eBook Industry Takes Giant Step Forward

eBook Industry Takes Giant Step Forward<@VM>What Is An eBook, Anyway?

Charles Geschke

By John Makulowich Senior Writer

The eBook industry has taken a giant step toward legitimacy, if not market acceptance, in the $61 billion U.S. publishing market with the release of the first specification for representing the content of electronic books.

It amounts to a framework for content that is interoperable on all hardware, thus avoiding the classic industry chaos that resulted from the videocassette recorder (VCR) battle between Betamax and VHS formats in the early 1980s.

The Open eBook Publication Structure 1.0, as the specification is known, defines the format that content takes when it is converted from print to electronic form. The specification was crafted by the Open eBook Authoring Group, which includes publishers and software and hardware firms.

Announced at The Electronic Book '99 Conference Sept. 21 and 22 at the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, the specification is open and public domain, based on HTML (hypertext markup language) and XML (extensible markup language), the basic coding languages used on the Internet and the World Wide Web.

By specifying eBook file format and structure, the specification ensures that content can be viewed on any reading system that is OEB-compliant.

Victor McCrary, technical manager of Information Storage and Integrated Systems at NIST and chair of the Open eBook Authoring Group, said the specification "is groundbreaking because it fully takes into account issues of accessibility and internationalization."

For example, the specification includes features that ensure that content can be made accessible to persons with disabilities. And it incorporates accessibility features similar to those defined in the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) HTML 4.0 specification for coding Web pages as well as recommendations from the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative Web Content Authoring Guidelines Proposed Recommendation.

Designed to allow publishers, authors, editors and content owners to deliver their material in a single format, the specification, it is hoped by industry players, will speed the availability of electronic reading materials.

It was no coincidence that the keynote address for the eBook conference was delivered by Charles Geschke, co-founder, president and board chairman of Adobe Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif. Speaking on the future of publishing, he emphasized his company's mission to "offer the best digital solutions to gather, create, assemble and deliver information electronically and in print around the world."

Adding a note of caution to the proceedings, he focused on three obstacles to mass acceptance of the eBook: available content, secure e-commerce distribution and flexible consumption. "Content is not just ASCII sent to your device from a server, but information presented in a way that is compelling and easy to absorb," said Geschke.

Scarcely had he cited the obstacles when he took the opportunity to promote Adobe's new pre-released Web Buy and PDF Merchant to confront the security and rights management issues head on. These technologies will allow publishers, distributors and retailers, for example, to make electronic content available for distribution and sale over the Internet.

Web Buy is a feature packaged with the popular and free Adobe Acrobat Reader and lets you download secure PDF files from the Web. PDF Merchant is a server-based technology for integration into existing e-commerce and transaction servers. It manages encryption of PDF files and the distribution of keys to access them.

This will give consumers a way to purchase and view electronic content produced with Adobe PDF Merchant. Acrobat Reader with Web Buy will be available before the end of the year and Adobe PDF Merchant in the first quarter of 2000.

The pre-release of the Reader with Web Buy and a demo of what it is like to buy securely online, including downloadable electronic content, is available at Adobe's Web site (www.adobe.com).

Obviously, the company expects PDF Merchant and Web Buy to accelerate the adoption of eBooks and the use of electronic documents among businesses and consumers.

Among the companies that will test and implement PDF Merchant are some key industry players, including Barnes & Noble Inc., Iomega Corp., R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., Seybold Publications, Simon & Schuster Inc. and Xerox Corp.

Questions about the next step on the road to further specifications were answered by citing a definite intention of 2.0 to take fuller advantage of the expressive power of XML.

According to Steve Stone, Microsoft director of research and development in the eBook Group, moving beyond the specification means exploring at least three areas: layout, metadata and rights management.

"The specification sites CSS [cascading style sheets], but we may need to go further, for example, to render news and magazines. Metadata, the structure of the content, also needs to be addressed in looking up information. Finally, the whole issue of rights management must be faced. It is difficult to create a standard early on in that area," said Stone. While agreement may have been reached on the format and structure of eBooks, there are still differences of opinion about what exactly constitutes an electronic book. Some consider it the content you read; that is, a paperless digital version of a book, article or other document. The OEB specification defines that as the OEB publication.

Others consider an eBook the hardware you use to read, such as a desktop or portable PC, a PDA or dedicated eBook reader. For the OEB specification, the hardware is called the Reading Device.

Regardless, the specification requires all conforming readers to support at least XML, CSS, JPEG and PNG (graphics formats) files. While an OEB publication can contain other types of files, such as the extremely popular portable document format developed by Adobe Systems, or QuickTime, a movie format developed by Apple, it must, for each of these files, provide a so-called fallback version in one of the required file formats.

More information about the specification and the Open eBook initiative is available at www.openebook.org.

? John Makulowich

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