Is 19 eBook Formats 18 Too Many?

April 2, 2011

Which ebook formats do we really need?

By “need” I’m thinking only about consumer needs, not what the vendors want. *

Formats offered by UK Distributor

I think the only ones we need today are:

1. ePub – Not because it’s any good, but because it’s an industry standard, not just one vendor’s idea.
2. PDF – Because there’s already so much good material in this format, and it preserves “bookishness.”
3. txt – I wish this would go away as an ebook standard, but the folks at Project Gutenberg are my heroes, and can be cut a lot of slack. RTF is preferable as a container for .txt.4.
4. HTML – Because simple native browser support for reading makes the most sense, long term (via XHTML and CSS3).

And the rest be damned (except for a couple of legacy formats, like Newton and PalmDOC, which vendors can support if they’re feeling generous and have time on their hands). Each of these formats could be handled in the browser today except for the darned DRM.

So that’s the theory. The real world has commercial realities that all publishers need to contend with.

I stumbled upon an excellent site from South Africa this morning  – Electronic Books Works and its thorough Knowledge Base. You can also download a good little ebook about ebook design and formatting.

The author recommends four formats for real-world everyday use:

1. PDF
2. epub (with a nod to DTBook)
3. AZW (and its sibling, mobi), and

Makes sense to me.

Footnote * The vendors sometimes want what consumers need, but seem currently to want vendor lock-in, DRM, and other things that benefit primarily them, not us. This should shake out in time…





Wikipedia's format listing

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Think Good Thoughts About Adobe Acrobat

February 11, 2011

(The title of this post is inspired by one of my favorite books of cartoons by one of my favorite New Yorker cartoonists, George Booth: Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat.)

I’ve been using Adobe’s Acrobat technology forever, and I’m a huge fan of the underlying technology. The user-facing software, however, stinks.

It’s the same problem that you find in Microsoft Word, or in web portals: when you try to be all things to all people you end up being valuable to none.

This is now a big intractable problem for the folks at Adobe and at Microsoft and at Yahoo. The future of software is dedicated apps, just as the future of publishing is targeted, contextualized content. The days of all-purpose software are evolving to a close.

Right now I’m trying to scan a nasty IRS income tax notice into Acrobat X (pronounced “Ten”). The #1 reported feature of Acrobat X is its new, simplified user interface. I always have trouble when engineers decide to simplify interfaces. One person’s simplification in another person’s leap into the obscure.

I’m trying to use Acrobat “Actions” to scan. Actions simplify the interface by combining several steps into a single action. Good idea! But there’s no preprogrammed action for scanning. There are actions for several things I’ll never do, so I decide to create a scanning action. Of course the Action interface is relatively complex. AND I can’t find even the menu item for scanning as it’s now buried deeply under the simplified UI.

Oh well. There are simple and free third-party tools to achieve the same goal. Adobe is a great company with great technology and some powerful but tough-to-learn software. Which third parties greatly appreciate.

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eBook Formats

December 19, 2009

Gosh I do write an awful lot about eBooks, but it is the flavor-of-the-year, not just for book publishers of course, but for readers (and publishers) everywhere. Always controversial, it never fails to “make good copy,” as they used to say in the newspaper business.

O’Reilly, the company; Tim O’Reilly, the founder; Andrew Savikas, a leading spokesperson and technologist; along with a host of other very bright staff, keep that firm at the forefront of all things important in digital publishing. They need to make money, and I should imagine they make a great deal, but they’re also extremely generous in sharing their knowledge through blogs, conferences, interviews and the like.

I think that a (free) subscription to O’Reilly’s “Tools of Change for Publishing” blog is an absolute must, regardless of where you make your home in the publishing food chain. It’s always full of provocative data and observations that all can likely extrapolate great value.

Like many veteran analysts of electronic publishing, I’m a great advocate for standards. They rarely cause harm, and generally are a force for the good of all users (if not for some selfish vendors who fight them).

Speaking of selfish vendors, Amazon has continually tried to push a proprietary eBook standard onto the publishing industry, attempting a range of strong-arm methods to enforce the standard if publishers wanted to get prized Amazon eBook distribution. I always knew that this would pass, and the evidence from O’Reilly (and others) is that the industry is finally fighting back and supporting the broad eBook standard, EPUB. Sony supports it, Barnes and Noble supports it, Adobe supports it: Amazon, your brief time in the sunlight is drawing to a close. You now support PDF (ouch). When will you become a good corporate eBook citizen and embrace EPUB? Very soon I predict.

A recent blog entry on O’Reilly illustrates what’s happening there, and I believe that what’s happening at O’Reilly will soon be what’s happening across the industry.

This first chart, based on “relative volume,” is a trifle confusing as Mobi somehow disappears:


This second chart, based on “relative volume, rather than percentage,” is more clear, although it does raise a question as to why all formats are declining. I could not find the explanation.



 So…there you have…something.

I’m sticking with my prediction. Amazon will have no choice but to capitulate and support EPUB, and thereby stop trying to pretend that it is Heaven’s designated vendor for all things eBook.

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Adobe Co-Founders to Receive National Medal of Technology and Innovation

September 26, 2009

I missed this story a week ago in the San Jose Mercury-News. According to its web site: “President Barack Obama…picked Adobe Systems co-founders Charles Geschke and John Warnock to receive…the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.”


According to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, “The National Medal of Technology and Innovation… is the highest honor for technological achievement bestowed by the President of the United States on America’s leading innovators.” Past winners include folks of the caliber of Carter Mead and Bob Metcalfe.  The awards will be bestowed on October 7 at a White House ceremony.

When you think about the history and development of digital publishing, no one can argue that John Warnock and Chuck Geschke are not the two most important players in transforming publishing into the extraordinary multiple media world we find it in today. Yes, Steve Jobs had the vision and the courage to create the hardware that would make Adobe’s innovations accessible, but PostScript was the basic ingredient that changed the whole palying field, as it formed the basis for digital type, Adobe Illustrator and later on, PDF. PostScript was invented by John Warnock and Chuck Geschke.

We credit the invention of the World Wide Web  to (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee, and correctly so. But I argue that without Adobe and Apple leading the world’s designers and publishers to move from analog processes and proprietary systems to fully embrace the digitization of text and images, the web would have been a non-starter.

My strongest congratulations to John and Chuck: the award is if anything overdue! You’ve both been heroes of mine for many years.


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The Adobe-FedEx/Kinko’s Non-Event Concludes Uneventfully

August 1, 2007

The news reports are trickling in tonight regarding today’s prepared statement from Adobe, served with a heaping helping of humble pie, announcing that it will remove the “Send to FedEx Kinko” button and menu option from the 8.1.1 update of Acrobat Reader, planned for an October 2007 release.

The printing industry is tonight dancing on its presses, tossing its righteous indignation into the recycle bin, and praising Adobe for its responsible response.

Joe Truncale, who runs the respected printing trade group the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL) is quoted as saying “We’re pleased that Adobe was responsive”. Clearly this was a mistake, and Adobe admitted that. I haven’t seen Adobe’s statement, but more likely the phrase should be “and Adobe implicitly admitted that…”

Michael Makin, who runs the larger printing trade organization PIA/GATF noted in a press release that “We recognize that the company must have had to move mountains to retreat on its position, and we commend Adobe for its swift action;” they have clearly restored confidence in our long-lasting partnership.”

For a provocative and amusing counterpoint to how printing companies were handling this “outrage,” check out my friend and colleague Gene Gable’s column on

The summer storm has passed. The only recorded injuries were to pride (and, I imagine, corporate relations between Adobe and FedEx).

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