Saturday, May 10, 2008

'Open' or 'Closed' Depends on Where You Stand

Today we read the trade press and of much noise about open formats. Some would argue that defining ‘open’ is often hard and they would question whether a format by itself can ever be open without an open Digital Rights management and an open reader platform. Of course we would all love just one way of doing business, one way to hold a file, one universal file we can play anywhere and that no matter what device the file is loaded onto it will be able to read it and render it for all to see.

Then we hit the reality check.

Manufactures develop their own way of doing things for obvious reason. Industry bodies may adopt and or adapt these or start again with their own standards. However, the nature of all standards are that they are a framework, a common way of describing things and actions, and that there will always be options that are always exercised.

There are three elements to consider when we talk about ebook downloads; the format, the DRM and the reader.

Today we have a number of downloadable formats; Adobe ebook, Microsoft Reader, Mobibook the emerging ePub and others. Software developer Adobe has thrown its weight behind the IDPF and the epub format with its ADEPT service. What differentiates these from say a PDF, HTML or a word document is that they are constructed to work as a book or large document and have an associated digital rights management that can encrypt and enable the files to be securely transferred between platforms. However some may argue that these formats are more restrictive than XML and similar formats such as HTML, Plucker, PDF and others.

This new epub format came from the IDPF industry body and the same stable that gave us the OEB format. The epub format differs in that although it is an ‘open’ format today it does not have an ‘open’ DRM. If the DRM was open then anyone could effectively bypass it and effectively defeat the whole objective but when DRM is through one route then surely it is no longer 'open'. epub may well be adopted by a number of major players who in turn will develop their own DRM wrap. Does that mean the format is not ‘open’ – no. It merely means that the native file is open but the route to market is not.

Next we have the readers; Kindle, Sony, iRex and many more. We have seen the rise and fall of many readers over a relatively short period and will probably see more of the same in the future as the market starts to develop. Each has its associated format capabilities; Kindle and iRex the Mobibook and Sony BBEB or now epub with Adobe being rendered on a wide range of devices. The issue is that a mobi file will not be playable on a Sony device and potentially a epub file bought for a Sony device will not be playable on a Kindle, or currently on a iRex or a Palm or any other device today. When we get down to ebooks on mobiles the debate currently gets much murkier. Here the capability to free the pages and reflow them is seen as essentail and fixed page formats will not succeed.

The real problem is that consumers are confronted by conflicting formats and what could be best described as a DRM land grab from publishing and technology companies. Dr Greg Newby, CEO of Project Gutenberg is reprted in an article in PC Pro last year stating, "Fundamentally, eBooks are files, and having the file locked to a particular device or software that only runs on a particular device, or some other sort of protection or encoding, is unfriendly to readers."

We can’t comment on some of the conclusions drawn by some commentators but we can understand the term ‘land grab’ but believe that the PC Pro article, even though its out of date now, is worth a read and speaks frankly and openly about some of the relationships that are dictating today's landscape.