One Step Closer to the Open eBook Tipping Point: O’Reilly Joins the EPUB 3.0 Ecosystem

Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?

Anyone who reads eBooks is aware that a number of content vendors are using proprietary platforms in an effort to lock you into their content libraries: most obviously, Amazon, with its Kindle line, Barnes & Noble with its Nook devices, and Apple with its iPads and iPhones. But there are many non-content vendors that would love to sell you an eReader as well, such as Kobo, and Pocketbook, not to mention the smartphone vendors that would be happy to have you use their devices as eReaders, too.

But can you? Well, as you’re probably also aware, that depends. For example, in addition to selling content that will play only on their devices, Amazon and Apple also produce versions of their content that can be viewed on the readers of their competitors as well.

All of this not only makes it confusing and limiting for eBook buyers, but also for content publishers large (like Random House) and small (like technical title boutique publisher O’Reilly), that have seen their traditional distribution models not only upended by the eBook revolution, but complicated by the proprietary antics of the Amazons of the world.

Meanwhile, eBooks themselves frequently leave out features that their print versions include (e.g., less often used and/or more complicated formatted features, such as tables), and what they do contain often displays poorly on some readers, notwithstanding the effort that authors and intermediaries put into formatting their files for the greatest variety of platforms and distribution channels possible. Have YOU Discovered the Alexandria Project?

A Tale of Treachery and Technology

How bad is it? Well, it’s pretty bad.  You can find a partially complete table of platforms, and the myriad file formats they support (or partially support), here.    It’s not a pretty picture, is it?

Wouldn’t it be far better for the consumer if everyone could read everyone’s content on everyone’s reader – just like an MP3 file (and, come to think of it, don’t you remember a time, long ago, when music players were proprietary, too?)  Couldn’t someone come up with, I don’t know, like, a standard to do that?

The answer, of course, is not only yes, but they already have. Let’s go back to that table again, and you’ll notice that a few green vertical lines (indicating full support for the file format in question) do make it most of the way from top to bottom: txt, PDF – and EPUB. The first two are familiar from long-standing general use, but what’s that last one all about?

Available Now for $2.99 or less
Unlike plain text and PDF, the EPUB format was created expressly, and only, to optimize the creation and interoperable use of eBooks.  It was developed by a consortium called the International Digital Publishing Forum, or  Theoretically, if every platform vendor faithfully supported the current version of EPUB without adding proprietary extensions, then you could buy eBooks anywhere and use them on anything – a Kindle, an Android Phone, a Nook, a laptop, or wherever.

at Amazon, iTunes and Barnes & Noble (and in ePub and PDF formats at GooglePlay)

If you were an author, it would (eventually) get to be far easier to create an eBook as well, because word processessers  would allow you to save files in the most current version of the EPUB standard, and every vendor’s device would presumably display your book properly if you’d done a proper job of creating your files. And your eBook could provide a richer reading experience as well.

So why isn’t that the way it is now?

The easy answer is because the proprietary vendors don’t want it that way. But things could change, particularly as Android devices become better eReaders, and if alternative stores (like Google’s iPlay store, which only sells eBooks in EPUB 2.0 and PDF form) become more competitive.

But there’s another missing piece, which is whether or not the marketplace will commit to using the newest version of the EPUB standard – version 3.0, which can allow eBooks to more completely and easily match the features of print books. And that’s not a small task, since it requires some heavy lifting at the publisher’s end, all of which will be wasted if the eReader vendors don’t add support for EPUB 3.0 as well. So, like the Semantic Web, there’s a chicken and egg, tipping point issue here. And the question for the last year has been which way will it go – with the world commit to EPUB 3.0, or, like the Semantic Web, will key players be unwilling to commit?

Which brings us, at last, to the topic promised by the title to this entry: O’Reilly has not only taken the plunge, but also posted a very informative blog entry outlining how they came to the conclusion that it was time to make the leap, what the factors were that influenced their timing, and the implementational decisions they made in the process of building in EPUB 3.0 support – such as whether to make compliant files backwardly compatible for use on devices that support only EPUB 2.0.

The answer to that last question may sound obvious, given the chicken and egg concern. But it’s not quite as obvious as it seems, at least for the content vendor that would have to do the extra work (which does, however, allow them to avoid selling two different versions of their inventory).

You can find that entry here. It’s written by Sanders Kleinfeld, and subtitled “Upgrading to EPUB 3 is not a trivial undertaking.”  On the question of “why now?” Kleinfeld reports:

…To successfully produce and deliver EPUB 3 as part of a ebook program, there are two key prerequisites: having the necessary workflows and tools in place to create EPUB files compliant with the EPUB 3.0 specification, and having ereader platforms available that formally support the 3.0 format. As of early 2012, neither of these preconditions was met, but in the past year, there has been much progress on both fronts. Here are some key milestones:

•    December 2011: Azardi launches one of the first desktop readers for EPUB 3
•    February 2012: Launch of Readium project, an open source EPUB 3 reader for Google Chrome browser
•    October 2012: Apple releases iBooks 3.0, with formal support for EPUB 3 and accompanying documentation
•    December 2012: After beta updates throughout the year, Epubcheck 3.0 (validator for EPUB 3 content) is officially released

Obviously, the prior decision by Apple to support EPUB 3.0 was huge. But as you can see, Kleinfeld notes some other interesting items as well, including the release of a content validator. In other words, there are more chicken and egg issues to deal with in creating a new ecosystem than simply content and platform vendor adoption. O’Reilly, incidentally, provided assistance in closing this gap by being a sponsor of The DocBook Project.

But ultimately, the question for O’Reilly was whether to be a leader or a follower, and also to face the fact that without leaders, there may never be anything to adopt as a follower.  Or, as Kleinfeld phrased it:

Additionally, we believed it was important to further throw our support behind the latest version of the EPUB standard to encourage vendors to upgrade their ereading platforms to support HTML5 and EPUB 3. Since 2011, there has been a chicken-or-egg attitude that’s pervaded much of the hand-wringing around EPUB 3, where publishers felt justified in holding back from producing EPUB 3 content until there was widespread ereader support, and ereader vendors felt no sense of urgency in adding EPUB 3 support to their products because there was no significant influx of EPUB 3 content from publishers. We’d like to think that by releasing our content in EPUB 3, we’re doing our part to help break this impasse and push the industry forward.

So here’s a high five to O’Reilly for making the move to EPUB 3.0, and a hope that others in the publishing world will be emboldened by their example to take the plunge as well.

Check out my author’s blog: Tales of Adversego

Comments (3)

  1. From a standards perspective too, things are happening. EPUB 3 is being fast tracked through JTC 1 (by Korea), to become an ISO/IEC Technical Specification. A joint working group has been established by JTC 1/SC 34 and ISO TC 46 to handle it…

    • … to be precise the joint working group consists of SC 34, ISO TC 46/SC 4 and IEC TC 100/TA 10.

  2. Good to hear from you Alex, and I hope you’re well.


    Thanks for the update.  Is there an anticipated completion date, assuming no snags along the way?


      –  Andy

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