Greg Newby, CEO of Project Gutenberg, says he’s open to creation of .epub files on the fly, via the main Gutenberg site. And he is also willing to consider links to sites that store IDPF-standard files in ready-to-go form.
At the same time, however, Greg writes on a Gutenberg list that he needs convincing evidence that .epub will indeed be an open, honest standard without gotchas coming in from Adobe or any other company. He’ll also need the right software tools—free and open source.
“On the fly” explained
But first, what does “on the fly” mean? It means that Gutenberg would treat .epub as it now does Plucker.
You’d type in a number to identify the e-book file, then wait while the conversion gears ground away and generated .epub from another format such as HTML or .txt. This isn’t an optimal solution, but it’s a good start, especially if Gutenberg also uses direct links to sites with ready-to-go .epub.
Catnip for consumers, if IDPF doesn’t play games
The benefit for Gutenberg visitors would be for future Sony Readers—expected to come with Digital Editions, Adobe’s software that can read .epub, not just PDF—to be able to read .the IDPF format without conversion hassles at the human readers’ end. The same could happen with Bookeen‘s forthcoming Cybook Gen3; in fact, an entire generation of E Ink machines with .epub-reading capabilities, whether or not they originated from Adobe software, which apparently won’t happen in the case of the Cybook.
Adobe funds the IDPF, whose executive director, Nick Bogaty, is about to start a job there. While the public domain community will benefit from .epub and mustn’t walk away from the possibilities by ostracizing the IDPF just because Adobe’s involved, we also need verifiable assurances that no one will compromise the integrity of the standard. Integrity is the key to many different brands of commercial software and hardware—not to mention open source freeware and shareware programs—working with .epub from Gutenberg and other sites.
How public domain sites could help the standard
If the public domain community embraces .epub, even less than fully, such as through the on-the-fly approach, it would be a significant victory for the standard. Many more more people probably read public domain books than those in the DRM-infested proprietary formats from large publishers.
The cranes and wrecking balls would finally be at work tearing down the Tower of eBabel, or at least we’d be closer to this long-awaited event than we are now. That would help everyone, from Project Gutenberg and self-publishers to Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. We need to make e-books as easy to use as CDs; nontechie consumers are sick, sick, sick of eBabel.
Greg’s wise conditions
While showing flexibility, Greg also insists on conditions, wise ones as I see it. For example, he doesn’t want DRM inflicted on Gutenberg and he demands free, open source software that can assure that an .epub file is really an .epub files, as opposed, say, to something with PDFish elements hidden inside.
Amen to that! I want there to be provisions for checking the files spewed out by .epub related tools, as well as a systematic way of guaranteeing that e-reading software is truly compatible. Otherwise such programs—both the creation and reading varieties–shouldn’t qualify for an .epub logo. Furthermore, the tools should be able to be vetted by third parties, independent of Adobe and even the IDPF, to make certain no one has compromised them.
Other open source .epub tools needed
The goal as I see it should be to allow the existence not just of commercial software for creation and reading but also the free, open source variety—a much-needed alternative to the present mess where individual corporate interests come ahead of those of e-bookdom and society at large.
In Gutenberg’s case, there’ll need to be linux software to create .epub from another format, once someone punches in the number. Might Adobe, per chance, be willing to pay the costs or otherwise facilitate this? It’s a member of the Open Content Alliance., and Adobe’s Bill McCoy has portrayed himself a friend of the public domain. Helping Gutenberg, without strings attached, would be a great act of goodwill. Or what if a foundation such as MacArthur or George Soros’s Open Society Institute–without any commercial interests—provided the funding? Or how about Brewster Kahle, the philanthropist behind the Internat Archive and related projects, including OCA, which could benefit mightily from a standard, reflowable format fit for cellphones and PDAs, not just desktops? Could he finance open source software useful to OC and Gutenberg alike?
Or, as a funder for conversion software, not just for Gutenberg in particular, how about the American Library Association or another large library or university group as a funder? Or maybe even a grant from one of these groups to the Digital Library Federation, as an overseer?
Volunteer programmers might also be the solution for Gutenberg and similar groups. Anyone from the MobileRead programming community care to participate?
But what about format validation and related precautions—a prerequisite for Greg to be interested? The IDPF apparently has no such animals right now. I’d welcome a roadmap with an ETA and assurances that the tools will be free and open source. Given Adobe’s participation in the Open Content Alliance, would the company be willing to spin off the job to a project overseen by someone like Brewster, who is far more trusted in the open source and public domain communities than Adobe is?
The rewards of openness: Avoidance of proprietary hell
David Moynihan’s struggle with the use of Mobipocket at Munsey.com shows the difficulties of working with the alternatives to openness, proprietary systems. I want an open approach and ready-made solutions for small guys like David. WordPress hasn’t done too bad a job getting the masses online with blogging. We need an open source WordPress equivalent for book publishers, including the “self” variety. The big boys can still sell their CMS systems and offer services, too, not just software. But WordPress is there for the masses.
By the way, I’m wondering if none other than the WordPress people or the Drupal people could do .epub-creation modules. Plus, an OpenOffice plug-in would be nice. The .epub standard is too new for powerful open-source tools to exist now.
If the IDPF uses gotchas from Adobe or other companies to make open source impossible, yes, I’ll join Moynihan in his grumpiness. But let’s give the IDPF a chance rather than coming up, as his Reg commentary did, with a pack of distortions and lies. Consumers are begging for an end to the Tower of eBabel, and the public domain community shouldn’t try close off the options, as long as they’re not just Trojans from Adobe or elsewhere. I take it for granted that software companies will attempt Trojans–hence, the need for well-vetted validation and other precautions.
Adobe bastardizing .epub already?
In that vein, let me quote from Aaron Miller of Book Glutton, a small company that is eager to use .epub while at the same time insisting on its integrity.
“It makes me nervous to have Adobe so prominent in the IDPF. They seem committed to the standard, but they’re using XSL formatting objects for their XHTML .epubs, and it would be very difficult to get a web browser to gracefully use XSL-FO.
“If they decided to lean heavily on that, to the point that .epubs without an .xpgt file (their XSL stylesheet) became unreadable in DE, then we would have a problem.”
Hello, Adobe and IDPF? What’s your response? Can you assure Aaron that you’ll keep .epub and Adobe-specific things separate? Meanwhile he also reports he can’t even get DRMed filses to work in Digital Editions.
Different issue from the specs
That said, keep in mind that these are Adobe issue, not those with the actual specs, which a bunch of other companies have vetted. Let’s not repeat the same confusion that David Moynihan did in his nutty commentary in the Register.
What will count is close monitoring of the IDPF and Adobe to make certain that we don’t get a de facto Adobe-owned standard.
This is why the open source community needs to embrace .epub and get the right tools out there—so that plenty of people will notice if notice if proprietary gotchas creep into .epub, either as a spec or in the world of implementations.
A warning to the IDPF and Adobe
In Adobe’s place, I would take fast action now–to regard to validation-related tools and other safeguards, as well as either helping Gutenberg or encourage for others to do so. I also suggest that Adobe encourage creation of free open source tools in general, plus go ahead with the phased-in logo plan I’ve suggested, so as to decouple the format and DRM issues.
Procrastination will harm the standard. I jumped out of OpenReader in part because the Consortium didn’t do implementation well (not entirely OpenReader’s fault since it lacked sufficient support). Adobe’s Bill McCoy earlier was joking about a Cargo Cult mentality—the expectation that the software would just materialize for the OpenReader standard, simply because OpenReader deserved it.
Same applies to .epub itself, Bill. If you sincerely want it to be a standard, an admirable legacy for you and Adobe alike, then you need to look beyond the current commercial solutions and nurture open source as well, for the sake of .epub’s long-term credibility and the cause of e-books as a serious, trustworthy medium.
Who knows? The open source community might well come up with concepts that would show up in commercial software; potential synergies abound. IBM hasn’t done too badly by reaching out to and encouraging the open source community, and by moving somewhat from a product-focused approach to a services-oriented one.
That just might be a rather attractive role model for Adobe.
History vs. the current and tangible: .epub-related code
Such actions would help Adobe overcome a rather understandable fear of the company in the public domain and open source communities. Some years ago a Russian programmer visiting the U.S. went to jail for circumventing Adobe’s DRM. The company has also worked to make use of its standards a legal requirement for those dealing with the U.S. government. David Moynihan raised these issues in the Register, and I certainly can understand why.
What counts, however, in the end, won’t be history but something current and tangible, at least on computer monitors—.epub-related code. I hope that Adobe and the IDPF will listen and learn from from OpenReader, which was valuable in prodding the IDPF to get, but which failed as a real-life standard.
Although major publishers will be releasing .epub books with help from translation houses, let’s not forget the smaller publishers and the public domain sites whose e-books have probably found many times more readers. Their use of .epub will great speedily its adoption, thereby benefiting both Adobes and small-fry alike.