Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Avoiding the eReader Wars - A Call for ePub Standards

As a veteran of the Browser Wars between Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator in the 1990’s, I’m growing increasingly concerned about the potential upcoming conflict between eReaders.

The other day I read on Ibis Reader’s blog that they intentionally “try to override the following CSS properties when used on an iPhone” and other devices:
  • left and right padding and margin
  • width
  • font-size
  • font-family
Even when visitors are using the web version of Ibis Reader, they discourage the use of padding and margin, width, min-width, max-width, background-image (and friends), and absolute positioning.

These last two seem reasonable, as they are already excluded from the official OPS spec, but the first set smack of paternalistic design sensibilities that, frankly, get my goat. I know they mean well, but frankly, no thank you.

And I don’t mean to single out Ibis Reader—which in many other ways is a very elegant solution. Every eReader I’ve seen to date would rather reformat your carefully crafted ePub document than trust you to have designed your book on purpose.

I truly believe that one of the reasons that the Web took off like it did was because there were no authorities on high dictating elitist rules of design. If you were bent on making a hideous page, there was no browser that was going to stand in your way, or choose more “appropriate” fonts or colors to save you from embarrassment.

And although there may have been a number of ugly pages at the beginning, this lack of censorship also lay the groundwork for a most beautiful explosion of democracy. Anyone could create a web site. And everyone did.

Enter the eBook. Somehow, eReaders have decided that those of us who want to create our own eBooks shouldn't be able to design them the way we want. They’re afraid we may choose ugly formatting: perhaps brash fonts or large indents that make our ePubs hard to read. Oh, the horrors! The solution they offer is to ignore the formatting that book designers have chosen—across the board!—and instead, apply their own styles to our eBooks.

There are numerous problems with this approach. Most importantly, no designer is spared. Whether your design is beautiful or hideous, every eReader I’ve seen will ignore it. There will be no creativity allowed or tolerated.

Second, I imagine it won’t surprise you to hear that each eReader ignores the book design from the ePub file in its own special way. Stanza strips out almost everything, Adobe Digital Editions likes tables, but not small caps, Ibis Reader overrides the properties outlined at the beginning of this article. We’ll see on Saturday how Apple’s iBooks app for the iPad will treat formatting from ePub files, but I can’t deny I’m pessimistic.

This means that book designers will have very little control over how a book is laid out in each eReader, and that in addition, that layout will change from eReader to eReader.

A much more sane approach would be for book designers and eReader software manufacturers to agree to follow the OPS spec. If the OPS spec says a particular CSS property should be supported, the eReader should support it and not assume it knows better. Book designers should be able to rely on the OPS spec to determine which CSS properties are allowed in the final design.

If eReaders are so scared of ugly books, they should add a single “Override Original Design” option and let readers, human readers, decide.

Otherwise, it is just a matter of time before some enterprising software developer (Marc Andreessen, where are you?) comes up with an eReader that does allow you to, say, add video, background images, and whatever else a book designer wants to add to their ePub-based eBooks—and a book reader might want to have there. And by then, it will be too late, the eReader Wars will have begun.

Friday, March 12, 2010

eBooks on iBooks on iPad, coming really soon

The iPad is available for pre-order, as of 8:30am this morning, EST. Alongside the store, there was a slew of new information about what will come with the iPad, and in particular about eBooks. Before I get to that, allow me a short rant. I have to say that the similarity of the words eBooks and iBooks is driving me a little batty. Just for the record, "iBooks" is the name of Apple's App for reading eBooks. An "eBook" is an electronic book. (And "ePub" is the open-source format of eBooks that Apple's iBooks App will accept!)

At any rate, here's the new information that I found:
  • iBooks is an App that you will be able to download for free from iTunes (it won't come pre-installed on the iPad). It's not available yet. You'll be able to buy eBooks from the iBookstore from within iBooks (by clicking the Store button).
  • You can also "add free ePub titles to iTunes and sync them to the iBooks app on your iPad". This means that anyone can create ePub documents, not just big publishers. More on this soon :)
  • When you close the iBooks App, it remembers where you left off in the book
  • Barnes and Noble will also be "adding a new B&N eReader for iPad" soon.
  • The iPad will have a Screen Rotation lock button (in place of the mute button), enabling users to read books while lying on their sides without iPad insisting on switching the orientation. Yay!
I admit to reading my first eBook this summer, Cory Doctorow's Makers, on my iPhone. Up to that moment, I had been pretty skeptical about reading on an electronic device, let alone my tiny phone. But, actually, I really liked it. I didn't have to hold up a heavy book. I could turn pages with my thumb. The pages didn't flop over. And I could stay all the way under the covers and read lying down (using Stanza and its screen rotation lock setting to keep the book in the same orientation as me). People say that it's hard to read on a computer screen, but I loved not having to deal with an external light source. No book light necessary! It was a very pleasant reading experience. Oh yeah, and I really liked the book!

Still, I wasn't going to spend $487 for just an eBook reader like the Kindle, no matter how complicated and impossible to understand I found its eInk technology.

But the iPad? I'm there.

More of my books