Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Is there such a thing as Standard?

Standards have always been open to variation. Going right back to our days with ecommerce EDI, tradacoms and later the EDIFACT standards often differed between trading partners. The basic schema and semantics were the same but the actual interpretation and use of individual fields could vary. We all adapted and built or used front end conversion services that could normalise the data.

When we moved into the digital content world, we all understood format wars were a necessary evil and often wished them away. They often fed consumer apathy and indecisiveness. After all we have all bought technology that soon became obsolete. We remember the old 8 track, the Sony Walkman, we lived through betamax versus VHS wars and much more. Often one standard or format dominated but the logic as to which was going to win was not always done to the best technology or the best format but down to factors often outside of these.

We now have print on demand services which are now becoming pivotal to certain publishing programmes such as vanity publishing, short cycle print runs and academic. So is one print on demand file the same as another? Can you take a file created for one service and automatically use it on another? Unfortunately not, but the differences although often minimal are still a change. Files created for one service are not truly generic.

Today we have digital books that can be formatted in several different ways; Microsoft Reader, Mobibook, Adobe ebook, etc. We have added digital rights management encryption that can be applied to protect the content and have a myriad of devices that can render the files. So what happens with open formats such as OEB and epub? Well the reality is that they are often both open and proprietary. There are exceptions and the most well know of these is MP3. Not the best format technically but one that is able to be played on almost any device and through a vast number of software players. The fact that makes this possible is lack of DRM on MP3.

OEB (Open Ebook) has long been used by many as an open digital standard. Are all OEB files the same? No, and many aggregators have their own interpretation. Its derivative epub is now being heralded by many as the new dawn and a truly open standard, but today there is only one DRM service that can encrypt it and only one player that can render the encrypted download. Will others follow – almost certainly? Will they be the same in their encryption and rendering requirements - almost certainly not.

iTunes built an empire on the service, the player and a proprietary format. Audible has built an empire on a proprietary format and DRM operability on many players. Both are now seen to have helped open up the market but also restricted it.

Today we have Mobi and Amazon and epub and Sony. Sony appear to have dropped their previous proprietary format and see epub as a more acceptable industry way forward. Adobe’s PDF based ebook reader is still a major force and will be dominant in the market but as we shift towards the mobile device market then the ability to reflow text and chunk files would indicate that the tagging formats of Mobi and epub will come to the front. However, DRM remains the key to the downloadable file world and the mobile platform the real battleground.