Format wars are a mixed blessing for consumers. Whether it's Betamax versus VHS or Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD, the consumer ultimately wins because companies have to advance superior technologies. But problems arise if the format you backed loses the war - and your device becomes next year's expensive doorstop.
A new fight is emerging in epublishing between Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle, with skirmishes between Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others. But the real battle is between the underlying formats: EPUB 3 and KF8.
So far, this particular format war has been waged rather quietly, but it's a war that will affect you more than you might realise: two rich, powerful and mighty West Coast tech companies could soon end up as gate-keepers to the world's literary works. And if we've learned anything about West Coast tech companies, it's that once they've got the data, they want you're pretty much at their mercy.
EPUB has quietly emerged as the unassuming but widely accepted open format among publishers. Apple wisely chose EPUB for iBooks, and the format is used in countless other ereaders and devices – including, significantly, both Kobo and Barnes & Noble's Nook. EPUB's guardian, the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), ratified its long-awaited update, EPUB 3, in October 2011, updating the spec in a number of key ways that make it truly "next-gen".
It defines extensions (and a few restrictions) to its HTML5 base – including MathML support – as well as UI triggers, so audio and video elements can be activated without scripting. Scripting was also possible in EPUB 2 but actively discouraged; the spec has now progressed to the far more permissive "optional". This is a significant step, as ebooks can now be interactive – provided the scripting can degrade gracefully for ereaders that interpreted "optional" as "no".
Amazon, meanwhile, has gone solo with KF8 (Kindle Format 8). It replaces .azw, essentially the .mobi format with added DRM. Bezos & Co adopted .mobi when they bought MobiPocket in 2005, and it has been used in all Kindle ereaders since. KF8 is far more versatile. Initially it is only on the Kindle Fire, but will be back ported to the newer e-ink Kindles and to the Windows version of their ereader.
KF8 is based on HTML5 and CSS – just like EPUB 3 – but is more restricted. Only a subset of tags and styles are supported. In particular, the <script> tag is reserved for Amazon use only. <canvas> is also not supported, though this isn't surprising as it wouldn't be much use without scripting capability.
These differences start to matter when you begin shelling out money to grow your ebook collection. So which ebook format should you back? It may seem like the decision is already sealed when you buy the hardware: iPad equals iBooks/EPUB 3 and Kindle is KF8.
But the waters are muddier. The Kindle app is of course also available on iOS devices, so you could equally buy KF8-based ebooks for your iPad. And as of last month, Amazon relaxed its stranglehold, allowing third-party Android e-reader apps to be installed – so EPUB 3 (the more open format, assuming no DRM shenanigans) can be viewed on your Kindle Fire.
The main restrictions are that if you buy an EPUB title through iBookstore, it stays on your Apple-authorised device, and if you buy a KF8 title, it goes no further than your Kindle. You could strip the DRM and then do as you please, but even for personal use that's a legal grey area.
Apple, oddly given their runaway success in other areas of digital consumerism, remains the ebooks underdog, with sales of iBooks titles dwarfed by Kindle. But that's set to change.
Who's your mega corporate daddy?
Just recently, Apple announced iBooks 2, and with it a new category of pedagogical ebooks that make full use of EPUB 3's new video and interactive capabilities. These textbooks are currently only available in the USA, so the rest of us can only watch from a distance and make impressed "ooh" noises. Top of the innovations, above the interactive review questions, multi touch gestures, movie segments and 3D flythroughs of cells, is simply the preservation of page numbers. Lecturers will welcome the ability to say "turn to page 348" instead of "search for Trilobite and count 36 paragraphs down".
But the real game-changer is that Apple simultaneously released the Mac-only iBooks Author, a free-to-use WYSIWYG tool that, to paraphrase the marketing froth, allows even bewildered numpties to create scintillating works of interactive genius.
But there are Jobsian caveats to iBooks Author that make it less than free. Its output is almost EPUB 3 but has some subtle proprietary differences (gotta love those). There's also a 2GB filesize limit, which may seem like plenty for an ebook, but keep in mind that we're talking about next-gen titles with full interactivity, video, sound and graphics (and probably some text too). A multimedia app, in other words. Suddenly 2GB seems ludicrously small, and will limit the authoring tool's appeal.
The biggest limitation by far, though, is that the geolocated detective mystery you wrote using iBooks Author can only be sold on Apple's platform (where Apple nets 30 per cent of all revenue). This creates a legal swampland where it isn't entirely clear how much of your own creation Apple purportedly controls.
iBooks Author is far less about stirring up big publishers (they'll stick with industry-standard Adobe InDesign) as it is about unleashing the previously frustrated hordes of indies and cowboy go-it-aloners - and this alone has raised Apple's game in the face of stiff competition from Amazon.
Deciding which format to back, then, could be based on which corporate megalith is more likely to "do an Adobe" and kill their platform without much warning, as Adobe did with mobile Flash last year.
Traditionally with format wars, one side eventually caves in and the other format "wins". But that's unlikely to happen here. Remember this is Apple and Amazon, neither of which is exactly known for compromising or backing down: and there's way too much at stake - control of the gateway to the world's knowledge.
Another option is to look at your paper-based book collection and ask whether you want to "own" ebooks in much the same way, or feel each time you buy (sorry, license) a new ebook and open it up, you're doing so at the whimsical behest of a corporate god who may revoke the title from under your nose at any time. Who will you trust more to house your lifetime's collection of books, Apple or Amazon?
Books, music and more
From my perspective, both as a reader and a publisher of ebooks and crowdsourced travel guides, EPUB 3 is a clear winner as it's an open format - though this isn't a clear endorsement of iBooks. Titles bought via iBookstore are restricted to devices authorized for the same iTunes account. So "choosing iBooks" is not the same as "choosing EPUB 3."
Whichever format you back, it's tempting to conclude "it's a great time to be a reader" with Apple and Amazon pushing clouds stuffed with books linked to devices that make the search and purchase process smooth. You might even say it's a great time to possess a DRM-stripping tool so you can continue to own your own books and read them wherever you like. The arrival of these supercharged new formats, though, means books have changed. Whether that change is for the better is unclear.
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