e-Reader innovation hasn't stalled, the public is prevented from enjoying the advances which have occurred

; Date: October 12, 2017

Tags: E-Books »»»» E-Readers »»»» EPUB

The e-Reader market could be exploding if only certain advances would be allowed to reach the population. The primary format for electronic books, EPUB, underwent a major advancement a couple years when EPUB v3 was developed. Prior to EPUB v3, the technical implementation of electronic books was hampered by limitations in electronic book formats. EPUB v3 electronic books can now be implemented with almost the full HTML5 and CSS and JavaScript goodness we enjoy on the Web. Electronic books today could be interactive marvels with embedded video or audio, and JavaScript driven interactive presentation of data and information. But, the market is being held back by the marketing decisions of a few large players.

The EPUB v3 standard was finalized in 2011, with an update to EPUB v3.0.1 occurring in 2014. (idpf.org) http://idpf.org/epub/30 The standard had been sheparded by the International Digital Publishing Forum, until early in 2017. On Jan. 30, 2017, the IDPF transitioned responsibility over the EPUB standard to the WWW Consortium, and the new home page is https://www.w3.org/publishing/

The press release (www.w3.org) announcing the transition discusses an obvious point -- that there is a bright potential future for electronic books and digital publishing. Bringing EPUB development into the WWW Consortium has the potential to create synergy and other buzzwords related to good things and good results. That is, the Publishing Industry can hob-nob with the Web Industry and together they'll come up with something glorious.

As it is, the potential already exists for something glorious. The (www.idpf.org) EPUB3 Overview gives a summary of the features, namely:

  • Content documents can now use a large portion of HTML5 features, and must be formatted in XML (making it an XHTML format)
  • Content can be styled using a large portion of CSS2.1 and a few CSS3 features
  • An electronic book can contain video and audio elements
  • It supports both OpenType and WOFF font formats
  • SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) content can be displayed
  • JavaScript can be used, for example to implement animation of SVG content

Taken together those features add up to a large portion of what we enjoy on websites today. The web has advanced a few steps beyond that, since CSS3 is now commonplace, and JavaScript usage has advanced considerably since 2010.

What's holding all this back is primarily the Kindle Marketplace, and a couple other electronic book marketplaces. Apple's iBooks marketplace embraced the EPUB3 vision a couple years ago, and it's possible to use the iBooks authoring tool to implement most or all of the HTML5+CSS+JavaScript goodness I just outlined. But that marketplace has a smidgeon of the marketshare that the Kindle marketplace has.

The Kindle marketplace is, making it the primary destination for any electronic book publishing effort. All the other electronic book marketplaces are on a second (or worse) rung of consideration.

As cool as the Kindle e-Reader devices are, the capabilities they support are extremely limited. You can read text, maybe look at a couple pictures, make bookmarks, etc. There's no animations, no video, no interactivity, no styling. And because of Kindle's 8 million pound gorilla position in the electronic book marketplace, publishers have no incentive to embrace EPUB3.

What got me on this topic today is a pair of things. First, I've written a suite of software tools for publishing EPUB3 electronic books. See the icon in the sidebar labeled "Create eBooks with Markdown and Open Source Tools"? That book describes those tools, and demonstrates that I know what I'm speaking of. See (akashacms.com) https://akashacms.com/epubtools/toc.html for more details.

Second was a (techcrunch.com) TechCrunch article bemoaning the lack of innovation in the electronic book reader marketplace. The author of that article seems to be hoping for hardware innovation like a color eInk display (fat chance of that). He gives no hint that the advances in EPUB3 capabilities are important.

Indeed, as advanced and wonderful as EPUB3 is, it cannot make any difference in the marketplace until significant E-Readers adopt EPUB3, and until publishers start using EPUB3 to publish books.

The 8 million pound gorilla of E-Readers is Amazon's Kindle hardware. The latest of that breed, the Kindle Oasis reader, supports the Kindle-proprietary e-Book format, plus TXT, PDF, MOBI and PRC formats, but not EPUB. If the Kindle supported EPUB it would undercut sales of books through the Kindle marketplace. Amazon doesn't want to kill that particular milk cow.

Getting back to the W3C Publishing committee, an alternate future path for EPUB exists. The area of online-publishing is fairly new. The concept is to publish on a website what is for all intents and purposes an electronic book. Some organizations have already implemented this idea, for example so that open source projects can publish online documentation. I have implemented a version of this idea, and used it to publish a couple e-books online such as the online copy of my book on (greentransportation.info) electric vehicle charging best practices

The EPUB industry could make a flanking maneuver around the Kindle marketplace. If Amazon may well continue to eschew EPUB in favor of its proprietary format. Online publishing of EPUB content could give provide significant value beyond the Kindle format, and publishers could be enticed into adopting EPUB3 for online publishing.

About the Author(s)

David Herron : David Herron is a writer and software engineer focusing on the wise use of technology. He is especially interested in clean energy technologies like solar power, wind power, and electric cars. David worked for nearly 30 years in Silicon Valley on software ranging from electronic mail systems, to video streaming, to the Java programming language, and has published several books on Node.js programming and electric vehicles.