Thursday, May 26, 2011

How ePub came to Kindle-land (a Fairy Tale)

Once upon a time, a humble bookseller named Bezos had a compelling dream: "Every book ever printed, in any language, available to read in under sixty seconds."

With these words still echoing in his head upon awakening, he looked around. There were some people reading books on their desktop and laptop computers. A few on their Palm Pilots and Pocket PCs and Symbian phones. There were seemingly dozens of digital formats, but limited availability of professionally produced content. This type of reading was an unpleasant and inconvenient and dangerous activity, undertaken only by People of the Fringe, willing to withstand the rigors of mobile, digital reading without complaint or concern for their deteriorating eyesight, due to the constant eyestrain caused by reading miniscule text on low-resolution, backlit computer displays. Bezos cried out to the skies in despair: how could he ever realize his wonderful vision? He was, after all, just one man. (Well, okay: a very rich and powerful man, with billions of shareholder dollars at his disposal.)

So he looked around some more. There was a new, magic, low-energy reflective display called 'e-ink', that had a paper-like look to it. Even ordinary people could stare at it for hours and hours and hours without the slightest discomfort. There was even a new device designed to utilize the Magic Screen for the specific purpose of reading digital text, confusingly called 'Sony Reader' (the device itself could not actually read anything, it was up to the user to do the reading). He also learned that Sony didn't understand publishing, or marketing, or people who read books, or even where books come from, and that this was just another piece of electronics to them. "They don't understand," Bezos thought. "I guess I'm just going to have to make one of those things myself somehow."

He looked further, and wider, to the shores of Europe, and finally, to Paris. There he met Monsieur Mobipocket (an unusual French name to be sure), who had developed a Reading System that worked on many mobile devices, coupled with a small but vibrant internet bookstore, with a number of participating publishers. For, it is true, the Reading System included the semblance of protection from the ravages of Digital Piracy, as demanded by said publishers. The System used its very own Format, adopted from ideas that had taken shape as the Open eBook Standard. They named the Format 'Mobi'. Mobi was very small, and very quick, and could render formatted text on the smallest devices using but the puniest of computing resources. But these devices were the same devices that only People of the Fringe could understand or tolerate. Bezos liked what he saw, but something was missing.

Following his meeting with M. Mobipocket, Bezos' mind reeled with possibilities. What if...? Yes, what if you had a Magic Screen device, added the wireless connectivity of a mobile phone, and combined it with M. Mobipocket's System? He did some quick calculations on a napkin at what had become his favorite café in Paris, "Le Kindle", withdrew a tiny portion of the money which his Investors had given him, and set immediately to work.

He rushed back, cash in hand, to buy M. Mobipocket's System. Their catalog provided the nucleus of a new, rapidly expanding one, as publishers got even more content in quickly with the help of Bezos' ebook-fabricating dwarves. He had some of his elves design a Sony Reader clone with a Magic Screen, but with a keyboard, for he knew readers would want to add their own notes to the books they love, and the touch screen technology of the time would have reduced the Magical properties of the Magic Screen to almost nothing. Some other elves adapted the System for wireless delivery.

Finally it was finished. He named it 'Kindle', priced it just below Sony Reader's price. Homely as it was, it quickly became a best seller and it was time to refine and improve the System further. The elves added TTS, a web browser, and fairy dust. An update added PDF support, with it, Adobe's Reader Mobile SDK. And sharper fonts. Always the fonts must get sharper.

"Wait. Isn't that the very same Adobe RMSDK that enables rendering of ePub files, and support for DRM that allows sharing of content among the reading systems that license it?" you ask. Why yes indeed. We were just about to introduce Mobi's younger sister, ePub, and you'll come to understand everything about this.

ePub, like most younger siblings, learned by example and improved on it. She refined Mobi's more primitive formatting. Adobe had known her since she was born, and incorporated her into their expanding digital publishing business. Soon they partnered with Sony and developed a mobile reader SDK to rule them all, combining the new digital document standard, ePub, with Adobe's old digital document standard, PDF, so that anyone could create a reading system quickly with all of the basic functionality required. Combined with Adobe Content Server, it comprised a secure ebook delivery system like that which M. Mobipocket had pioneered.

Even as pleased as Bezos was with Kindle, he recognized the importance of PDF to many readers, and while Mobi was proving its worth, in the back of his mind, Bezos understood that support of standards like ePub was important, and that one day, he would want Kindle to work with her as well. But there was so much to do, and it was all so exciting! and so very Profitable! So he licensed the Adobe RMSDK, had the elves implement the basic PDF support that was required, and moved on to other things.

There was a larger screen Kindle. Then a new Kindle with an even more Magical Screen, wi-fi capability that provided a lower cost option with wireless capability, Collections, social networking features, even sharper fonts, basic support for Cyrillic, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean script, and even Real Page Numbers! Kindle apps for Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Windows, and Mac, all in perfect synchrony! A more affordable, Kindle with Special Offers! Library borrowing capability was announced. Was there anything more to be done?

It was at this point that the ePub3 specification was released. ePub was all Grown Up! All the ebook designers wanted to work with her, and explore her many fine qualities and capabilities. Mobi was still functioning well, but his time was nearing an end. Reading Systems, including Kindle, were gaining more power, and no longer required or even appreciated his elegance and efficiency. Even Bezos was smitten with ePub. It was time to bring her on board.

He began talking with his elves and marketing fairies and business wizards. "How can we make this happen? How can we help Mobi have a well-deserved retirement? How can we make ePub happy here?"

The elves spoke first. "We already have the Adobe RMSDK. We didn't dare tell you before, but we already have a beta version of the firmware modification that will allow the current Kindle models, and even the penultimate generation models, to render ePub handily and seamlessly. We can continue to make Mobi files for the Kindles and Kindle apps that can't read ePub. A large portion of the source we get is already in ePub format, and we've been setting these aside just in case and have tested everything on our development servers. We're really smart, in case you didn't notice." If only they paid us accordingly, they mumbled under their breath.

The business wizards interjected. "That's going to be expensive! MAYBE we can update the current models, but not anything before that! And there's no way we're going to license the Adobe server and pay them transaction fees! Jobs saw right through that scam!"

The elves responded. "Well as to that, there's really no technical issue. We can handle multiple formats, and deliver the appropriate format to the appropriate reading system, we created all of them and know their capabilities. We'll use the existing device IDs to generate the encryption keys to apply DRM to the ePub content, as per the specification. We don't need the Adobe server for any of this, we're only selling these to Kindle customers."

The marketing fairies could no longer contain themselves. "We want everyone to be a customer! We want to sell ebooks to anyone no matter what reading system they are using! They will come to appreciate the advantages of becoming Kindle customers as well, with all of the exclusive content and services we offer, and we'll need to let them take the ebook content they already own with them, or they'll never switch to us. We have got to support Adobe DRM."

The wizards hemmed and hawed. "Well, I can see your point. We can always use more customers, and we won't actually be giving non-Kindle customers the services they would have as Kindle customers. We can probably afford to pay Adobe a little something for that side of the business. But what about the rest?"

One of the elves, who was something of a smart-ass, spoke up. "You do realize that in the Kobo reading system, Adobe only gets paid for licensing fees of the RMSDK that is used on their reading devices to allow side-loading of 3rd party DRM content—it is not licensed for their reading apps, which use a non-Adobe ePub rendering system—and Adobe DRM is applied by Kobo's Adobe Content Server only when someone requests to download an ePub file for reading on a non-Kobo reading system? You do realize that's really all we would be doing? Anybody can see that, can't they?"

Bezos weighed in. "Okay, enough of the attitude, Elvis, but that makes it pretty clear. How soon can we do this? I want to be first out the door with an ePub3 implementation. Work out the arrangements with Adobe, have Legal go over things to see what we need to tie up with publishers and get them to give us their ePub files ASAP—that is, the ones we don't already have because they were to darn lazy to convert them themselves. It's time to join IPDF and get ePub to like us! To like us a lot!"

And so it came to pass. And everyone lived happily ever after. And every book ever printed, and even those never previously printed, in every language, was ready to read in under sixty seconds. (*)


(*) With a fast internet connection. When they don't have embedded audio and video. Statement assumes people still read and write.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Thoughts on Apple's rejection of Sony's Reader app

A couple of weeks ago, Sony announced that their Reader app for iOS had been rejected by Apple. Apple stated that they did so to enforce their existing and unchanged policy, which is that apps which initiate purchase of content that is useable within the app must include an option to purchase the content using the user's iTunes account, using the 'IAP' (In App Purchase) API, which currently deals Apple a 30% cut of the sale. Reporting suggests that Sony's app was doing the same thing any number of other reading apps were doing, and that it has implications for the other reader apps.

(I don't know if it is connected, but Sony has been making noises about pulling their media out of the iTunes Store.)

Never mind that I have pored over the App Store guidelines in vain looking for this policy, and that apparently in the past, vendors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble were told by Apple that launching a browser to complete a purchase was an acceptable workaround to avoid IAP.

Apple has said that existing apps that violate this policy (whatever it is) have until the end of March to replace their already-approved apps with new ones that don't violate the policy.

If, as many fear, this means death to all reading apps, that would indeed be a very bad thing for those of us who enjoy the freedom to shop for ebooks from virtually any vendor on iOS, making it nearly unique in doing so (other mobile platforms don't have quite the number of reading apps that iOS does). However, it is said that said vendors are 'in negotiations' with Apple about the matter, so we'll see what happens when it happens.

I would note that on my iPod Touch, have at last count at least 9 reading apps that will launch a purchase workflow (always by using the Apple-suggested workaround of launching a browser):

  • Kindle
  • Kobo
  • Nook
  • Google Books
  • Borders
  • txtr
  • Bluefire
  • iFlow Reader
  • Zinio

Presumably the Audible application (for audiobooks) would also qualify as violating the policy.

However, note that content so purchased is not tied to the app. Having purchased it, there is no requirement that it be immediately downloaded for use by the iOS app. In each case, content is accessible using other apps and platforms. A purchase I initiate with Kindle app can be sent to any of my Amazon-registered devices or apps.

Interestingly, the Marvel Comics app _does_ use in-app (IAP API) purchase (using the user's Apple account). But they are the publisher of the content, not merely a storefront. They can afford 30% for distribution and convenience of in-app purchase. Like content purchased for the above apps, Marvel's content can be read elsewhere (web browser), but it looks like they don't offer apps for other mobile platforms yet.

Note that Apple provides none of the purchasing backend for any of these sales, and there are dozens of storefront apps like,,, for purchasing physical stuff online, and their purchasing workflow is in-app. But Apple isn't going after them (yet).

Finally no competing commercial platform is insisting on a cut of sales made on their platform:

  • Blackberry
  • Android
  • Windows Mobile 7

(not to mention reading apps for Windows or OS X)

So on what basis can Apple justify enforcement and application of the policy here? What value are they adding that is not the same value added for sales of physical goods, or greater than that added by competing platforms? As far as negotiating something less than 30%, what percentage (other than 0%) can be considered 'fair'? Is this a rhetorical question?

Assuming worst case (apps need to be re-submitted using IAP as well as browser launch, or have the purchasing workflow removed entirely), I see the following shake-out:

  • Amazon is in the best shape. There's nowhere else to go if you want to read Kindle content on your iOS device: you have to purchase from Amazon. They can remove the 'Kindle Store' button, perhaps provide an in-app 'download sample' capability, and describe how to purchase by launching Safari, etc. They could also create a HTML5 web app for Kindle Store to further streamline web-based purchasing. The web app could store login credentials and an 'Add to home screen' link for it placed somewhere in the web purchase workflow when it sees the user using Mobile Safari. Apple cannot prevent this, since it bypasses App Store requirements completely. I imagine they could even have a dedicated Kindle Store iOS app that just purchases content used by the Kindle app, because a Store app would not actually consume or download the content but just make it available in the cloud.
  • Kobo, Borders, are okay too, they are multiplatform, but they don't have the format/DRM lockin that Amazon enjoys. You can purchase compatible content from any number of ePub storefronts, and read them with the Kobo app, and all of those storefronts are going to have more or less the same accessibility. And you don't even need the Kobo app to read Kobo ebooks - we still have also Bluefire, iFlow Reader, and txtr. So their presence might diminish somewhat.
  •  B&N is in a different category, but similar to Kindle. You pretty much need the B&N app to read purchases from B&N (well, Bluefire will too), it won't read content from other storefronts (a Nook will, but not the apps AFAICT), and so B&N customers will still want an app that does that, even if they can't use it to purchase content. So they can also remove storefront access from the app and provide a separate web app or whatever for the storefront itself.
  •  I'm concerned about txtr, Bluefire, and iFlow Reader, however. They are not multi-platform, and rely on the connected-storefront sales to make some money. Without it, they'll either have to charge for their apps, or incorporate some sort of advertising tie-in. It may spell the demise of their business plan, and we would be the poorer for it: they are some of the more innovative reading systems on iOS.

Needless to say, those of us who appreciate what a great reading platform iOS has been are a little anxious about what will be.

There. I've said it. What are your thoughts?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Observations concerning the Google ebook platform

I thought it would be useful to summarize some of the properties of the Google ebook platform, some of which are unique.
  • Not unlike Amazon, B&N, etc., all of the ebooks associated with your Google account (free or purchased) are stored in the cloud with your Google account.
  • The iOS & Android apps do not download PDF/ePub as such, but rather use some Google-proprietary storage format. The Google ereaders do not allow 'side-loading' or 'open with' functionality, and can only open content that comes from Google's cloud storage.
  • The iOS & Android apps, web ereader do not use Adobe Reader Mobile technology, unlike other Adobe DRM-based reading systems. Google does not license the Reader Mobile software. As such, neither the Google mobile apps or the web ereader need to be authorized with an Adobe ID. 
  • Adobe DRM is applied only for DRM restricted titles, when downloading for use in a non-Google ereader (which needs to be authorized with an Adobe ID). Google licenses the Adobe Content Server for this purpose.
  • The Google instructions indicate that you need Adobe Digital Editions to download an ePub or PDF file. That's not strictly true: you can use any application that is authorized with your Adobe ID to open the .acsm file you get from Google, and download the ePub/PDF. For example, Bluefire can do this on iOS. 
  • So the Google ebook platform operates independently of Adobe technology, though it works with platforms that use it.
  • Some purchased titles do not allow downloading and must be read with the Google web ereader or one of the Google mobile apps.
  • Google now requires a credit card on file, even if you only want to get free books.
  • Apparently the Google apps and web interface consume a variety of CSS-free ePub whose capabilities are not well understood. Yet another challenge for ebook designers who want their ePubs to look good everywhere...