Turning a New Leaf - eBook Publishing?

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Etext, eBook, eNews, ePaper

Tom Arah looks at the world of paperless publishing.

The appeal of the electronic eBook compared to the traditional chewed-up wood version is obvious. For the publisher there's the immediate and enormous cost-saving in terms of design, materials and delivery. For the reader there are the further benefits provided by electronic text such as searching, bookmarking and copying. What really clinches the case though is the idea of the universal library: with just one device you can access any book.

But what type of device? Plenty of dedicated eBook candidates have appeared over the years, such as the paperback-sized Franklin eBook Rocket, and research still continues on new technologies such as paper-like displays. Generally though it looks like the market has already made its choice. Rather than demanding its own dedicated device, eBook reading is now seen as a natural application for the burgeoning handheld market alongside PIM, mobile telephony and MP3 playback.

Suddenly the necessary infrastructure for the eBook revolution has fallen into place in terms of hardware, thanks to the handheld, and in terms of delivery thanks to the Internet. Now the big issue is what eBook format will take advantage. And with an industry potentially worth billions it's not surprising that there are plenty of contenders.

The first eBook format is also the simplest - the Etext. In fact Michael Hart, the Etext's inventor, deserves the credit for coming up with the vision of the universal library long before the handheld or Internet were even conceived of. Back in 1971 with a grant of $100,000 worth of operator time from the University of Illinois he set up Project Gutenberg to make available a library of 10,000 books. Visit www.promo.net/pg and you can download any classic work of literature from the Declaration of Independence through to Sense and Sensibility - and all for free.

There are a few problems though. To begin with the Etexts are provided in "Plain Vanilla" ASCII format. This makes them searchable, compatible and platform-independent, but also means no graphics, no symbols and no style formatting. Even worse is the fact that line lengths are fixed so that text doesn't reflow according to the current display. With a default monospaced Courier font, readability is pretty dreadful all round. In addition the free nature of the Etexts means that only works out of copyright can be issued so there's no chance of getting hold of the latest Stephen King or Joanna Trollope.

All told Etexts are a useful lowest common denominator but little more. Clearly for the Internet age a more modern solution is called for. It was to provide just this that the Open eBook Forum (OeB) was founded at www.openebook.org. The specification it devised was built on HTML concepts but framed within a more modern XML syntax. The result is the sort of text control that we are familiar with from Web pages built on resizable, reflowable body copy that can also include JPEG graphics and that, theoretically at least, should support CSS styling.

The first successful implementation of the OeB idea is provided by Mobipocket at www.mobipocket.com with its PRC file format. With Readers available for PalmOS, Windows CE/PocketPC, Psion, Epoc32 and the Franklin eBookman, Mobipocket claims to cater for 100% of the PDA market. Even better with a tight tie-in between the software and Web site it means that finding your eBook and transferring it to your handheld for reading is child's play.

Mobipocket offers a good tie-in between handheld eBook software and web site.

Crucially the Mobipocket reading experience is also far better than with the Project Gutenburg Etexts. In particular it's impossible to overestimate just what a difference basic typographical features such as the ability to enlarge headings or italicize text makes to readability along with the occasional graphic and the ability to choose a typeface and point size that you are comfortable with. In addition the Mobipocket reader software takes full advantage of reflowable text to enable two and three column layouts - a feature I particularly appreciate with my landscape-oriented HP Jornada 680.

The Mobipocket eBook system also addresses the issue of digital rights management (DRM). By encrypting a personal ID (PID) based on the PDA's serial number into the eBook when it is downloaded from the server, Mobipocket can ensure that the eBook can only be opened on the one device. The PID immediately opens up the possibility of secure payment which in turn opens up the whole world of copyrighted content. This means that on the Mobipocket site as well as free versions of the classics, you can buy top business books and recent novels.

Being able to offer content which is not over 50 years old is clearly crucial to any emerging eBook standard and it's an area which Mobipocket exploits with its eNews system. This works rather like Internet channels in that you can sign up to a selection of information providers from CNN to The Economist which produce free daily digests that are automatically downloaded and transferred to your handheld whenever you synchronize. This ability to top up your handheld with a constant supply of up-to-the minute business info from the Financial Times or IT gossip from The Register really shows electronic publishing at its best.

But there's a serious problem - the typography. The range of characters is limited with no symbol for instance and the default justification system is dreadful - adding all the necessary space to ensure flush line endings before the last word! Worst of all is the all-important typeface. Mobipocket offers three choices but, without enough pixels to play with and no anti-aliasing to smooth the inevitable jaggies, these are spidery and uncomfortable to read. That's bearable when browsing an eNews PRC for content, but unacceptable when reading an eBook PRC for pleasure.

The Mobipocket eBook is certainly never going to replace the paperback. What's needed is a far better all-round reading experience - and that's exactly what Microsoft promises with its Reader application. Again this is built on the OeB principles, this time in the LIT ("literature") file format. This is more or less identical to the PRC - the Mobipocket publishing software can produce LIT files just as easily - but has a different DRM system. This offers three levels of copy protection - "sealed" to prevent tampering, "inscribed" to display acquisition and so promote honest use and "owner-exclusive" which ties titles to a particular device - though this was mysteriously missing in the version 1 PPC software.

Clearly the backing of Microsoft is immediately a huge strength for the LIT format making it an instant standard - especially as the company is in the rather enviable position of bundling the Reader application on every Pocket PC sold as well as providing the program as a free download for all Windows users. And no doubt Microsoft's clout helps explain why companies such as Barnes and Noble and Amazon have jumped on the bandwagon to provide sources of free and commercial eBooks in LIT format.

What really separates Reader from Mobipocket though is the effort that Microsoft has put into making the reading experience more polished and more enjoyable. To achieve this Reader has taken a leaf out of the traditional paper-based book. To begin with the program offers a central Library from which all downloaded eBooks are available (as well as downloaded Audible audio books). More importantly its interface is heavily built on a page-based metaphor despite the fact that the resizable, reflowable nature of the copy means that the number of pages in any eBook is fluid. The impression that Microsoft is trying to give is that you're reading an everyday paperback novel.

Microsoft wants Reader to replace the paperback.

But of course it can only do that if it offers improved readability and - this is the real selling point of Reader - it does. Compared to the spidery Mobipocket text, Reader text is in a different league. The reason is simple - a technology called ClearType. This is a colour anti-aliasing scheme that takes advantage of the fact that each LCD pixel is actually built up of separate Red, Green and Blue elements. By working at this sub-pixel level, ClearType is effectively able to triple horizontal resolution. Blow up the image and you'll clearly see a coloured fringe to the text, but at normal size thanks to clever colour-density algorithms, the fringe effect is unnoticeable. Suddenly rather than being limited to resolutions in the range 72 to 96dpi, ClearType offers triple that and a quality approaching laser print. Crucially that's enough pixels and subpixels to produce the letterforms of real typefaces.

ClearType is a major advance and one that Microsoft is pushing hard, but Reader is by no means all good news. Typically Microsoft has taken the OeB's idea of universality and given it a Windows-based proprietary spin. While Reader is available under Windows itself and on all PPC devices there are no plans to produce a Palm version and the Apple version is still some way off. Disappointingly there are also no plans to produce a Windows CE version presumably because of Reader's strict portrait page-based interface. This means that even on a high-resolution landscape Windows monitor, Reader is limited to showing a single portrait page in the centre of the screen. In other words not only is Reader limited in terms of platform it is also limited in terms of display and so of device.

ClearType is also not quite the panacea that Microsoft claims. To begin with the technology currently only works with Microsoft's own TrueType fonts. A far greater and inherent restriction is the fact that the system only works with LCD displays as the triangular arrangement of rounded phosphors in CRT monitors just doesn't offer the necessary grid-based precision. ClearType's increase in resolution also only works horizontally so that features such as crossbars and serifs don't see any benefit. Finally any aliasing system works by blurring pixels to smooth edges which eventually tires the eye. ClearType is a useful workaround and complement but not a final solution.

Even so the ability to produce real letter forms certainly raises the typographic bar - but Reader then crashes into it. To begin with the justification system works by fitting the character bitmap to the low-resolution pixel grid and then anti-aliasing on the sub-pixel level which means that character spacing starts badly and is then made worse. This isn't helped by Microsoft's slapdash approach to typography generally. The hyphenation system in particular is so crude that you become very aware of it as you read. Throw in the fact that typographic control is limited to HTML level 1 management and the results are uneven at best.

Reader's typography is its biggest strength but ultimately also its biggest weakness. This is true at the text level but also much more obviously on the page-based scale. Here the program's biggest weakness is undoubtedly its inability to print. In a way though this is understandable. The real strength of print is that it opens up the whole area of page-based design with multi-column text-and-graphic layouts - something that Reader just isn't designed to provide.

Clearly what's needed is an eBook format that is capable of displaying and printing a visually rich page-based design - after all there are more reference books than novels. And of course this format has existed for over ten years in the form of Adobe's Acrobat PDF. With its PostScript-based nature PDF is in the unique position of being able to offer exactly the same typographic and page control electronically as it does on paper via print - the reason that Adobe describes PDF as "ePaper". Strangely though, Adobe entirely missed the natural tie-in between ePaper and eBooks as it concentrated on making PDF an office and studio-based exchange medium.

Now at last the company has spotted the potential of eBooks and is making up for lost time. To begin with Adobe bought up the third-party Glassbook PDF reader which it now offers as Acrobat eBook Reader 2.1. This offers a number of dedicated eBook features such as a two-page layout, a built-in interactive dictionary and a version of Microsoft's ClearType colour anti-aliasing system called CoolType.

More importantly the same eBook features are being incorporated into the core Acrobat 5 technology. To begin with Acrobat 5's copy protection has been greatly extended, and now includes full 128-bit security. Tying in with this, the existing Web Buy add-on has now been rolled into the main Reader program offering easily managed payment-for-download when connected to Adobe's Content Server application. Finally the overall Acrobat reading experience has been improved with the ability to manage the contrast of text and background and the bundling of CoolType.

But there's something missing. What PDF really needs if it is to become a viable eBook format is support for handheld devices - after all very few users are going to pay to read a novel or even a computer manual sitting at a desktop screen. The holy grail then is a successful handheld PDF reader. And that's exactly what Ansyr provides with its Primer 2.1 software (trial version available on CD or from www.ansyr.com).

Trying to squeeze the functionality of the full-blown Acrobat software onto a memory and processor-restricted CE device is asking a lot but it's amazing what Primer achieves. Particularly impressive are the customizable zoom levels and the optional onscreen table of contents (which shows the benefit of supporting non-portrait form factors). Most importantly Primer really does let you open any PDF created from any platform and any application - so there's plenty of truly useful content out there to read.

Anysr Primer shows that PDFs can be viewed on a handheld.

Of course the system isn't perfect. To begin with not all fonts are supported so font substitution is inevitable. The process is also inevitably a lot slower than text-only systems even in draft mode. The end results aren't quick or beautiful but Primer certainly does enable the display of visually-rich textual and graphical information. All told, Primer works as an impressive proof of principle - and one which Adobe itself looks set to follow with its recent announcement of a beta version of a Reader for Palm users.

It's clear that viewing PDFs on a handheld is ready to move into the mainstream. But the fact that you can read a PDF doesn't mean that you'll want to. To begin with displaying the whole Postscript-based page layout obviously leads to a huge performance hit. More memory and faster processors will eventually cure that - but they won't cure the format's central problem. Looking at a multi-column PDF layout on a handheld screen is equivalent to viewing a magazine page through a small window - possible but hardly sensible.

It looks like we've hit an impasse - while the OeB-based formats can't offer visually rich page layouts, PDF can't offer simple text-based reading. But actually there's no reason that the two can't be combined. The OeB makes this clear on its Web site where it explains how rich media formats like QuickTime and PDF can be embedded in the eBook for advanced Reader software so long as a "fallback" format such as JPEG is provided to enable all readers to see something. In effect the XML can be used as a wrapper for the PDF to provide the best of both worlds.

Alternatively there's no reason that PDF can't be used as the wrapper for the XML and this is exactly what Acrobat 5's ability to "tag" content with metadata provides. Bizarrely Adobe played down this new "tagged" PDF 1.4 format at the launch of Acrobat with no references to it in the accompanying press releases, but it's going to prove increasingly important. Effectively it means that both printer-friendly and reader-friendly layouts can be included in the same document. All you have to do is hit the new Reflow button and the visually rich page-based layout switches in front of your eyes to become a reflowable, resizable text-based design!

Acrobat 5 PDFs can offer both fixed page and reflowable screen layouts.

When Adobe's handheld Reader software is launched, along with new versions of the main design applications able to control the fluid XML-based screen layout as exactly as they currently control the fixed PostScript-based page layout then the ideal eBook format will have arrived. The new repurposable Acrobat PDF format will be visually rich when viewed on the desktop or over the Web but clean and simple to read when viewed on your handheld. And don't forget that it will still be typographically exact when printed either in-house or commercially.

Ultimately of course it's this tight tie-in to the printed page that is PDF's real killer strength. With the vast majority of print publishing moving down the PostScript/PDF route, there will be no reason not to produce an eBook version at the same time. While I still can't see the eBook replacing the printed page apart from at the margins, providing a PDF version costs virtually nothing and is an excellent way to attract new readers and to add value to the paper version.

This is the real future of the eBook - less of a competitor to traditional paper-based publishing than a natural partner.

Tom Arah

June 2001

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