Readium push from e-book trade group takes on Amazon—and Apple’s bastardized ePub

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Update: LibraryCity’s first look at Readium.

ReadiumThe name makes me think of uranium and radiation, the proprietary DRM issue remains, and Apple isn’t a supporter. But the Readium initiative, announced this morning, is indeed a “big step forward” for the International Digital Publishing Forum, the main e-book industry trade group.

An open-source demo e-reading app mixes the ePub 3 e-book format, XML, HTML5 standards and the WebKit rendering engine used in many Web browsers.

Aided by this “reference implementation, developers will more easily be able to create ePub reading software with “support for video, audio, interactivity, vertical writing and other global language capabilities, improved accessibility, MathML, and styling and layout enhancements” (link added).

Versions already exist as extensions for Chromium browsers in Windows and Mac OS/X—the file is here, and apps will be coming for various OSes including Andorid. I’ll see if I can’t get screenshots up today or later this week. The IDPF was scheduled to show off its new baby at 5 p.m. today for the Tools of Change publishing conference.

Meanwhile I’m rooting for free and easy tools to be available to create files, just like Apple’s iBooks Author. EPub-based standards and software, not the proprietary kind from Apple—which will force you to rely on Apple devices for reading and for file creaction—are what schools and libraries should insist on. We don’t need Apple’s iBooks-related bastardization of ePub to foster vendor lock-ins. The IDPF announcement did not position the Readium initiative as a way to fight Apple (a member of the trade organization, in fact) and Amazon (nonmember) by popularizing the sophisticated typographical capabilities and other wrinkles of pure ePub3. But in effect that’s what Readium will do.

Luckily some heavy-hitters are behind the the ePub-related Readium initiative—from Barnes & Noble to Google, Sony, Adobe, Samsung, and the American Association of Publishers.

As I see in the best DRM system is none, but Bill McCoy, the IDPF’s executive director, tells me a common one might eventually be developed for ePub. For now, clashing proprietary DRM systems encasing ePub files can get in the way of compatibility when publishers and distributors use “protection.”

Via e-mail I exchanged comments and questions with Bill, and here’s a transcript:

Rothman: Why is Apple not among the announced supporters of Readium, and are you hoping it will be someday? Could Apple’s bastardization of ePub have something to do with it? Are you trying to bring Apple into the Readium fold, and if so, is there any chance you’ll succeed? Why? I do notice that Apple is still in the IDPF (though Amazon is not).

McCoy: Apple has been a significant contributor to EPUB 3 as well as to the WebKit open source project so I certainly would welcome Apple becoming a contributor to the Readium Project.”

Background: Here is my take on Apple & iBooks Author, unchanged basically, but clearly they already have a capable WebKit-based EPUB reading system in iBooks and weren’t interested in open sourcing it at this time.

If the community shows that everything iBooks can do (and more) can be done with the open format and interoperable tools then I think there’s no reason for their proprietary path to continue. [Bill says CSS page templates are “going to help a lot – esp. with the #1 tool about to support” them.]

Rothman: Would the IDPF or Readium be likely to cooperate if an open source initiative were started to come up with free creation tools with an interface as easy as that of Apple? Or could Readium itself undertake such an initiative? As we know, Apple has tied its creation tool to Mac hardware and so far is making the format readable only on iPads. Bad, bad, bad for K-12 and libraries, in terms of hardware costs if nothing else. Lock-ins reduce customer bargaining power.

McCoy: Several of the initial organizational supporters of Readium are strongly interested in the authoring tool side. It’s agreed that capable rendering support is a prereq, but this is a potential area of work for the project, whose goals wil be set by the contributors, not by an IDPF committee structure. That said there’s some feeling that authoring tools will be advantaged via commercial solutions that can apply greater resources than an open source tool… however a common runtime may be an enabler for both.

Rothman: How close to dedicated e-reading software will Web browsers be in usability and aesthetics, even without plug-ins? And if that’s the Web browsers do well as e-book readers, why would vendors of e-reading apps want to stick with the initiative?

McCoy: There’s as many different opinions on the future dedicated e-Reading SW vs. browser-based solutions as there are people. My personal opinion is that EPUB is fast becoming the portable document format for the Open Web. Its future isn’t just for a narrow niche of e-Books but for all kinds of documents that can adapt to different devices and be accessible. As such given that PDF support is increasingly built-in to browsers (e.g. Chrome ships with PDF support) it’s logical to imagine built-in EPUB support in browsers in the not so distant future. This would mean the browser itself can paginate, etc. And with built-in support aesthetics would be unlimited. This path will enable a wide variety of online and offline content experiences. But, again, this is my personal opinion, not speaking for IDPF or any Readium supporter.

Rothman: What will this mean for traditional DRM for libraries if HTML5 catches on? Isn’t it possible for there to be time-limited offline caching at the users’ end–to allow reading to books to the end of an expiration period? Could this be a viable alternative to a proprietary approach for people with access to the cloud? I do see that the Readium FAQ specifically mentions there could be proprietary DRM schemes, and does not offer a common standard. Couldn’t this lead to replication of the current Tower of eBabel in the library world and elsewhere? I myself would love to see no DRM for owned books and social DRM if need be as a compromise–and nonproprietary timed-offline caching for library books (perhaps even mixed with some kind of social DRM).

McCoy: IDPF is actively investigating the potential of standardizing some type of DRM (such as a social DRM) with EPUB. But this is as yet only an early-stage investigation.

Rothman: Is it possible that the IPDFor Readium could be in touch with the Harvard-based Digital Public Library America about a hosting initiative that could include both library and commercial content–with stable interbook links on a common server with reliable backups? As we know, no matter how formal the content, the Web is far from a permanent medium. Library-guaranteed stable linking could be manna even for commercial networked books and make “ownership” (quotes deliberate) more attractive than otherwise. Balkanized storage isn’t good for the publishing industry. The library approach could actually open up more commercial opportunities for publishers.

McCoy: Yes.

Rothman: Why the name “Readium”? Makes me think of “radiation” and “uranium.” Sure you don’t want to change it? Who came up with it? Don’t take it personally if you did. Either way, I’m happy the IDPF and friends are trying to get their efforts some mindshare.

McCoy: My bad—I’ve had name winners & losers, I categorize EPUB and OpenType among the former, OPDS among the latter. It’s intended as somewhat of an homage to Chromium, the open source configuration of Google Chrome which is also built on top of WebKit. But that’s a pretty subtle/geeky reference.

Related: Clueful post about Readium by The Digital Reader’s Nate Hoffelder, who, although correctly concerned about the DRM issue, notes: “…in the long run Readium is going to make things a lot easier for ebook developers. There won’t be a need to test an ebook on a half dozen devices just to make sure there are no quirks in the design. Readium should also improve the reading experience of the bottom-of-the-rung ereaders; hardware developers will be able to use Readium rather than whatever cheap crap they’re using now (you haven’t see the crap I have). Readium also could potentially spur innovation. Assuming it’s built right, software devs should be able to add experimental features without having to code the entire reading app.”

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