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April 12 2012

Ebook formats and the allure of customer lock-in

Sanders Kleinfeld (@sandersk), author of "HTML5 for Publishers" and publishing technologies specialist at O'Reilly, recently sat down with me to talk about ebook formats, challenges publishers face accommodating the formats and how HTML5 might change the game. With all the various ebook formats and platforms requiring multiple publishing outputs becoming something of a hindrance to workflows, I asked if he thought we'd ever see a universal format. He said he worries that vendors won't be willing to give up customer lock-in:

"I'm really optimistic, and I really hope so. I think that's what they're striving for with the EPUB3 standard, which is based around all these open technologies — HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript ... What's disappointing right now is that Amazon is very set on their Mobi format for their Kindle device, Apple has made strides away from EPUB 3 with their latest iBooks 2.0 and iBooks Author ... I think vendors that make these devices are interested in maintaining that lock-in for customers. That's a challenge the industry faces — trying to push things back toward open standards, which I think is best for everyone." (Discussed at 2:43.)

He also said a lot of what's behind DRM is about achieving customer lock-in and that vendors might be obstacles in that regard as well. (Discussed at 4:21.)

You can view our entire interview in the following video:

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February 09 2012

O'Reilly ebooks now optimized for Kindle Fire

Earlier this week, we at O'Reilly regenerated all of our ebook-bundle Mobi files, upgrading them to meet the specifications for Amazon's latest ebook format, KF8.

These files are now available for download in your account on If your ebook bundle includes a Mobi file (and more than 90% of bundles do), you can download the updated, KF8-compliant file now. (Note: All O'Reilly Media files are now available in KF8. Partner publishers will come soon.)

As always, our ebook bundles are DRM-free. See this page for instructions on loading O'Reilly Mobi files to your Kindle.

We've optimized our Mobi files for Kindle Fire by taking advantage of KF8's support of @media queries. While @media queries have been commonplace on the web for some time, they are just now making their way to ebook ecosystems. KF8's support of @media queries allows you to create an ebook that looks and potentially behaves differently based on your reading device.

For an example of @media queries in action, see the image below, which shows how the same Mobi file appears on a traditional Kindle (left) versus the new Kindle Fire (right):

Comparison of a Mobi file on a traditional Kindle and the Kindle fire
Click to enlarge.

Amazon's support for @media queries makes this possible, and O'Reilly is among the first publishers to employ this feature across all of its Kindle content. Here are some of the new features that you can expect to see on your Kindle Fire (enhancements vary by book):

  • Color images
  • Syntax-highlighted code
  • Improved layout and design with CSS3
  • Embedded code font for better legibility and glyph support

Here are some screenshots from our newly optimized Mobis:

Optimized Mobi file from Make Electronics
Click to enlarge.

Optimized Mobi file from JavaScript: The Definitive Guide
Click to enlarge.

Starting this week, our books will begin to be available in KF8 format through Amazon's Kindle Store. However, an unfortunate limitation of buying from Amazon is that they don't normally provide customers with publisher updates. By contrast, buying direct from O'Reilly gives you access to lifetime, DRM-free updates in all standard ebook formats.


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December 22 2011

HTML5: The platform-agnostic key to the future of publishing

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we'll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

Is HTML5 one of the keys to publishing's future? Brian Fling (@fling), founder of PinchZoom, thinks so. His company's new publishing platform is called PinchZoom Press, and it's built atop HTML5. In this interview, Brian tells us about what PinchZoom Press can do and why it's an important new entrant in the epublishing space.

Key points from the full video interview (below) include:

  • The platform consists of three different pieces of technology — A native app for iOS devices, a layout tool and a content management system. [Discussed at the 1:50 mark.]
  • Why choose HTML5 rather than EPUB 3? — As flexible and powerful as EPUB is, it's still not as platform agnostic as HTML5. Plus, every device comes with a web browser but not necessarily an EPUB reader. [Discussed at 2:56.]
  • But it's really "not about EPUB or HTML" — Don't focus on the end client. It's about understanding how your content is managed and how you think about how your content is presented in a mixed platform world. [Discussed at 5:07.]
  • Portability introduces some limitations — HTML5 is wonderful for portability and knowing that your product will render well on all platforms, but it also means you might not have access to sensors, cameras and other potentially important device features. [Discussed at 7:20.]
  • Native apps are here to stay — Yes, that means we'll have to invest in apps across at least two platforms. The simple truth is the native app will probably always offer the best user experience for that platform. [Discussed at 10:40.]

  • Pricing is still being finalized — PinchZoom is leaning toward only charging for the content management system, and that's likely to be a monthly fee. [Discussed at 19:45.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012


December 07 2011

A sensible look at HTML5 and publishing

EPUB 3 and Kindle Format 8 both boast support for HTML5, but what exactly is HTML5 and what is its role in publishing? For insight on these questions — and practical ways HTML5 can be used by publishers — I reached out to Sanders Kleinfeld (@sandersk), author of "HTML5 for Publishers." (Kleinfeld also will present an HTML5 for Publishers webcast on Wednesday, December 14, 2011 — you can register to attend here.)

Our interview follows.

Why should publishers care about HTML5?

Sanders Kleinfeld: HTML5 is the future of digital publishing. If you're a publisher who's interested in staying competitive in the ebook landscape, it's quite crucial that you understand what HTML5 is all about.

So what is HTML5, exactly? The term is thrown around a lot, but it seems undefined.

SandersKleinfeld.jpgSanders Kleinfeld: The term "HTML5" is indeed used very fluidly in tech discourse, and it has really become a signifier for a constellation of different technologies, some only loosely related to actual HTML markup. When people refer to HTML5, they're usually talking about some combination of the following next-generation web technologies: Canvas, geolocation, native audio/video, local storage, and CSS3.

In your book, you instruct readers on using the <canvas> element. What is that and why is it helpful?

Sanders Kleinfeld: The <canvas> element allows you to embed an interactive sketchpad into your web or ebook content. You can control it with JavaScript. Because the canvas is scriptable, it opens the door to everything from computer-generated drawings to animations and full-fledged games. If you're interested in "app-ifying" your ebook (i.e., adding the kinds of interactive features that are the hallmark of iPhone or Android Apps), the <canvas> element and its associated API are the tools that are going to allow you to accomplish that.

How can publishers make use of HTML5's geolocation abilities?

Sanders Kleinfeld: Much as websites like Google already customize search results and advertisements based on users' locations, geolocation enables publishers to tailor their ebook content based on where their readers are currently located. This seems particularly beneficial to publishers of travel or restaurant guides, as they can sort and customize hotel/dining reviews based on proximity to the reader's location, suggest points of interest nearby, and perhaps even offer directions from one locale to another.

In "HTML5 for Publishers," I explore the possibility of geolocated fiction, where the reader's current location actually figures into the text of the story. [Click here to see an example of this in action.]

More avant-garde uses of geolocation in ebooks might extend to interactive activities and games like geocaching.

The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) has signed off on EPUB 3. What effect will EPUB 3 have on HTML5?

Sanders Kleinfeld: Prior to the finalization of EPUB 3, the EPUB format already had a huge amount of momentum behind it, as an open standard supported by nearly every major ereading platform: iBooks for iPhone/iPad, Nook, Sony Reader, Adobe Digital Editions, etc. — Amazon's Kindle is really the only notable exception. The release of the EPUB 3 standard, which designates HTML5 as the language to be used for ebook content documents, firmly aligns the format with next-generation web technology. I think it's going to serve as one of the primary catalysts for publishers to get into the HTML5 game and for the major ereading platforms to adopt robust HTML5 support. Publishers are clamoring to enhance their ebooks with interactive and multimedia features, ereader manufacturers want to support these features, and EPUB 3 provides a clearly defined path forward.

We're already beginning to see support for HTML5 features emerge on some of the most popular ereaders. Both iBooks and the Nook Color already support HTML5 audio and video, as do cloud platforms like Ibis Reader. IBooks also supports many <canvas> features. I think it's just a matter of time before other ereaders follow suit.

HTML5 for Publishers — This free ebook provides an overview of some of the most exciting features HTML5 provides to ebook content creators — audio/video, geolocation, and the canvas — and shows how to put them in action.

What's your take on Kindle Format 8?

Sanders Kleinfeld: Kindle Format 8 (KF8) is Amazon's answer to EPUB 3. It's a proprietary standard for Amazon's ereader platforms that adds support for HTML5 and CSS3. Amazon recently published a list of KF8's new capabilities.

Prior to KF8, Kindle's CSS support in Mobi 7 was rather rudimentary, which posed many challenges to ebook publishers with highly graphical content that demanded sophisticated, precise layout. KF8 provides the necessary tools for producing these types of books. It will facilitate the creation of children's books, comic books, and other graphically rich content for Kindle.

More generally, KF8 is also going to make it easier for publishers to make "prettier" ebooks for Kindle, and I think it's important not to dismiss the value of aesthetics to the ereading experience. With the release of the Kindle Fire, Amazon is clearly looking to establish itself as a player in the tablet market, and I think KF8 is going to help Kindle keep pace with iBooks.

That said, while I'm encouraged to see Kindle adopt greater HTML5 support, as a staunch open source advocate and sometimes-beleaguered ebook developer who would love all ereaders to unite behind one file format, very little would make me happier than seeing Amazon adopt the EPUB 3 standard.

What's the best way for publishers to approach your book? Is it more of an introduction, or do they need some basic knowledge first?

Sanders Kleinfeld: In "HTML5 for Publishers," I provide an overview of the HTML5 technologies I believe will be most important to the next wave of ebook innovation, along with sample code and demos showing these HTML5 features in action. No formal knowledge of HTML or programming is necessary to appreciate "HTML5 for Publishers," but if you're interested in diving in and developing your own HTML5 content, some background in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript will most certainly be helpful. I provide links to additional HTML5 resources throughout the book for those looking to learn more.

What should publishers keep in mind as they explore HTML5 for their own needs?

Sanders Kleinfeld: As with every new technology, I think it's important for publishers to take a step back and not allow the hype to distract from practicality.

Consider what aspects of HTML5 might benefit and enhance your ebook program, and employ them judiciously. For example, if you're publishing a series of foreign language guides, embedding HTML5 audio/video content throughout your ebooks will likely be received as a welcome enhancement to readers. But if you're publishing serious literature, adding lots of audio and video may be a distraction. Don't be afraid to be innovative, but always put your readership's needs first.

This interview was edited and condensed.


November 22 2011

EPUB 3: Building a standard on unstable ground

Now that the ink is dry on the final EPUB 3 specification from the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), it seemed a good time to touch base with "What is EPUB 3?" author Matt Garrish, who also was the chief editor of the EPUB 3 suite of specifications.

Our interview follows.

What advantages/challenges will EPUB 3 bring to the publishing table?

Matt Garrish: The biggest bang I see EPUB 3 bringing to the digital publishing world is undoubtedly the ease with which it will allow the creation of rich multimedia and interactive experiences. The ebook market has moved beyond the static two dimensions of the print page, and I don't think there's any stopping the march forward into uncharted digital territory.

We need to let go of the digital book — the one that doesn't have a print antecedent — and see where it will go, knowing full well that it won't translate back to print. I think that's still a scary idea to many people, but as the ebook market expands, growth in print-incompatible books is inevitable.

That's the biggest benefit I see this new revision bringing to the table, that it offers a clear path away from the print-centric ebook. EPUB is back ahead of the curve and will be both waiting as the format of choice as publishers embrace its new powers and doing its regular duties facilitating dual print/electronic production streams until then.

EPUB 3 alone isn't going to solve all the challenges that exist in digital content creation, but the new revision adds a lot of new weapons to your arsenal, making it that much easier to make high-quality ebooks. The specification is also so newly minted that trying to predict what challenges it will bring with it is a bit premature. Some we can all see coming, like audio and video size and location inside the container file or outside possibly affecting playback. But until the content gets developed, distributed and consumed, it's hard to say which of the many models that could emerge will prove best. I'm confident, though, that the IDPF will be providing guidance and instruction to producers as these kinds of issues develop, if not working to fix them in future revisions.

How do web standards affect EPUB 3?

Matt Garrish: The challenge creating a format like EPUB is navigating the unstable landscape that results when you have to build on top of moving targets. On the one hand, you have an HTML5 specification that isn't finished. On the other, you have browser makers already implementing the standard and the features becoming generally available. Do you wait years and years until the specification is "signed, sealed and delivered," or do you jump in head first and take advantage of what exists now? The IDPF obviously opted to make the leap, so a good deal of the revision work went into circumscribing how to use the technologies in the state they're in so producers don't have to worry about future incompatibilities.

There's little to worry about in terms of using the new HTML5 elements that are available, like audio and video. But there's always concern when you have two agencies separately maintaining the same standard, as is the case right now with the W3C and WHATWG. If browser cores start supporting custom new additions, as the WHATWG encourages, then suddenly you have a situation where reading systems may render features that are not allowed by the EPUB 3 specification. With the door open, how do you manage the standard and ensure interoperability between devices if people jump on a feature because they discover one platform supports it even though others possibly don't? The IDPF has plans for integrating experimental features using the epub:switch element, but it's not an easy problem to solve.

CSS3 is another unfinished suite of specifications, and its support in EPUB 3 was a little trickier than HTML5's. Many of the specifications are now reaching candidate recommendation status (i.e., they're at the point where they are considered stable) and are unlikely to change. But there were also needed properties that were not yet stable, which is why you'll find some prefixed with "-epub-" in the Content Documents specification (primarily from the CSS3 Speech and Text modules). We've taken a kind of snapshot in time of the standards they're defined in so we can use them and not worry if their behaviors change later, if their names are changed, or if they're dropped entirely. The IDPF was fortunate to have Elika Etemad (@fantasai) helping with the revision and coordinating our issues with the CSS groups, too.

Finally, standardized metadata expression languages (both publication-wide and inline) are still unstable within the W3C, with competing languages being proposed. The EPUB working group decided to postpone making a decision on inclusion of any of these until a future version when the landscape has stabilized. But even still, we've improved our metadata significantly with the ability now to add semantic tagging to XHTML5 documents — so you can indicate whether section elements represent parts or chapters or a prologue or epilogue, for example — and to refine metadata in the package document using ONIX code lists and other industry-standard controlled vocabularies.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012 in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

What is accessible publishing? How does it apply to EPUB 3?

Matt Garrish: Accessible publishing is the realm I've been working in for the last six or seven years now and probably is not what many people might think it is. There is, disturbingly, still a great chasm in terms of access to information in the new digital age. The oft-quoted estimate in accessibility circles is that only about 5% of the print books produced in any year are ever made available in formats usable by persons with print disabilities. And a big chunk of that 5% is being produced by agencies around the world dedicated to trying to level the playing field. The CNIB here in Canada, which I've worked for, is one such agency that maintains a library and a production arm to republish books in accessible formats.

These types of agencies are not publishers in the mainstream sense. They don't sell the materials they produce and don't typically create new content, but they work with publishers when they can — or chop and scan when they can't — to reformat and publish print sources in braille, talking-book format, large print and many other formats. The DAISY Consortium is like a central voice for these organizations. It advocates accessible publishing practices and maintains its own talking-book specification. But I think everyone in the "business" would tell you it would be a better world if none of us had to be employed playing this catch-up game.

Where EPUB 3 comes in is that the IDPF, with great forethought and compassion in my opinion, has made a real effort to pick up the torch that DAISY has been carrying in the digital publishing world. The EPUB 3 revision saw many DAISY members taking an active role in porting accessibility features over, and of course, the revision was chaired by the incredibly dedicated Markus Gylling, the CTO of DAISY and now IDPF, and someone I've had the great fortune to have worked with on DAISY specifications in the past.

EPUB 3 is now in line to be the successor to DAISY's current talking-book format. But just because a format can be authored accessibly doesn't mean everyone will, or will know how, so we're working to get guidelines and best practices out for people to be able to create great accessible EPUB 3 content. Whatever comes, this is a fantastic leap forward for cutting the middleman out of the process.

How close will Kindle Format 8 (KF8) bring Amazon to EPUB 3? And, do you expect Amazon to eventually adopt EPUB?

Matt Garrish:Well, that's a bit of a loaded question — and I don't presume to speak for the IDPF or its members, to be clear, but I read an article by Thad McIlroy the other day that I think very bluntly summed up the current situation. It was inevitable that Amazon would have to upgrade Mobi when it introduced the Kindle Fire, but I'll temper my response to say I was disappointed Amazon opted to continue to pursue a second format that parallels EPUB. But I was not surprised.

We're sort of back to the same place we were a year ago, though. EPUB, to me, remains the richer of the two formats — having accessibility and greater CSS support built in — but you'll be able to transform your data back and forth from KF8 more easily than if Amazon had stayed with Mobi. The headache once again gets dropped on the consumer. Choose Amazon or everyone else, but don't expect your books to move back and forth seamlessly either way.

The community-driven nature of EPUB, I expect, will always keep it one step ahead of the competition. You may get periodic pronouncements of new format improvements from Amazon, but the IDPF, in my experience, works hard with industry stakeholders to make sure the format reflects what they actually want and need. Work is already getting started on adding indexes and dictionaries to EPUB, for example, and meetings were just held in Taiwan to deal with fixed formats — involving the manga experts who work at the issues every day.

There are many great things coming down the pipe with EPUB, and with the IDPF committed to keeping the specifications open and accessible, I don't expect I'll stop championing the format any time soon.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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