eBooks: A Battle for Standards

Cesarini, Paul

. . . the printed book, like any other technology, will not live forever.

—Raymond Kurzweil

I am a gearhead, a technogeek, a computer nerd. I have four computers, two desktops and two laptops, running six different operating systems, and one PDA. My living room, kitchen, and spare bedrooms are littered with partially built and partially cannibalized computers. I have a wireless networking zone in my house, along with an equally wireless print server. I read the news from my Palm Vx each day during lunch, and the only radio I tune-in to on a regular basis is Internet radio. I am wired, wireless, and love it. I also love to read. When I first heard about electronic books—or eBooks—a decade or so ago, I was intrigued. I bought my first one in 1993. I was hooked. This eBook was The Tao of Pooh, as a HyperCard stack, on a floppy disk. It not only had the complete text, but also included the original illustrations. It was even searchable. I bought a few more eBook titles, up until HyperCard faded away, then moved on to eBook files in .doc format, .rtf, .pdf, .html, Glassbook, Gemstar, and others. These newer eBooks allowed highlighting text, copying and pasting small sections, and even having passages read aloud by the computer.

After a decade, however, my initial enthusiasm over eBooks has waned considerably. Rather than looking forward to a new title as it becomes available, I immediately ask which format the title is available in, question how I can best access the title (which operating system, using which eBook reading application), scheme about how best to convert it to a more convenient format, and then eventually give up caring. Certainly, eBooks still hold a great deal of unrealized promise. Yet they still have not reached broad appeal and still collectively suffer from too many types of eBook formats with too little consideration given to end-users.

Despite modest successes from efforts like the Electronic Text Library and Bartleby.com, the majority of eBook publishers are ailing. Over the past 18 months, numerous eBook publishing houses have been shut down by their parent companies, including the Random House AtRandom service, the Time-Warner owned iPublish.com, and most recently the Barnes & Noble-majority owned MightyWords. This happened because “interest in e-books wasn't as big” (Kary) as they originally anticipated and that the market for eBooks “has simply not developed” (Italie). Large publishers are realizing that eBooks aren’t selling in large enough quantities to turn a profit and thereby justify their existence (Rose). ITKnowledge and NetLibrary, both of which provided large eBook databases, also folded, though NetLibrary at least found a buyer for its eBook catalog and has been somewhat resurrected. Amazon and Barnes & Noble have dropped all Gemstar eBook content from their respective sites. Vendors in the eBook section of the annual BookExpo America dwindled from 120 last year to 80 this year. Complicated encryption methods have made some types of eBooks less convenient than their hardcopy counterparts (Rose). By most accounts, the loudly-hyped push for eBooks has died down to little more than a whisper now. Why? Surely the poor economy shoulders some of the blame, particularly since IT companies, both startups and well-known ones, have been hit hard as investors demand profitability. The real causes are much more deeply rooted, though.

Hardware / Software Issues

There are now more eBook file formats than there are living presidents. These formats are mostly proprietary, at least the ones by Adobe, Microsoft, and Gemstar, and are available to only a limited number of platforms. Accessing eBooks in these file formats is often inconvenient and confusing, requiring the installation of several eBook reader applications on a computer, depending entirely on which titles are available on which eBook platform. Transferring an eBook file from one computer to another for backup purposes is difficult, at best.

To make matters worse, certain titles are only available on certain eBook reading platforms (Breitzer). Cora Nucci captured this problem quite well in "E-Book Dilemma: Potboiler for the Digital Age." She states,

Imagine having to decide which CD player to buy based not only on features and price, but on what music you’d be able to play on it. Music labels would publish music in one or more formats and pay commissions to the CD player manufacturers based on the sales of each CD issued in its format. If you didn’t own the device(s) that supported discs by your favorite artists, you’d be out of luck. This is pretty much how the e-book business operates today.

Many eBook formats allow 
text highlighting and annotating, along with limited copying and 
pasting.Hardware-based eBook readers are still too expensive and provide questionable value for the fairly limited feature sets they offer. Even the actual eBook titles are too expensive, often being a mere 15-20% less expensive than hardcopy books, in part because publishers are afraid eBooks might cannibalize sales of their print books (Mayfield).

Should we be concerned that in order to access the volumes of eBooks currently available for purchase, or for free, we must necessarily lock ourselves into one of several proprietary file formats—most of which are not even cross-platform compatible? How will a Babylon of competing eBook file formats ultimately affect access to this material? Can there ever be a widespread adoption and acceptance of eBooks if access to them is limited to one operating system or another, one type of eBook hardware or another? That is, how can we be expected to want to access such content when the companies pushing their respective formats seem preoccupied with one-upping their competitors and releasing wave upon wave of proprietary eBook hardware and software?

Gail Hawisher might refer to this problem perhaps as “second-class access,” much as she referred to the all-but-defunct Internet Appliance (IA) market that recently plunged with the same meteoric speed with which it rose two years ago. At the time, she argued against then-hyped Internet Appliances such as the Cidco Mailstation, Sony eVilla, and Netpliance I-Opener. Her concern about these products largely translates to the raft of eBook reading hardware that’s become available. In "Accessing the Virtual Worlds of Cyberspace," Hawisher questioned both the practicality of stripped-down IA devices—suitable mainly for email and limited browsing, and primarily marketed toward women and the elderly—as well as the intentions of the companies that produce them. She argued that

multi- and trans-national corporations will make sure that they target this market and other large segments of the world's population for profit. Vast numbers will be able to browse the electronic world and make purchases, but will they be able to participate easily in the kinds of personally and educationally profitable activities of which we—the connected and educated of the world—now partake? These are the sorts of questions that trouble me.

So, should higher education and secondary schools invest $200-$400 per unit in an RCA eBook (either the REB 1100 or 1200)? These devices are successors to one of the first eBook readers, the Rocket eBook, and only read the proprietary, and rapidly fading, Gemstar eBook format. While there are still fairly large catalogs of Gemstar eBook content available, at this time independent bookseller Powells.com is the only carrier. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com have dropped all Gemstar content from their respective sites, in favor of Adobe and Microsoft content.

How about a Franklin eBookMan 900, 910, or 911? These are generally less expensive than their RCA counterparts, ranging in price from $150-$220, and have a fair amount of PDA functionality built-in, as well. However, despite the fact that they connect via a platform-indifferent USB port, none of these devices works with Mac OS or Linux-based systems. They are locked into one platform, Windows, and are locked into an obscure, Franklin-only eBook format. Franklin has wisely opted to release an eBook reader client for the Palm and Windows CE/Pocket PC platforms, though.

The plethora of proprietary, hardware-based eBook readers can perhaps best be described as “False Pretenders,” which, according to Raymond Kurzweil, are upstarts who threaten to make existing technology obsolete, prematurely predict victory, yet lack certain key elements in the technology they claim to usurp (Vitanza 292). Think about it: all these hardware-based eBook readers provide a wide range of downloadable content in rugged, fairly convenient form. At the same time, however, each device is an electronic island, incapable of communicating with similar devices made by competing companies. Each device is fatally expensive compared with the price of buying paperback equivalents. Each device threatens to become obsolete by locking itself into specific, all-too-fleeting, file formats. Each device then necessarily marries its potential success (in this case, widespread adoption and a broad content library) with the concurrent success of its proprietary file format.

For example, RCA does not own Gemstar, yet all the RCA eBook readers—the entire REB product line—exclusively use the now-fading Gemstar eBook format. If and/or when Gemstar fails, what will become of these devices? Do they feature a flash ROM, capable of firmware upgrades, to eventually migrate over to a new file format? If not, will they then be relegated to the long line of other False Pretenders in portable information devices, including Apple’s Newton and eMate?

Then again, maybe each False Pretender serves a purpose after all. Maybe each amounts to a necessary step in the evolution of the product? Will the REB or Franklin eBookMan eventually be seen as the eBook equivalent of the Cro Magnon, rather than the Neanderthal—an evolutionary way station in the progress and perfection of their respective product lines? Time will tell.

Titles in Adobe Acrobat 
eBook Reader format, along with Microsoft Reader format, are 
available from many online booksellers.

Aside from hardware-based eBook readers that use proprietary, platform-specific reader software, there are also several software-based solutions designed to run on more than one platform. Adobe, after acquiring Glassbook over a year ago, launched a version of its freeware Acrobat Reader, which is used exclusively to secure, encrypted, PDF-based eBooks. Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader is available for the Mac OS and Windows. Acrobat Reader, which is suitable for PDF files not in the eBook format, is available for both platforms and the Palm OS (Windows conduit only, at this time). Additionally, there are several non-Adobe PDF solutions available for Linux.

Taking Off The Wrapper

Regardless of consolidation in the eBook industry, the question remains: how do we deal with a rapidly “wrapperless” society? Kurzweil and others debated this very issue several years ago. In "The Future of Libraries," he states,

We are used to paying for the knowledge content of products so long as it is integrated into something with mass. We recognize that a $300 software product is physically identical to a few $2 floppy disks, and thus we are primarily paying for the information contained therein. We are aware (or should be) that the manufactured cost of a compact disc recording is less than 50¢ (depending on volume), and that again we are paying for the (musical) information. It is, after all, the information we are after. We obtain no pleasure from the discs themselves. The manufactured costs of most books is only a few dollars. Again, it is the knowledge we are seeking (although I will admit a well-crafted book is a lovely possession). Why then do we have difficulty comprehending the value of information when the physical content of a product shrinks to nothing? (300)

John Perry Barlow agrees, referring to it as a simple problem with a complex solution. He states, “Digital technology is detaching itself from the physical plane, where property law of all sorts has always found definition. [. . .] Even the physical / digital bottle to which we’ve become accustomed—floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and other discrete, shrink-wrappable bit-packages—will disappear as all computers jack-in to the global Net” (319-20).

Even Larry Ellison, Oracle CEO and arch-nemesis of all things Microsoft, agrees. Over six years ago, in Robert Cringely’s Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires—a documentary about the birth of the personal computer industry in America—Ellison predicts the death—and utter impracticality—of the wrapper. In Ellison’s typically over-the-top fashion, he states, “Me, going down to the store and buying Windows 95, I've got to get into my car, drive down to a store, buy a cardboard box full of bits, you know, encoded on a piece of plastic CD-ROM. And you bring it home and read a manual, install this thing—you must be kidding, you know. Put the stuff on the net. It's bits. Don't put bits in cardboard, cardboard in trucks, trucks to stores. Me, go to the store, you know, pick the stuff out. It's insane.” Instead, Ellison espouses the same wrapperless society that Barlow, Kurzweil, and others did before him.

Not only has there been a failure to reach a consensus on a standard eBook distribution method or file format, but the term itself has yet to be clearly defined. Last May, in a courtroom battle over eBook royalties, U.S. District Judge Sydney H. Stein pointedly asked, “Show me why an e-book is a book” (Haughney). The case revolved around a startup electronic publisher, Rosetta Books, signing authors such as Kurt Vonnegut to sell electronic versions of their books. Vonnegut and the other authors in question already had contracts with Random House, Penguin Putnam, and other publishers. Rosetta Books was able to do this because the contracts these authors previously signed made no specific mention of rights to electronic versions.

PDAs with 160x160 screen resolutions are typically less than ideal for lengthy eBook viewing.  However, they are well-suited for shorter texts.

The contracts were drawn up prior to 1994, when consideration of such matters likely wasn’t considered a priority. Rosetta Books was then promptly sued by five publishers, though the Authors Guild did side with Rosetta.

Throughout the hearing, a clear, mutually agreeable definition of “eBook” eluded both sides. Judge Stein asked whether a Vonnegut poem drawn on a sidewalk could be called a book, or if the courtroom itself, wallpapered with text from a book, could also be called a book. The most that was agreed upon was that “the e-book experience is very similar to the reading experience” and that “these are not easy issues” (Haughney).

The lack of a consistent definition of “eBook” is further compounded by the lack of a consistent way to even spell the term. TechWeb, News.com, Amazon, and Wired, have opted for “e-book,” while Adobe, Microsoft, Barnes & Noble, Powells.com and others prefer either “ebook” or “eBook.” At least eBooks are consistent in one regard: most issues associated with them involve systematic confusion—from creation, to conversion, to distribution, to promotion.

How, then, does the publishing industry collectively deal with eBooks not having a standard format or standard distribution method, not having a standard definition, or even a standard way of spelling the term? This is the situation the Recording Industry Association has been in for some time now, pre- and post-Napster. This is the situation the Motion Picture Association of America is currently immersed in, battling a host of nimble peer-to-peer services such as Gnutella, Freeway, and others that cannot be easily sued. This is the situation the publishing industry dreads, but cannot avoid. For all three, the question remains: How do we continue to profit when the copyright and distribution mechanisms relied on for so long are becoming less and less relevant to more and more people?

There is no easy answer, of course, and it is certainly a monumental issue. Fundamental changes in eBook content distribution will likely be necessary, along with a further consolidation of key players. Gemstar initially shored-up its position in the electronic publishing industry by acquiring both Nuvomedia and SoftBook (Sandoval). However, the same problems that plagued the Internet Appliance market continue to plague the eBook market: price, features, compatibility, and usability.

Clash of the Digital Titans

I suppose a question that hasn’t really been asked yet is this: Should we care? That is, this Darwinian standards battle for eBooks will eventually resolve itself, won’t it? Won’t we, as consumers, eventually benefit from the competition by having the best, most stable, most feature-rich eBook format? After all, the operating system wars, browser wars, and office suite wars all eventually wound down with a clear victor in each. This victor was, however, Microsoft. Since Microsoft entered this particular battle, filling a void left by the acquisition of Glassbook and the ongoing fade of Gemstar, why wouldn’t it come out ahead this time? Microsoft has, after all, bested giants in the technology industry such as IBM (remember OS/2?) and Netscape, has systematically marginalized Apple, Corel, and others, is buying up game companies at an alarming rate to push its X-Box gaming console, and is rapidly gaining on Palm in the growing PDA market. Why wouldn’t this time be any different? One word: Adobe.

Despite products like Microsoft Publisher and Microsoft Picture It!, and despite technologies such as ClearType, the company has yet to make any real inroads in the graphics and desktop publishing markets. Many people in these markets may use Windows, but they are still using PageMaker, InDesign, Photoshop, Acrobat, and Illustrator—all Adobe products. Three of several players in the eBook standards battle.  Most eBook readers are incompatible with content from competing products. This is not to say Adobe has a “lock” on this market, of course. Quark, Macromedia, and other companies are also major players. Yet, Microsoft isn’t one of them. At barely two years old, Microsoft Reader is still a relatively new product. It isn’t yet compatible with the Mac OS, and likely won’t ever be compatible with Linux or the Palm OS. (Microsoft will take no action that might further legitimize Linux or the Palm OS as viable alternatives to their own Windows and PocketPC operating systems, for desktop or handheld use). Where, then, does that leave Microsoft Reader?

Microsoft and Adobe are rapidly consolidating their respective user bases for their eBook reader products, as is Palm. Adobe has done so by continuing to push Acrobat to newer platforms, by acquiring and absorbing previous players in the eBook battle, such as Glassbook, and by partnering with traditional e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com.

Additionally, Adobe recently made some tentative steps into the potentially lucrative higher education textbook / course materials market. In May, 2001, Adobe launched eBook U, described as a “joint project between Adobe and a select group of higher education institutions to explore the use and impact of eBooks on educational environments. As part of the program, students and educators at participating campuses will be able to experience course materials that will be made available as eBooks. Partnering institutions receive [. . .] software and training to create, encrypt and distribute Adobe PDF-based eBook content such as textbooks, course packs and customized course readers” (McHale). This eBook U pilot program currently involves Tufts University, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, MIT Sloan School of Management, Occidental College, and several other institutions.

The educational implications of this partnership are of course too early to predict. I still ultimately wonder if eBook U will turn out to be a legitimate integration of technologies in higher education classrooms, or if it is just a warmed-over version of the IBM “ThinkPad U” currently used at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. The ThinkPad U program was developed back in the early nineties, ostensibly as a “one-stop shopping” solution for schools to get laptops for faculty and students. While it’s difficult to argue against the benefits of such a program—particularly with the ongoing romance with distance learning programs across the country—to me, the ThinkPad U concept always seemed equal parts marketing concept and educational opportunity. That is, the ThinkPad U program is 100% concerned with pushing IBM technology solutions, effectively turning participating schools into Windows monocultures. This makes some amount of sense from a support point of view, but the lack of choice concerns me. It assumes that regardless of college, regardless of major, any student would be better-off with a ThinkPad loaded primarily with Microsoft products. All Mac vs. Windows debates aside, this premise is arguable at best.

Will the eBook U program be similarly bent on pushing only revenue-generating PDF content such as electronic textbooks, or the Create Adobe PDF Online service? Create Adobe PDF Online does allow those without access to Acrobat to create PDF files via remote FTP. The first five such conversions are free. However, the service then costs $9.99 per month, or $99.99 per year. Some eBook formats feature  text-to-speech options, depending on the operating system used. So, will eBook U equally stress free PDF content? Will it encourage the use of free HTML texts from Bartleby.com, the Electronic Text Library, and similar sites? Will it actively promote features such as the Web Capture option in Acrobat, that allows for efficient conversion of web content into PDF format? Time will tell.

Admittedly, there clearly appears to be potential conveniences for schools using eBook U. PDF-based eBooks, either encrypted or not, combined with computer mediated learning conventions, such as networked computer classrooms, web-assisted or web-based course content, and wireless networking zones, should lead to greater portability and accessibility of required texts. Occidental College President Theodore Mitchell recently expressed similar views regarding the eBook U program implemented at his campus. He stated that the program will provide the opportunity for greater access to information, and will “improve our ability to deliver up-to-date content to students, raising the possibility, for example, of eliminating cumbersome photocopied course readers" (McHale).

Yet, Adobe still insists on using 2-3 different versions of Acrobat to access different types of PDF content. Unencrypted PDF files can be accessed, viewed, and navigated with either the full, commercial version of Acrobat, or the free Acrobat Reader. Encrypted eBooks can, as of this writing, still only be accessed via the free Acrobat eBook Reader (formerly Glassbook Reader). Since the whole point of having text in a PDF format is to have a universal, convenient file format, why then does Adobe require using different applications to view different types of PDF files? Having different types of PDF files associated with different programs means having more complex disk images in computer labs, more time devoted to support issues, including “help desk” troubleshooting, and potentially more time inside and outside of class devoted to eBook literacy. Will Acrobat 6 eventually absorb all of the former Glassbook Reader into itself, both in the commercial and free versions? Only Adobe knows.

Microsoft has opted for a similar approach regarding partnerships, but has also used its considerable muscle to ensure Microsoft Reader is pre-installed on every new Windows-based computer and PDA. Palm recently bought and later absorbed Peanut Press, re-branding the former Peanut Reader as Palm Reader. Palm now offers a reasonably-sized catalog of eBooks online, including a fairly extensive section of free eBooks. All three companies offer imperfect solutions that are far from secure and far from convenient. Yet, these may be the best available until a legitimate, cross-platform eBook standard arrives.

Distribution Concerns

Admittedly, the Open eBook specification is, indeed, a standard. However, it is a “business-to-business” standard that could loosely be considered a middleware, of sorts, and not a standard end-users like us will experience. Open eBook (OEB) is a standard from Open eBook Forum, which includes members such as Microsoft, Adobe, Simon & Schuster, Time Warner Books, and others (Luening). OEB publications are based on consistent markup languages, including HTML, XML, and CSS. However, they are not read directly from the eBook hardware or software. According to the TechEncyclopedia, “They must be compiled into the proprietary format of the e-book, which applies encryption and other techniques required by the hardware.” Electronic publishers view this last step as nothing short of essential, since the consistent, standards-based Open eBook format has no encryption prior to conversion. It is basically little more than a .doc file, or perhaps .rtf with stylized text. Any eBook released without some measure of security or encryption is susceptible to piracy. As Baer describes it, “The same powerful tools that make your original creations possible are also unsurpassed tools for infringing copyright. [. . .] [E]ven unintentional infringement is infringement.”

This was the case for Stephen King’s second eBook, The Plant. The Plant was a serial-based eBook, released as a PDF without any security. Payment was accomplished via a shareware method (that is, the Honor System) and a partnership with Amazon.com. King eventually halted work on The Plant, citing a lower than expected ratio of downloads to payments. The Declaration of independence, as viewed on a Handera 330, a 
Palm OS-based PDA. This PDA has a native resolution of 320x240, and can be used in both portrait and landscape modes.  The application running is Wordsmith 2.0King’s first eBook, Riding the Bullet, also suffered technical problems. Ironically enough, King couldn’t even read it on his own computer (Breitzer).

The publishing industry did not and still does not view King’s initial method of electronic content distribution as acceptable, otherwise they all would have opted for the shareware approach. At the Electronic Book 2000 Conference and Show, most of the speakers focused on two issues: standards and copy protection (Quan). Unfortunately, the more an electronic file devoid of its traditional disc-based wrapper is copy protected—and the more layers of security and encryption are infused into it—the less standard it becomes, and the less convenient it becomes to use.

The majority of eBooks are released only in proprietary, encrypted file formats that require electronic keys to decrypt them. These keys take on one of two forms with most eBooks: your credit card, and your registered, certified eBook reader. Your credit card is necessary to purchase new eBooks (not including free, classic literature available as eBooks). Your registered, certified eBook reader further makes certain that the commercial eBooks you purchase and download are available to you and only you. Virtual “borrowing” is possible, but when an eBook is virtually borrowed, it is no longer available to the owner until it is virtually “returned.”

This sort of borrowing goes completely against the point of having such digital media: portability, flexibility, and convenience. As such, the publishing industry is desperately attempting to employ digital rights management techniques from Adobe, Microsoft, and other companies that weigh far too heavily in favor of copyright holders.

While this business model for eBooks may sound practical, there are several concerns regarding encryption of eBook content, primarily in the areas of security and fair use. As Barlow says, “the more security you hide your goods behind, the more likely you are to turn your sanctuary into a target” (335). What if the computer your eBook library is stored in has a catastrophic system failure, involving a hard drive that has reached the end of its life cycle? Making backup copies of files is always a responsible move, but in this case it could prove difficult. Due to anti-piracy concerns, it is difficult to make a backup copy of an eBook library. Acrobat eBook Reader, for example, may erroneously determine the backup copy is a pirated copy. It may also determine that the hard drive used to replace the dead one is really a new, different computer. Adobe has no recovery mechanism for eBooks purchased in their Acrobat eBook Reader format. That is, if your eBook library—comprised predominantly of titles in the Acrobat eBook Reader format—is rendered inaccessible due to a catastrophic hardware event, there doesn't appear to be a way of simply contacting Adobe to get the missing titles reinstated.

Additionally, there is no legal way to convert PDF files that are in the secure, encrypted eBook Reader format back to an unsecured PDF, for backup or travel purposes. That is, if I’m flying to a conference and want to transfer some eBooks from my desktop computer to my laptop, they no longer exist on my desktop computer. If my laptop is then lost or stolen, so are my eBooks.

As eBook standards continue to battle for supremacy, one thing is abundantly clear: if one or two formats eventually edge out all others, they will likely do so in favor of the electronic publishing industry itself, at the expense of fair use for consumers. While the terms have yet to be legally defined in any federal law, “fair use” generally refers to that often-debated right to make incidental copies of selected works for personal use. Partly because it has never been defined in a mutually agreed upon fashion, fair use is now being steadily whittled away by copyright holders.

For example, to even create a program capable of converting encrypted eBooks to unencrypted ones is a direct violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a highly controversial law that recently went into effect. The DMCA bans the sale of any technology, anywhere, that allows circumvention of any copyright protections in hardware or software. Recently, the DMCA was used as a justification to arrest Russian computer programmer Dmitri Skylarov. Skylarov worked on a program for a Russian software company called Elcomsoft. The program was designed to convert secure Acrobat eBook Reader content to normal PDF files, for the purposes of making back-up copies — a completely legal option in Russia. Skylarov was jailed for weeks here in the U.S., though it appears the charges against him may be dropped if he testifies against his employer (News.com/Reuters).

Trying to make a back-up of an eBook library is by no means the only difficulty. What if a desired title is unavailable in the desired eBook format? For example, The Tao Te Ching is available via Amazon’s eBook site, but only in Microsoft Reader Format—not Acrobat eBook Reader. If you’re using a Mac OS or Linux-based system, apparently other avenues for obtaining this text need to be pursued. Admittedly, The Tao is perhaps not the best example, as it is also available on the web as HTML and/or SGML and XML, as a .doc file, and .rtf (Rich Text Format). Still, this isn’t the case for lesser known titles.

Virtual Libraries, Actual Problems

For those intent on building an eBook library and enjoying the portability and overall convenience of having hundreds of books accessible from a desktop computer, laptop, or PDA, the reality is that installing several incompatible eBook reading programs may be necessary, depending on the content desired.

I personally have several full-length screenplays, short stories, and documents on my Palm Vx that I read using WordSmith or AportisDoc. These and other titles are only available at the Aportis eBook Library site. They could eventually be viewed as PDF files, provided the relevant conversions were executed, but they are not natively available as PDF-based eBooks, or in Microsoft Reader format. I have several other eBooks on my laptop, in Acrobat eBook Reader format. These titles, too, are unavailable in competing file formats. I am forced, out of necessity, to manage my own library in competing file formats, using competing programs, on two different devices.

I could convert any PDF files that aren’t already locked into the secure PDF, eBook Reader format. Acrobat 5.xx finally allows the saving of PDF files directly to .rtf, though the formatting will be stripped away. From there, I could take the newly converted .rtf files, save them as .doc files using any word processor, then transfer them to my Palm and access them using AportisDoc or WordSmith. Since I use a PowerBook, I cannot simply convert the files using AportisDoc Converter, nor can I keep them in their original PDF format and transfer them to my Palm. Both AportisDoc Converter and Acrobat Reader for the Palm OS only have Windows conduits. Since I also have Virtual PC on my PowerBook, with Windows 2000, I could eventually convert most of my eBooks and view them on my Palm. As it is, I have to use three different operating systems (Palm OS, Mac OS, Windows 2000) just to view them all. This is ridiculous.

HTML and email have, I believe, collectively spoiled us. HTML is HTML—barring the often questionable W3C Java and CSS compliance in some browsers. Email is email. We don’t need competing web browsers to view plain vanilla HTML pages, nor do we need competing email clients to read email from friends and relatives. Then again, HTML and email never had their roots in hardbound, physical media, perhaps making their ubiquitous, transparent use more understandable.

As eBooks necessarily draw from their hardbound counterparts, they also carry with them distribution models never intended for space-shifted and/or back-up use. The awkward, competing standards in eBooks is perhaps most similar to the competing standards in Instant Messaging (IM) clients, where AOL users can’t send and receive instant messages to or from MSN users. In both cases, gigantic technology companies are hell-bent on pushing their own product, using their own proprietary file formats, as the de facto “standard”—a kind of Metcalfe’s Law by virtue of market share alone.

As faculty, students, and consumers of these various eBook technologies, we are reaping some minor rewards in this standards battle: free software and an initially fair amount of free content. However, as long as this battle over eBook standards continues, I doubt any real growth in the eBook industry will arise, nor will the full commercial or educational potential of eBooks will be realized. I suspect we will continue to be little more than commodities to these companies.

Internal Links

Aportis eBook Library http://www.aportis.com/library

eBooks.com http://www.ebooks.com

Ebook Library at the Electronic Text Centerhttp://etext.lib.virginia.edu/ebooks/

OEB (Open eBook).” TechEncyclopedia. http://content.techweb.com/encyclopedia/defineterm.cgi?sstring=OEB

Powells.com, eBook section. http://www.powells.com/ebookstore/ebooks.html

Works Cited

McHale, Layla and Paul Lesinky. “Adobe Targets Higher Education with Launch of eBook U.” Adobe. 14 May 2001. http://www.adobe.com/aboutadobe/pressroom/pressreleases/200105/20010514ebooku.html (1 May 2002).

Breitzer, Frith. “Judging E-books by Their Covers”. MacworldJ(uly 2000): 26.

Baer, Marjorie. “Copyright and the Visual Arts”. Macworld. 1996. http://www.macworld.com/1996/10/create/2699.html (1 May 2002).

Barlow, John Perry. “The Economy of Ideas: A Framework for Rethinking Patents and Copyrights in the Digital Age.” Vitanza. 318-37.

Cringely, Robert. Triumph of the Nerds. Videocassette. Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (1996)

Haughney, Christine. “Publishers Ask Judge to Stop E-Book Sales.” WashTech.com. 8 May 2001. http://washtech.com/news/media/9651-1.html (1 May 2002).

Hawisher, Gail. “Accessing the Virtual Worlds of Cyberspace.” Journal of Electronic Publishing 6.1 (Sept. 2000). http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/06-01/hawisher.html (1 May 2002).

Italie, Hillel. “Time Warner Closes e-Books Division.” WashTech.com. 4 Dec 2001. http://washtech.com/news/media/14034-1.html (1 May 2002).

Kary, Tiffany. “Random House Closes an e-book Chapter.” News.com. 9 Nov 2001. http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-200-7829133.html (1 May 2002).

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This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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