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It’s a Little Too Late to Complain About Apple’s Proprietary Ebook Format

Just under  month ago Apple made a big splash with the launch of  new iBooks app, new iTunes U app, and the new iBooks Author.

That last generated  lot of fury because instead of generating a spec compliant Epub, iBA creates  custom flavor of Epub with any number of non-standard components. This upset  lot of people who work with Epubs, including me, but lately I’ve changed my mind.

I was reading an article in The Register earlier this evening that made me realize that it’s a little too late to complain about proprietary Epub formats; iBooks makes the 6th or 7th custom Epub format on the market now.

The article in The Register was arguing the point that Epub would win out over the Kindle format because of Apple and iBooks Author were going to pull in a user base from a young age. Those users would go on to use Epub, and so on and so forth.

I wouldn’t bother reading the article; it has many factual errors. But I did read it and I was making notes about how I would refute it. Eventually I stopped because I hit on the one point that rendered the article moot.

Epub might defeat the Kindle format, but which Epub format will do that, exactly? There are bunches.

  • There’s the base Epub format.
  • Kobo has a couple of their own Epub formats (KEpub, FLEpub).
  • Apple has supported custom tags in iBooks since the app launched, and later launched a fixed layout format as well as audio and video tags. They also have their own DRM, and that makes even the specs compliant Epub as a new format.
  • Adobe has supported their own subset of custom tags ever since their first Epub reading app. (Not many use them, but the tags are still there.)
  • And B&N has their own DRM, but let’s set that aside and just consider their fixed layout format.

Depending on how you count, I have just listed between 7 and 9 Epub formats. And those are just the ones I know of; I’m deeply afraid that there may be others hiding somewhere.

What’s more, some of these formats have been round for a very long time. One of Kobo’s formats has been there since the company launched over 2 years ago (it was only used internally). B&N launched their DRM with the original Nook (2009), and they launched their fixed layout format with the NookColor (late 2010). And of course iBooks originally launched in early 2010 with custom tags and its own DRM.

But some of those still meet the Epub spec, you say. Yes, but they don’t work right on other platforms, even when the DRM is theoretically compatible. That renders the compliance issue irrelevant.

And as for iBooks Author making just  the one format, and how that’s an unbearable sin in the eyes of any Epub lover – Yes, but all the other companies I listed above will provide you with tech specs to make their custom formats, while Apple is happy to give you  tool to make their custom format. If one is worse, it is only by a matter of degree.

And I’ll bet dollars to donuts that B&N and Kobo are upset right now not because iBA makes a custom format but because they didn’t think to do it first. iBA gives Apple a decisive advantage over Kobo and B&N in ebook creation, so I think the others will follow suit as soon as they can.

At this point, really, there is only one key difference that sets the new iBooks format apart from all the other custom Epub formats. Apple changed the file suffix. That’s it.

So if you’re upset that Apple split up the Epub market, I’m sorry but that ship has sailed.

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fjtorres February 7, 2012 um 7:13 am

Agreed on all counts.
At a minimum I would expect Rakuten/Kobo to follow Apple’s example and probably B&N. Other candidates are 3M and Bluefire.

ePub is going the way of LINUX (and UNIX before it); irrelevance by a thousand forks.
Basically, the only people who will (maybe!) use pure-spec ePub will be the publishers and once it leaves the premises it will become feedstock for proprietary products, which leaves ePub back where it started with Open eBook (OEB); an internal workflow spec, rather than a consumer-level product.
The problem is the has never shown any interest in defining a consumer product, just serving the needs of the publishers and never bothered itself with the downstream users (retailers and readers). And since they never bothered to turn the spec over to a standards body or to wrap it in proper compliance-enforcement tools comparable to other specs like CDDA or BD oir even MP3, they have *absolutely* zero power to prevent forking or Apple-style embrace-and-extend hijackings, just as they were unable to prevent Adobe’s early DRM-based hijacking.

BTW, should we consider KF8 another epub mutation (say epub3-minus) or a parallel development, as Amazon presents it?

fjtorres February 7, 2012 um 7:15 am

Hmm, the posting software ate a chunk of text.
It should read: The problem is the idpf has never…

Nate Hoffelder February 7, 2012 um 7:39 am

I was thinking about that too. KF8 grew out of Mobi, which was OEB compliant. It could be argued that KF8 is merely a distant fork from the same root.

fjtorres February 7, 2012 um 8:22 am

Or that they looked at the ePub3 spec, took out all the CPU-intensive, privacy-violating stuff, and cooked up an ePub2.5 of their own. It saves them the trouble and expense of architecting a totally proprietary spec from scratch. Saves them a couple million development costs *and* a whole lot of time to market. Let’s them beat the spec-compliant crew that is still waiting on Adobe or Bluefire or whoever.

When you get down to it, that is Apple’s "sin": they’re mooching off the committee’s efforts to get a proprietary product for free.

As we’ve discussed before: ePub’s problems are at heart a commons product.

Ingo Lembcke February 7, 2012 um 8:05 am

I would not count different DRM (B&N base versus Adobe) as different epub formats. Apple DRM has not been broken imho, but the other DRM are stripped without a problem, creating epubs which can be read on most readers.
This does not regard never used extensions, which I do not know wether they would render the book unreadable with certain software or on certain readers.

fjtorres February 7, 2012 um 8:38 am

The problem is that consumers don’t buy DRM-stripped ebooks or whatever the publishers deliver.
The product consumers buy, and which lacks interoperability is the DRM’ed product.
The biggest fallacy surround ePub is the idea that people buy ePubs.
They don’t.
They buy ADEPT ebooks, Nook ebooks, Kobo ebooks. Some buy iBooks, which have never been spec-compliant.
And a honking lot just buy Kindle books, which might be Mobi7, Topaz, Disguised PDFs, KF8, or whatever Amazon says. As long as they can be read in a Kindle reader/app, it’s a Kindle book.
That is the reality that the other ebook vendors are waking up to: mainstream consumers don’t care about plumbing. They care about ebook availability; about price, about quality of presentation, about the actual content of the book.
The ebook business has long since graduated from the techie/hobbyist customer base to a more mainstream customer base that wants to read ebooks and doesn’t care what goes on behind the screen.

And that is why Apple is forking the spec; there is money to be made and nobody to stop them. No need to bow down to the naked emperor.

Mike Cane February 7, 2012 um 9:31 pm

DRM stripping actually takes a bit of thought that is beyond the technical reach of most people who *just want to read books*, so to ever bring it up as an argument for everyday people is simply ridiculous. If you personally want to make some money, offer a DRM-stripping service where you visit people at home and do it for them. People made a frikkin mint ripping people’s CD collections for them for iPods.

While Nate has a point, what’s being lost is that *books* are supposed to be device agnostic, setting aside the damned DRM. So while no one might be able to really carp about Apple taking things into its own non-IDPF hands and finally doing *smarter* — and prettier — books, I’m still pissed that they’re *iOS-only* books. That just rubs me the wrong way.

Troy McConaghy February 7, 2012 um 11:43 pm

fjtorres wrote: "ePub is going the way of LINUX (and UNIX before it); irrelevance by a thousand forks."

First, Linux and Unix aren’t irrelevant. The majority of webservers are running *nix. Mac OS X and iOS are Unix-based / Unix-derrived. Android is Linux-based. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of computers (in the large) are running *nix or a Unix-descendant.

Second, the profusion of "different" ebook flavors hides what’s really going on. Open any ebook that uses one of the newer ebook standards and you’ll find the same stuff inside: Unicode, (X)HTML, CSS, SVG… Sure, each ebook flavor also has its own extra bells and whistles, but that’s just noise, not the main signal. The main signal is that there are core standards to which everyone is beginning to adhere.

Every web developer knows that different web browsers support different variants of HTML, CSS, etc. Yet the web has grown and gotten better over time. The "fragmentation" among web browsers didn’t make the web irrelevant. The set of core web standards (supported by all modern browsers) grew over time.

fjtorres also wrote "The problem is that consumers don’t buy DRM-stripped ebooks or whatever the publishers deliver." This is mostly true. Most book publishers still haven’t learned the lesson that Steve Jobs taught the music publishers: DRM doesn’t prevent piracy (because pirates can remove it), it just frustrates honest people who paid good money for their music. (iTunes no longer has DRMmed music.)

Some publishers don’t wrap their ebooks in DRM. For example, every ebook that O’Reilly sells is DRM-free.

fjtorres February 8, 2012 um 7:15 am

Try this:
What is UNIX? Is it a product? A specification?
What is LINUX? A product? A specification?
Neither is either.
They are simply terms that refer to a variety of individual products that share some ideology and toolkits but are neither a coherent specification not a specific product.
People don’t buy or use LINUX; they buy/use Red Hat, Mandrake, Debian, Ubuntu, MacOX, Android, etc.
There is *no* LINUX as a product. There is *no* UNIX as a product.
At the product level, which is what we are discussing about ebooks, whether the plumbing is derived from the historical UNIX codebase or the various LINUX mutations is irrelevant to consumers.
Just as the internal plumbing of ebooks is irrelevant to ebook buyers.

Techies and technicians care and debate those things; which libraries are better, which distro is superior, just as medieval religious scholars debated angels dancing on pinheads.
The real world of commercial products where ebooks and file servers and woirkflow management tools reside doesn’t hinge on those issues.
It hinges on what the user sees and values.
Which is why, when it came to corporate server deployments, the best tool Microsoft came up with to blunt and reverse LINUX-adoption was SHAREPOINT. (Look at the numbers: SHAREPOINT is overwhelming *NIX installations in both revenues and site numbers.)

People buy Android, they don’t care it is based on some mutant, multiply forked LINUX.
People buy Mac OSX, they don’t care it is based on some mutant, multiply forked BSD.
People buy Kindles; they don’t care if the plumbing is some Debian variant or whatever,

eBooks now face the same diconnect; hobbyists and techies focusing and debating on the internals while consumers and retailers focus on the actual revenue generation product. And the more the techies worry over internals, the less the maturing market cares about their concerns. That is textbook irrelevancy.

I reiterate: what people buy is commercial ebooks, not plumbing specs.
That is the reality we live.
That reality starts with DRM, authentication servers, ebookstores, pricing, and customer experience and customer service. And the narratives in the ebooks.
*That* is what people buy.

Would the ebook world be better without DRM? With a single universal format?
Maybe. Probably.
But that’s not the world we live in.
The world we live in is a world of forked epubs and Amazon domination.
And mainstream consumers who don’t care overmuch about either.
All the masses care is about access to quality reads at good prices.

fjtorres February 8, 2012 um 7:22 am

And, O’Reilly?
Not the best example to bring up.
I buy from them from time to time.
But what do they sell? Techie books. Time-sensitive techie books.
Not fiction.
Not history or bios or current affairs.
They’re a specialty publisher catering to a specialty audience.

Who do they sell to?
They sell to techies, not mainstream consumers.
And yes: their practices, expectations, and results are *definitely* irrelevant to *this* discussion.

Lazy February 27, 2012 um 8:25 am

Currently we are going through a honeymoon period where people are happy to buy publications locked in to their spanking new kindle. As the product of choice grows old and the desire to switch to the new tablet of the moment increases, we will see a growing demand from the mainstream for cross-compatibility. I believe it is only a matter of time before ereaders are able to handle multiple formats with ease, and the question of epub or mobi and their various subsets will become irrelevent. DRM will be the only sticking point, but that too will fall.

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