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Adobe captures ebook standard. What now?

E Pluribus E-Books Unum E-Reader?

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Among the charming aspects of the fledgling electronic book industry is the way very large corporations can skirt ethical boundaries in the field - yet not make much money.

Adobe Systems, the company whose EULA prohibited reading Alice in Wonderland aloud, and an outfit that once arrested a Russian programmer for pointing out that the DRM on Acrobat wasn't very good, now has a standard for ebook behavior all its own.

Rejecting the post-modernist assertion that really it's all text, some six months ago, the New York-located International Digital Publishing Forum, and its one employee, Nick Bogarty, announced that agreement had been reached on a new electronic books standard.

This format, .epub, was to be the XML-based, multi-device, reflowable, universal format two underemployed men in their 50s had demanded. Also, .epub would support PDF. Because everyone knows how great PDF looks on a PalmPilot or cell phone. It may be worth mentioning, there is one gold sponsor of the IDPF, Adobe, and the IDPF's sole employee, has announced he's leaving the position. To go work at Adobe.

Adobe says its Digital Editions and InDesign will read and create .epub. Digital Editions is kinda like Macromedia's FlashPaper, save where FlashPaper let anybody make any document web-viewable in seconds, Digital Editions only supports books in .epub (and PDF).

Formatting issues

Needless to say, apart from a handful of front-runners, nobody greeted the launch of Digital Editions with much enthusiasm. Even the IDPF failed to add a working guide to creating the format on its site.

There are some flawed .epub examples from IDPF members that wouldn't load or validate.

Then there were some weird Adobe creations - .epub samples generated by InDesign which add additional files not required in the IDPF spec (as well as the optional PDF for your cellphone). These work, but don't even meet Adobe's own spec.

The backstory to all this is that Amazon owns a firm by the name of Mobipocket. Mobi is already the largest ebooks retailer, despite not integrating with Amazon's site. Mobi also figured out years ago the wisdom of not charging for software that creates ebooks in its format, and converting anything from Word Documents to simple HTML to PDF (Mobi will support .epub as an input...eventually).

Then Mobi really got smart and became the only large ebook retailer to give away Project Gutenberg texts, rather than make a few bucks at the expense of customer retention.

Mobi ain't perfect. There was a poorly-handled outage recently, and the company's location in France apparently means no Mac support until skilled programmers can sneak out when the bodies are next dumped at Chateau d'If.

Book 'em, Adobe

However, in October Amazon's got an electronic ink-based reader coming. There is, in other words, almost no reason to pay attention to Adobe's .epub format. Except maybe for Sony's Reader, which is expected to support .epub files some day.

But clearly the point of this "standard" is to, in the next congressional buying cycle, go for regulatory capture in the form of a "Digital Archive Integrity Act" which will require schools and libraries to buy only "standard works" - no doubt from "standard vendors" such as Adobe, and create barriers to entry for pesky new competitors, like the upstart ebook Romance publishers, which are currently giving Harlequin fits. It's the kind of thing you'd fear, given the implications for censorship when control of content ends up in very few hands,

I guess we don't have to be too worried, as long as Adobe can't even code to its own bought-and-paid-for spec. ®

David Moynihan is webmaster at munseys.com.

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