #8
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I'm not here to discuss about the topic, but merely give you my opinions.

When I bought my Sony reader I investigated thoroughly the differences between all models.
I had the following list made up:
1- E-ink screen
2- Cool design & looks.
3- PRICE!!!!!
4- Good performance (capable of reading many documents, lots of things you can do with it,works fast).
5- Battery life

I found the looks and price and battery life where best on the Sony Reader PRS-505,but pittied the lack of format support and a keyboard.

I found the Jinke Bebook had the possibility to do most things,more than any other reader out there, but the slightly less nice design and slightly lower battery life, and higher price tag,plus the non-availability in the USA made me go for the Sony.
If I ever want to buy another additional device it might be a bebook.

Kindle, nomatter what you can do with it, basically the looks turned me off immediately.

About converting documents, it does in fact not matter if a device supports generic formats or not; but generally if it does it supports the documents better than when you have to reconvert every document.
Say the device does not support PDF format, everyone knows that it's a pain to get pdf's converted well for any reader. And what works for one document might as well not work for another.

Another thing is, suppose a device supports chm, and you open the .chm document in the reader, but it does a lousy job in displaying the document,
you can always convert it to another format (as much as with another device that does not support chm and needs conversion).

If supported fileformats add significantly to the purchase price of the device I'd go with your logic, but as Ralph Sir Edward said,most formats like txt,doc, rtf, zipped doc or txt, jpeg, html, are open source and cost (apart from updating the firmware to support these files) nothing additional to the device!

Adobe PDF and MS chm documents may require a licence fee to use them.
But if I have 2 identical PRS-505's one having additional support of Mobi, chm, zipped docs, & djvu and likes, and costs only $50 more, I'd buy the more expensive one!

I agree with Kris777, in order to convert a document WELL,you need to spend a significant amount of time learning the formats and conversion options and programs!
The problem isn't in blindly running a document through an encoder, the issue starts after you done that, the reader starts showing small errors here and there, that you wished where corrected. So you'll need to place a hard enter here, and move that picture up a bit, to get it nice looking...
That's where most time gets lost into.

Not only that, but most people don't even want to spend time on how to get the document on their device, they want plug it in, upload the book, and read it.

Literally, if there was a device you just needed to plug in a USB port for 30 seconds, unplug it and it would have been updated people would love that most!

I think we all are still waiting for a specific format to be revealed for 800x600 pix screen electronic book readers.
It would be nice that both Jinke's Bebook,the Cybook from Bookeen, the Kindle, and Sony Reader,as well as the higher resolution devices like the Iliad would support a format that will support all possible fonttypes, and touchups (like underline strikethrough, pictures, basic draw formats etc....) Anything you'd find in a modern book and compatible with MS Word documents.

But in the mean time, we'll need to convert I guess...

Last edited by ProDigit; 11-27-2008 at 10:25 PM.
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Old 11-27-2008, 10:51 PM   #9
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Format matters to me because
1) I am Lazy

(note to ProDigit - I bought a Cowon PMP solely because it supports more formats and I am too lazy to convert my music)

Seriously, I don't mind converting an occasional book but if I need to go out of my way often for anything, I find things get put aside once the novelty dies.

I bought my Kindle because
1) Content pricing/availability
2) Whispernet
3) Price (I got in at the $100 Chase offer)

Ok, so I'm lazy AND cheap...probably in that order

Last edited by Boston; 11-27-2008 at 11:00 PM.
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Old 11-28-2008, 06:23 AM   #10
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DRM does NOT prevent piracy.
It sustains it, fuels up it, attracts people who normally doesn't know about piracy to take part in it.
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Old 11-28-2008, 07:37 AM   #11
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In addition, you seem to be dealing with ebooks as a standalone format, without considering how it might integrate with other activities, for example using office software or (important to me) how ebooks integrate with web browsing. And yet you assume that using a PC is a prerequsite for ebook reading.
This is one of the crucial points for me, though I realize that it is difficult for publishers.

I don't simply want the right to read a text. This is supposed to be the information age and I want the text of my books to be information in the same way as other data on my system.

The reader is only one 'limb' of that system. I also want to be able to search and copy on my main PC, using the kind of office software around which most of my work revolves. In other words I want my books to become as much a part of my 'digital memory' as my other 'documents' - and as accessible.
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Old 11-28-2008, 01:40 PM   #12
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I think the industry needs to head in a direction that makes formats important to the reading device only... that is, what format the device uses to convert an e-book to be displayed.

A universal format, containing all the information needed to display a book, and used by all e-book vendors, would be the best thing to happen to the e-book industry. That would leave it up to e-book reader makers to decide what their device should and should not do and display from the universal format. This would make formats effectively invisible to the consumer, leaving them to decide what display features they desire, and therefore which device to buy.

I say that consumers should not have to ever think about format... only about what output they desire, and which device will give them that. Like driving a road: Everybody has the same access to the same road; it's up to them what vehicle to drive, and how they want to drive it.
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Old 11-28-2008, 02:10 PM   #13
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Great points Bob, thank you.

I have created and converted a few books for use use on reading devices and the differences between the conversion programs are many. Mobipocket provides a free excellent tool for creation of their books while the ereader format is still supported by Drop Book. Many third party tools exist such as Calibre, BookDesigner, and the ABC Amber series of converters. There are also tools for extracting from one format or another such as clit for converting MS Lit format to HTML. Nick has also developed a group of tools for dealing with the multiple flavors of IMP formats. In short, you can move just about any format to just about any other format with a little bit of work. Making it look good is another matter.

Anyone can create a content only version ebook in another format. Some -- and I'm thinking of Hary's series of Dickens when I type this -- are masterpieces of the electronic art. His versions of Dickens' books are the finest versions available for both quality of the text and visual presentation. Plus, they are available free at MobileRead. MobileRead has offered a wide variety of formats so the user just has to load and go. For over 99% of the users this means no format conversion is required to read the books posted at MobileRead. (Not all books are available in all formats. but it is getting better.)

With the screens currently the same from all leading manufacturers, the choice IMHO is dictated by the availability of the device in your country or region, the placement of controls, and the operating software of the unit.
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Old 11-28-2008, 02:36 PM   #14
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I think the confusing multitude of formats out there right now is really hobbling the eBook industry as a whole. Geeks like us don't mind installing python to run some conversion tool, but not everyone is going to do that. I shudder at the idea of trying to walk my mother through a python install over the phone.

DRM is also going to be a huge problem for this industry, and the sooner that publishers realize the information density of books is so low that DRM makes no sense (someone can read the book and type it, people!), the sooner we'll see DRM evaporate. Baen and Tor already "get it", and it shows both in their pricing structure and their lack of DRM.

All that said, I don't like any of the "universal" conversion tools out there right now. I want something painfully easy to use. I want the iTunes of the eBook world, where I can plug in a reader or SD card, and drag and drop books to the reader, or synch my whole library, and the software will magically take care of the conversion for me.

Since nothing like that exists, AFAIK, I'm writing my own. I've hinted about this a few times. I hope to have something released by xmas, because I'm intending this to be an xmas gift for my wife. First release will probably not support nearly as many formats as I'd like, but I've often said my end goal is to make it so you really don't care what formats your next reader supports.
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Old 11-28-2008, 02:49 PM   #15
JasonWalton
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Originally Posted by Ralph Sir Edward View Post
I like HTML because it is open-source, commonly used, and therefore isn't going to go away.
HTML is nice because a lot of people are familiar with it. HTML is not nice for eBooks for a few reasons, though, and if I had to pick a format to back I'd go with ePub.

First HTML is a royal pain to parse, because of its SGML roots. You'll notice that ePub wisely chose XHTML (and DTBOOK) as the basis of their standards. XHTML is nice, because it's XML, and there's dozens of tools out there for parsing and processing XML.

EPub also uses the open Dublin Core metadata standard for storing metadata about an eBook, whereas there is no real standardized way for inserting things like authors, user ratings, or copyright information into an HTML file.

EPub eliminates the XHTML "script" tag. This makes a lot of sense too, as there's really no need for JavaScript in an eBook. I suppose one could make some sort of argument that JavaScript could be used to produce some cool interactive content in an eBook, but since most current generation eBooks have no mouse or keyboard, it would be difficult to have a consistent interaction mechanism.

Finally, ePub IS an open standard. The whole standard is documented in detail at openebook.org.

If I had one complaint about ePub it is that they've included DRM support in this latest iteration of the standard, and I think that's a mistake. Mind you, lots of vendors seem to be getting behind the ePub standard, and I'm sure the inclusion of DRM is part of that movement. The standard at least lays out how to tell if a book is DRMed or not, which is better than leaving DRM support out and having companies come up with their own proprietary extensions to the format, which would be a nightmare for developers.
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