eBooks, iBooks, will they ever make it?

It has been said that of the great things about ‘standards’ in the world of computers and IT is that there are so many to choose from. I quote below a blog from an American author, R Scot Johns, in which he draws attention to competing eBook ‘standards’ published by Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and others, and concludes that as a result of the existence of too many ‘standards’, eBooks will not reach their potential. Printed books — ink on paper — remain the only format that will avoid ‘data rot’ as a colleague of mine puts it.

‘Barely more than a month ago, on January 1st, I made the prediction that the newly released ePub3 specification would “fail in its effort to heal ebook format fragmentation.” This was, in fact, my number one prediction, and while it’s hardly earth-shattering, it’s happened faster than expected, and for the very reasons I outlined.

‘Less than two weeks into 2012 Amazon released the main specs for their new KF8 format, based mainly on ePub, but with a whole new set of a proprietary requirements for fixed layout features such as area magnification, and with severe restrictions on others such as image size and orientation. In addition, they use their own metadata entries to declare fixed layout properties. While KF8 is in essence an ePub in its structure, once converted into mobi via KindleGen it becomes proprietary and can only be read on a Kindle system. ePub files themselves are not recognized by Kindle devices.

‘Then, just a week later, Apple announced their new .ibooks format, along with the only tool that can be used to make it, iBooks Author. Again, the underlying structure is essentially an ePub, but with a host of new code elements that are entirely unique to Apple, with no relation whatsoever to anything in ePub. So complex and undefined are these new elements that there is no possibility of coding them by hand, so that what was once in essence an ePub is now something altogether different. And of course, it can only be read in Apple’s iBooks system (and currently only on the iPad).

‘This is the direction things are going. As mentioned in my prediction, advances in technology and innovation in individual applications are far outpacing ePub’s ability to keep up, to the point that very soon these formats will likely do away with the ePub structure altogether, since there’s no inherent reason that they need it if the end goal is to produce a unique proprietary format. With KF8 you can at least begin with an ePub file and then modify it to meet the Kindle Fire requirements. But Apple has removed even that possibility. IBooks format files must be built from scratch, using their software, or not at all (and they must be sold via Apple’s iBookstore, and consumed via Apple tablets).

‘Of course, Apple still accepts ePubs in their standard iBooks model (albeit with some custom modifications, such as the com.apple file), as does Barnes & Noble (though only for reflowable texts: BNKids format is so proprietary they won’t even release the spec), but for fixed layout ebooks ePub3 has never really had a chance.

‘The idea of creating an open standard that many reading systems can handle is a noble, but unrealistic goal. It’s just not a practical business model on which to build an empire. Success at the level at which Apple and Amazon are competing is accomplished by creating brand identity and loyalty. This is how Apple has sustained itself for many years, and how the Kindle became the first successful ebook reader. Certainly there are many other factors, among which producing a quality product is foremost. But to create a product of quality one must first create a product that stands apart from the others, and that by its very definition is a proprietary product.

‘While we will likely never see a major ePub3 reader, the market will be swamped with generic devices and off-brands that will do the job. But none of them will be truly great, relegating ePub3 to the sidelines and the cheap or free titles. Because of this it is unlikely ePub3 will ever reach its full potential.’

Here is a link to the article and the rather verbose responses to it.