The solution to ebooks: obvious and open

by Andy Oram

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How do industries typically resolve a situation where multiple vendors are dealing with multiple suppliers? How does the industry facilitate new entrants and provide satisfactory flexibility? By telling everybody to settle on proven standards, if possible. And it is indeed possible in the ebook industry, where an enormous range of publishers want to provide online documents that operate on any device chosen by the user.

Right now, the ebook industry is notoriously mired in a swamp of unappealing and incompatible solutions. A continuation of this trend will at best mean that publishers and users alike are trapped in questionable technologies that unnecessarily restrict them through a mixture of technological incompetence and paranoid content protection. At worst (actually, this result might be better) ebookos may not get off the ground at all.

Jon Noring, a central figure in ebook technology, has written a readable and persuasive article on the solution: an open standard based on nonproprietary technologies that are currently in use and have developer bases already in place. The

Open eBook Publication Structure (OEBPS)

is simple and so comprehensive it could legitimately be called a multimedia specification (although it probably is adequate only for small bits of audio and video in books rather than full movies). It does not arrogantly create entirely new standards (as proprietary vendors do). According to the

"The goal of OEBPS is to provide this comprehensive support not by developing yet another standard, but by specifying subsets of well-established standards, most importantly: XML, XHTML, CSS, MIME, Dublin Core, MARC, and Unicode."

Also worth reading is David Rothman's blog

"Proprietary approach is LESS secure"

that shows we need to fight some of the same old fights over again to educate publishers about the value of an open approach.

Opposition by vendors to an open approach can be expected on the basis that it will force their premium-cost devices to compete with cut-rate solutions, including displays on general-purpose commodity computer systems. But vendors and publishers may well fight the open solution for another reason: standards and specifications require them to put down what they're doing in clear writing. And they have good reason to be embarrassed about advertising some of the Digital Rights Management policies they're adopting.

As pointed out by several articles in the April 2003 Communications of the ACM (vol. 46, no. 4), Digital Rights Management schemes are currently and perhaps inevitably in conflict with the rights of users, reflected in U.S. law by such terms as "fair use" and "right of first sale." If publishers and ebook vendors have to enter into a public debate over what they want from DRM, opposition would have a clear target. That fear by in itself be enough to prevent the publishers and vendors from pursuing the one solution that can make this beneficial technology an everyday reality.