Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Gaudí at the Apple Store in Barcelona

There's a bit of a hullabaloo in Barcelona today because of a huge, Gaudí-esque mosaic barrier that appeared overnight in front of the soon-to-be-opened flagship Apple store at the top of Plaça Catalunya. I finally got a chance to go down to see it this morning.

Before I go on, you have to know that Gaudí was a modernist (read: art nouveau) Catalan architect from the beginning of the 20th century, famous for using natural forms in his buildings. One of his most treasured (and most visited) creations, is the Park Güell, which has a gorgeous, undulating, mosaic bench that overlooks the city and the sea.

Parc Güell - 24

You should also know that there are mosaic recreations of every cheesy souvenir you can think of, including bulls which are as Spanish as they are non- and even anti-Catalan. In my mind, Apple got to the party late, but I'll give them credit for at least attempting to honor a bit of Barcelona's heritage.

There were reports that it is just cardboard. Not true, I touched it and I can assure you it's real. In fact, as I stood there looking at it, lamenting the shadow of the spotlights on the Apple, I overheard some American guys who were giving it some last-minute touches with a staple gun (into the grout).


I asked them if they had come all the way from the US to build this thing, and the guy told me that in fact, it was the work of The Guild, a design firm in Los Angeles, and that they had built the mosaic mural in LA and had shipped it to Barcelona, and constructed it in a single night, thanks to the efforts of 40 workers.

And then he told me that it was a temporary wall, and that it would disappear—indeed be destroyed and thrown into dumpsters!—in 10 days when the new Apple store opens.

Here are some closeups. The first time I saw pictures, I knew there was something in there. But it was @ganyet who pointed me to this post that explains how the mosaic is made up of "broken" Apple icons.



If anyone's wondering (not any of my regular readers, for sure :), Apple wrote the sign in Catalan, the language that's spoken in Barcelona. It's not a dialect, not a mix of Spanish and French, but rather a Romance language with a 1000 year old history and with more speakers than many other much more well-known languages (like say, Danish).

More pics on Flickr.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

ALERT- Sophisticated AT&T Phishing Scam

So, last week in Tokyo, I couldn't find the wonderful Tempura restaurant where we were supposed to meet. Google Maps had failed us. Not wanting to miss it, I turned on my AT&T contracted iPhone for the first time ever abroad (I usually keep it on Airplane mode and use wifi and a local phone in Barcelona.) Today I got a bill for $1717 from AT&T. Now, I have heard horror stories before, but even this seemed a little much for the 10 minutes I had my phone connected. So I tried logging into my account (heading over to AT&T directly) but their systems seem to be down. (Perfect storm?) I did click one of the links in the email, but it didn't work, I hope. AT&T is still down, so I can't find out until later. But just in case you get a bill from AT&T that seems out of the ordinary, watch for these things:

1. The bill came on an unusual day of the month.

2. There's an extra space at the top of the email.

3. It says "Dear Customer" instead of "Dear [your name]"

4. It *doesn't* give your account number, and instead, says how much the bill is for.

5. When you hover over a link, it doesn't go to att.com and instead points to somewhere strange.

Of course, if you've read this, they have too, so perhaps next time, they'll get these details right. (Although, as with spelling errors and weird English syntax in Nigerian scam letters, perhaps that's never going to happen.)

At some point, I guess we're going to need to be able to verify the sender of an email. Until then, keep your eyes wide open. Should I say never click a link in an email? Perhaps from an institution, yes. What a drag.


I'm not sure "sophisticated" is the right word. Perhaps you wouldn't have been tricked. But compare this picture with one of your invoices, and then tell me.

Monday, July 9, 2012

What I learned in Japan about EPUB 3, Rakuten, Kobo, Kodansha, and Japanese e-publishing in general

Here are some of my notes from the IDPF's first conference in Asia, specifically in Tokyo, Japan. The topic was EPUB 3, and it was co-sponsored by Voyager Japan. It was held as part of the larger 16th Tokyo Ebook Expo, in Tokyo Big Sight, a huge complex at the edge of the harbor.

NB: I don't speak Japanese, so not only are the quotes pretty rough, but they are quotations of how the interpreter translated what the speakers were saying. And it was all going by pretty quickly. Corrections welcome.

The opening presentation featured Hiroshi Mikitani, the head of Rakuten, the Japanese online retailing giant that just bought Kobo; Yoshinobu Noma, from Kodansha, one of Japan's largest publishers, and Bill McCoy, head of IDPF. with Takehiko Ogi, CEO Maruzen Chi Holdings, as the moderator.

EPUB 3 at Tokyo Ebook Expo
Photo courtesy of Hagino-san, president of Voyager Japan

A few points stuck out for me. First and foremost, the Rakuten CEO stated that all their Japanese content would be in EPUB 3. He said they chose the open standard so they can compete not on format but on ease of use of their reade, that EPUB3 allows content to be viewed on all sorts of different devices. He talked about localized service on a globalized platform. Second, he stressed his desire to spread Japanese culture abroad, as well as to encourage reading in kids all over the world. Their initial target is to have 1,000,000 Japanese books in EPUB 3 format, and then add another half million, so you can get "any" book in Japanese as an ebook.

When asked how Rakuten was different from other players, and how the Japanese market was unique, Mikitani answered that they want to take advantage of the existing framework, including bookstores, of which there are 4x as many in Japan than in Europe or US.

The second panelist, Yoshinobu Noma, from Kodansha, said domination from one company was not good, and was encouraged by Rakuten's entry into the market. He mentioned that there are 70 million Rakuten club members with "points", and that the low price of the new Kobo Touch in Japan ($99) would help Rakuten and Kobo device gain foothold. He was concerned that fewer competitors keep books from coming to market. More publishers mean more freedom of expression, freedom to publish.

Then Bill McCoy (Executive Director of IDPF) added that the IDPF and open standards pave the way for the fusion of digital books: like manga is a fusion between comics and books, making a bigger world for all of us.

Mikitani then said "I am nationalist and as Japanese company, I want to make an impact in the global industry, and I want to export that overseas, not just manga, expand Japanese culture. Unless we have a device, [like Kobo], we cannot compete with overseas competitor: so there's a philosophical part plus a business part."

When asked if it was about books, he answered, "Kids are not reading, I'm not criticizing consoles, but this is a crisis because kids are not reading, and that affects the intellectual level. I think back to books I read in the past. In Brazil, there is no consumption tax on books, in EU, there is a lower tax. As a nation, we need to figure out how to expand book business.

The moderator immediately asked about Rakuten's servers, and it turns out they're all in Canada, which has some tax ramifications: Mikitani replied that "we must comply with the law, but we have servers in Canada for logistics… but that means no tax in Canada, 3% in EU and 0 in Japan."

[A quick internet search reveals that there is a 5% consumption tax in Japan, that will rise to 15% by the end of the year. It is not currently levied on electronic products purchased abroad, and thus by selling from Canada, Rakuten would not have to charge the tax.]

Mikitani played down color tablet ereaders because of weight and price [which I think are important points]. He said 70% of users in US have both tablet and e-ink. [Not sure where this number comes from.]

Then Noma-san spoke about government subsidized initiative to convert 60,000 books [to epub3 format??] but stressed idea that paper and digital is not zero-sum, that one can build on and benefit from the other.

He said that Japanese government has said that all textbooks must be electronic by 2020 and that that will be the tipping point for ebooks.

Question: EPUB 3 content is not widespread, how do you position it?

Bill: Japan has chance to leapfrog the splintering of EPUB 2. Mikitani: we have to have one Japanese standard and one global standard. Noma-san (Kodansha) is member of IDPF and also working on EPUB 3.

Noma-san continued on to explain concept of #GAFMA (or Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple), and said that they had to find a way to deal with that group. "As partner, we can work with them, but in US, there is competition. How can *we* compete with them? EU companies say Japanese companies exist that can compete, and they asked how we work with them, and we talked about how to compete healthily against each other. From EU perspective, they welcomed Rakuten's acquisition of Kobo. In short, GAFMA can be competitor or partner.

Question: Will Rakuten buy publishers? Bookstores? Mikitani: "I think we should let experts do what they do best, we have no plans to buy publishers or bookstores, but would like to strengthen alliance with bookstores [and indeed I saw Kobo being demo-ed in Bunkyo-do the next day.]

Question: What about writers? Are they thinking of ebooks?

Noma-san: Some are against, but gradually this will change. We are trying to do simultaneous paper, ebook, so get contract from author for both is way to go.

Question: Can Japanese culture be exported with ebooks?

Noma-san: "Already with manga, in Taiwan we have distribution company going to mainland China eventually, Japanese flavor needs to be added to Kobo in order to go global"

Mikitani: "I was amazed at how much manga was in FNAC in Paris, but in suburban stores, there's no shelfspace. So, selling ebooks online, where there is infinite shelfspace enables that possibility. This is great opportunity to export Japanese literature."

Question: Talk about how passionate you are about ebook industry.

Mikitani: This is going to be the initial year for ebooks themselves, this is an opportunity for ebook industry to expand overseas, with Kobo, and Kodansha, we'd like to support your business.

Noma-san: I make many speeches on big trends, but sometimes people misunderstand me. In Japanese market, unless we win in print, we won't win in digital. We have to win in print, now we will see a transformation, this is the chance to go digital. We have to create good content.

Bill: Digital books can be complimentary to print, but we don't yet know what digital books are, and can be. Publishers must become web publishers.


On the second day, after my and Markus Gylling's talks in the morning, Ren Ando gave another presentation on Kobo and Rakuten which I found interesting.

Here's a brief synopsis of what he said:

Rakuten is an online marketplace, travel, financial, banks, credit services, advertising, entertainment. They do 1 trillion yen of business per year (about 12 billion dollars). Kobo is 3 years old, with 9 million users in 190 countries, 17000 publishers, 2.4 million titles, sales partners in 7 countries. Joined Rakuten in 2012.

Partner model: authors and publishers => Kobo => distribute device through local partners

Kobo touch, to be available at the end of July. Make Japanese reading culture a part of the global culture. "Renaissance and revolution of the reading culture"

EPUB 3 for all Japanese books in the catalog

Why? A: An open ecosystems is better for global interoperability, publishers and authors can trust EPUB, rapid increase of number of titles, a reliable reading platform, fast circulation of EPUB based books, migration pain mitigation, other EPUB based services, authors, publishers

"We are at a tipping point in Japan"

Creators can create and there will be lots of channels for distributing content


1 EPUB migration assistance for publishers
Assistance on converstion process
EPUB 3 authoring guidelines

2 High fidelity to the Japanese publishers typography requirements
co-developed between Access and Kobo
Cross platform reading experience (Android, iOS, Mac OSX, Windows)

3 Rakuten viewer aligns with latest drafts of CSS writing modes and CSS text modules
Rakuten working with W3C and Unicode consortium on these drafts

"We don't want to compete on EPUB capabilities, but rather on ease of use"

4 For "renaissance of reading culture on global scale" Rakuten works with Access to share some part of our outcomes through Readium Initiative.


Finally, this was my first trip to Japan. You can see my pictures here.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

First look at EPUB3-supporting Kobo Touch ereader in Japan

New Kobo Touch in Tokyo JapanZen again (and what a place for it!) A friend asked me to pick up a copy of the Manga version of Math Girls, so we went to Bunkyo-do, a large bookstore in Tokyo. (It was remarkably packed with shoppers, and had lovely displays.) And lo and behold, the folks from Kobo/Rakuten were there demoing the new Kobo Touch with Japanese language support (aka EPUB 3). Here's what it looks like:

New Kobo Touch in Tokyo JapanNew Kobo Touch in Tokyo Japan

I haven't seen the Kobo Touch in the US, but I assume it's pretty similar: nice touch screen, customary padded back, Twitter and FB sharing, ability to select, highlight, and annotate, and in this version, look up words in a Japanese dictionary (although only in the flowing examples, not the manga, which still has static text). Most important: excellent support for vertical Japanese text.

I have a lot of notes I want to share about the IDPF EPUB 3 conference on Wednesday, but one of the interesting points was how the need for Japanese (and other non-Roman) language support may push more ebook publishers and retailers to move to EPUB 3. Rakuten/Kobo, for example, announced that all of its Japanese ebooks will be in EPUB 3 format.

Oh yeah, and it comes in four colors. (And costs 7990 yen, about $99.)

New Kobo Touch in Tokyo Japan

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

EPUB 3 has finally arrived

EPUB 3 support is remarkably good in Readium, Kobo for iOS and iBooks, and EPUB 3 files can be opened by NOOK and Kobo Vox, and converted by Kindle Previewer and KDP.

I am writing today from Tokyo where the IDPF kindly invited me to speak about EPUB 3 at the 16th Ebook Expo. At first, I was a bit nervous to go (OK, I’m still a little nervous) because although others have been talking about EPUB 3 for a while, I had been avoiding digging in too deeply. To be frank, there were only a few ereaders that supported EPUB 3 until just recently, and I was reluctant to spend time on something that wasn’t yet working in the main ereaders.

But as I worked on this presentation, which began with IDPF’s Digital Book portion of BEA in New York in June, and then developed into the talk I’m giving today in Tokyo, I realized that EPUB 3 is much closer to reality than most of us have realized.

I started by trying to unravel why the toc.ncx file is allowed in EPUB 3 while the nav.xhtml file is required. Why would you go to the trouble of adding the rather persnickety toc.ncx file if you have to create the nav.xhtml file anyway? Or, put another way, why would you create a toc.ncx file if your ereader supports EPUB 3 and thus the nav.xhtml file? The answer, of course, is to serve old ereaders that don’t support EPUB 3. But can they read EPUB 3 at all? To find out, I created a sample EPUB 3 file and then opened it up in all of my old ereaders, that presumably only support EPUB 2. Imagine my surprise, when every single one opened the EPUB 3 file without a complaint.

(I even tried uploading an EPUB 3 file to Kindle Direct Publishing. Again, no problem at all, it converted the EPUB 3 file to mobi and kf8 and they displayed just fine.)

This is exceptionally good news, as it means we can move forward with EPUB 3 without worrying that older readers won’t be able to open our files.

Of course, old ereaders won’t be able to take advantage of all of the new features that EPUB 3 provides. Indeed, that’s exactly why you might include the old toc.ncx file: since old ereaders don’t know what to do with the nav.xhtml file, the toc.ncx file is still necessary for them to generate a navigational TOC. Newer EPUB 3 readers will just ignore it.

But there’s more. As I discussed in an article a month or so ago, the IDPF published a new specification for Fixed Layout format in May. Readium, the EPUB 3 browser developed by the IDPF of course supports the newly published spec, as does iBooks (albeit unofficially). And thanks to a tip from Laura Brady, I downloaded the new version of Kobo for iOS, and saw that Kobo for iOS, too, supports the new IDPF EPUB 3 spec.

Perhaps not surprisingly—given Kobo’s recent acquisition by the Japanese company Rakuten—but very gratifyingly nonetheless, Kobo also has strong support for EPUB 3 based Japanese writing systems, both in flowing and fixed layout books.

Vertical Japanese text on Kobo for iOS

But there’s still more. As I was developing an example for my talk today—a right-to-left, fixed layout, read aloud, Japanese language lesson*—I realized that EPUB 3's system for creating media-overlays (the mechanism for creating read aloud narration that syncs with text) is significantly different from Apple’s.

But when I tested my new book, using the official spec for EPUB 3 fixed layout and media overlays and Japanese writing, it worked brilliantly in Readium, Kobo, and iBooks, (with some minor caveats**) shown below in that order.


FXL with media overlay in Kobo

iPhoto FXL with Media Overlay

This is huge news. Readium’s support was obvious and necessary, Kobo’s was encouraging, but Apple’s support means that all of the iBooks-focused work can move towards EPUB 3, and the myriad of amazing possibilities that it affords, without having to worry about losing the iPad readers, where most of those features really shine.

I can only hope that Barnes & Noble, and of course Amazon, join the party soon.

I suspect neither is willing to give up the Japanese market, where EPUB 3 is the best answer for vertical writing systems. Support for fixed layout EPUB 3 and media-overlays is a natural extension.

Of course, as you know by now, I am an eternal standards optimist. Still, today’s news is brilliant and hopeful indeed. The IDPF is doing excellent work and the top ereader manufacturers are using it!

Last but not least, in the Tokyo metro today, I saw an ad for the new Kobo Touch, proudly displaying Vertical Japanese text (an EPUB 3 only feature), for 8990 Yen, or about $100. EPUB 3 really is here.

New Kobo Touch, advertised in Tokyo, Japan subway for 8990 Yen ($100)

You can download my manga example here. There are lots more EPUB 3 examples on the Readium site.

*Since I don’t speak or read Japanese, I got a lot of help from Wikipedia, Google Translate, Andreu Cabré (who also drew the illustrations for the manga example and is studying Japanese), and EPUB expert Toshiaki Koike, from Voyager Japan, who wrote out the Japanese words and then narrated the boy’s part. Yours truly plays the girl.

**Ah, the caveats. First, you still have to include the com file for Apple to recognize that a file is fixed layout. It seems kind of ridiculous to me, given that it already recognizes the official way for marking a fixed layout file (with the renditions prefix), but that’s where it stands so far. I was so impressed that iBooks understands the new Media-overlay code that I gave it a(nother) free ride on this account.

Next caveat: Although iBooks supports vertical writing and highlighted media overlays, it does not yet support right-to-left progression. You’ll notice that my manga example proceeds in the wrong direction (left to right) in iBooks. In flowing books, iBooks doesn’t know what to do with the second and subsequent pages of vertical text, and hides it altogether. That is a fatal flaw that I assume they’re working on.

Next caveat: Although Kobo has strong support for both vertical writing and right to left page progression, its support of media-overlays is rather spotty yet. At first I couldn't get the play button to appear at all, but after downloading Kobo again, the play button showed up, but now the read aloud crashes pretty regularly. I hear that Kobo doesn't like multiple audio files (which my EPUB has, and legally so), so that'll be my next try, but I didn't have time for this example.

Last but not least: Readium supports fixed layout, vertical text, rtl page progression, and media-overlays, including highlighting in flowing books, but I had to beg for a pre-release fork to see the highlighting in action in this fixed layout example. And it still doesn't quite highlight the words as I marked them, nor does it let me choose a highlight color. It should be updated soon.

Admittedly, we’re in the initial stages, but I really like the direction we’re headed, together, thanks to the IDPF and its members.

More of my books