I’ve been following some discussions about ebooks and file formats and ereaders. Epub versus mobi, tablet versus e-ink. Speculations about the future of reading devices and the future of the book itself.
Nick Disabato wrote a series of articles about standards. (go read them here and here) I disagree with him on some points (anti-Amazon bias comes through) and some of what he talks about is technical and I’m unfamiliar with the terms. To be honest, a lot of the discussions go right over my head. I’m not a technophile and gadgets don’t interest me much. I have a tendency to find something that suits me, then stick with it until it breaks down and I’m forced to upgrade. I’m not a programmer, either, and haven’t learned coding and don’t have the time right now to learn it. But boy, oh boy, do I get Disaboto’s frustration.
A lack of standards in the language (coding and platforms) and compatibility of devices affects readers, writers and publishers. With a print book, it doesn’t matter where I buy it or where I read it. I might worry the content will become outdated, but the object itself will never become obsolete and unusable (barring fire, floods and teething puppies).
From where I stand (and I suspect I am not alone in this) the discussions amongst device makers and programmers make me uneasy. Not because things get better, faster, more efficient, cheaper–electronic stuff has a tendency to do that–but because I’ve got a houseful of obsolete gadgets. Some of those gadgets were absolutely wonderful and worked fine and did what I asked, until I could no longer find content for them or technical support because the rest of the world passed it by. I also see a lot of tinkering and changing and shifting and screwing around not because it’s necessary, but because folks like to tinker and change and screw around. (are you listening Facebook, hmn?)
Then we have situations where something becomes the standard not because it’s the best or easiest or most efficient, but because it becomes ubiquitous. Like MS Word. It’s clunky, irritating, and can drive a person to drink while trying to create clean digital files. Bazillions of people use it. They’re used to it and know how to make it work for them, so they’ll keep on using it because using something else requires upfront money and a learning curve. Or maybe they get tired of constant change. No! Damn it! No, I am not changing again. I don’t care if your new best thing is actually the best. I am sick of being jerked around.
Because I don’t understand the whys and wherefores behind this, I asked my friend, Jonathan, if he could pretend I’m clueless (doesn’t have to pretend very much) and break it down for me:
“I started learning rudimentary HTML at the time, though pretty much all HTML was rudimentary. So few people were creating their websites and there were so few browser options that things were opened wide up. Remember, Internet Explorer wouldn’t even debut until the end of the year (1995)– as if we would ever use that. Your options were either the text-based Lynx, Netscape (formerly Mozilla), Omniweb, and Grail. I only heard of the latter, but never saw them. HTML as a standard was still fairly new, and didn’t have anywhere near the features that it would support in ten years, so you were pretty safe writing a web site in a certain way; browsers would handle HTML in the same fashion… you’re ahead of most of the game if you can italicize words or indent.
Internet Explorer is pretty much where that started to go off the rails. This is probably a familiar pattern to most folks — open standard is established, big company comes along and bastardizes the format into a proprietary format that enables said company to corner a part of the market. Microsoft was bad about this, but are far from the only culprits. Suddenly your HTML might not look the same in Internet Explorer as in Netscape. You had to start customizing your code for certain browsers. … The fragmentation just got worse and worse over the years, as new browsers came and went and different companies dug in their heels. Yes, HTML was supposed to be an international standard, but no one could really enforce this. So too, today do we have a myriad of different major eBook formats. Most draw on HTML, but have their own implementations and interpretations of the tags. Here’s just a sampling, though I’m sure you’re familiar with most:
- eReader (pdb)
- HTML (yes there are still eBooks that are pure HTML)
- Kindle (.azw and .kf8, also works with MOBI)
- Mobipocket (MOBI)
- Microsoft .lit (LIT)
- Acrobat (PDF)
All right, Jonathan, that I understand. (Not only does he know how computers work and how to code and program and all that other good stuff that looks like magic to me, he can speak plain English, too.) To read the rest of what he has to say about the issue, click here.
I had told him before I’m leery of setting standards because sometimes that causes stagnation (MS Word, for instance). Truth is, my real fear is that when the dust settles I’ll end up with more useless, obsolete gadgets. Since I don’t understand the mechanics, I have no idea which format is better or why one is better than another. All I know is what ends up in my hands. Also it’s a pain in the butt having separate formatting requirements when I’m producing an ebook.
So, yeah, we need some standards. I’d love to see ebooks that work effortlessly across any device the user happens to have on hand. I’d love one-shot ebook formatting for production. I also want the assurance that my beloved Kindle will still be able to read what’s available and I won’t be forced to buy new gadgets.
Considering Jonathan’s explanation, I think I see what the real problem is and will continue to be for a while. At least for people like me. The two major players with the best chance of setting the standard are Apple and Amazon. The trouble is, they’re each coming at this from a different perspective. Apple is all about hardware, so it provides content to use on the hardware, whereas Amazon is all about content and so provides the hardware to support the content. What seems to be missing is the realization that content and hardware have to be married. The hardware has to be good enough to support the content and the content has to be good enough to justify the hardware. Speaking purely as a reader, Amazon is preferred because it offers me vast choice in content, which is easy to find and easy to obtain. Amazon doesn’t make me jump through hoops to get what I want. On the other hand, on a purely aesthetic level e-ink technology sucks. It’s functional, it gives me the content, but face it, Larry (I named my Kindle Larry) you’re a homely so-and-so.
There are times when I lust after a Kindle Fire or even an iPad. What stops me are the cost, the irritation over discarding yet another gadget, and the fact that I want a dedicated ereader. I don’t want or need bells and whistles. I don’t want apps or being forced to convert files and sideload or any of that other stuff, none of which is difficult to do, but I don’t want to do it anyway.
As an ebook producer, I spend too much time and energy circumventing the quirks of various programs and trying to compensate for the limitations of the many different devices readers use. That is time and energy I could be using to suss out the advantages of the technology in order to produce better ebooks. So yeah, even at the risk of Larry becoming obsolete, I think it’s time to start working on establishing a standard format and universal reading devices.