Paving the Way for Books of the Future

GAITHERSBURG, MD, September 21, 1999 — The prospect of a vital commercial market for electronic books took a big step forward today with the final agreement and release of a widely supported standard for converting books and other documents into electronic form. First championed by Microsoft and backed by a wide range of publishers, book distributors and retailers, software and hardware manufacturers, and other “eBook” pioneers, the Open eBook Publication Structure Specification — in concert with the recently announced Microsoft Reader software that greatly improves on-screen reading — brings consumers one step closer to a world where entire libraries are accessible anytime, anywhere and from any device.

“The long-predicted revolution in how we read really will happen,”
said Dr. Allen Renear, director of the Brown University Scholarly Technology Group.
“Buckle your seatbelts.”

The Open eBook Publication Structure Specification Version 1.0, which will be available free of charge to all interested users, defines the format that a book or other publication will take when it is readied for electronic distribution, or converted from a print version to electronic form. Users of the specification will include authors, editors, publishers and content owners who want to have their titles in a format that is eBook ready, which can be used by a wide variety of electronic book publishing systems, PC reading software and hardware reading devices.

The specifications grew out of a proposal for an open, nonproprietary standard for eBooks suggested a year ago by Dick Brass, Microsoft vice president for technology development, at the first government-sponsored conference on electronic books. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) brought together over 300 people with an interest in the emerging eBook industry last October. Microsoft’s Steve Stone delivered the technical presentation at that time, including the outline for the set of standards and the OEB content structure specification, and helped guide the Authoring Group through the necessary steps to flesh out the documents and finalize the specification.The successful completion of the specification was announced today at the second such annual gathering, before an anticipated audience that had more than doubled in since 1998. As U.S. book sales rise along with the number of Internet users, officials at NIST envision a market for eBooks, titles and other electronic documents that will eventually reach $70 billion a year.

Many companies and organizations participated in the Authoring Group, including the Brown University Scholarly Technology Group; DAISY Consortium; Exemplary Technologies; FX Palo Alto Laboratory Inc.; Glassbook Inc.; Global Mentor Inc.; Handheld Media; Nokia Corp.; NuvoMedia; OverDrive Systems Inc.; The Productivity Works Inc.; Project Gutenberg-DE; R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co.; Red Figure Inc.; Simon & Schuster; SoftBook Press; and Versaware Inc. Other contributing organizations include Adobe Systems Inc., EAST Company Ltd., IBM Corp., Inc. and Vadem Inc.

The industry-wide adoption of a standard format will help lower publishers’ conversion costs, as a one-time investment in conversion will enable titles to reach a wide array of reading software and devices. Moreover, it may help stimulate the nascent eBook market as a whole, by allowing publishers to make many more titles available to consumers, which in turn makes electronic reading more appealing.

“The fact that representatives from such a diverse set of industries and government created and delivered a specification in just one year is an amazing accomplishment, and one that is sure to have a positive impact on the emerging eBook industry,”
said Dr. Victor McCrary, technical manager of Information Storage and Integrated Systems Group at NIST.

The standardized format, based on the HTML and Extensible Markup Language (XML) specifications used on the Web, will allow readers to easily access material published by different sources. eBook publishers will not have to format books specifically for each PC software reader or reading device on the market. Publishers can be assured that their customers will have similar reading experiences, even though they may be using different reading machines.

Unlike conventional page capture methods, including Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) and others, text formatted in the Open eBook (or
) specification can re-flow to fit legibly on any device — including desktop computers, laptops, palm-sized computers or dedicated eBook devices. PDF is a popular and useful method of saving the image of a printed page, but it has drawbacks as an eBook screen display technology: on displays smaller than the original page size, it is necessary to shrink the page image or show only part of a page at a time. Neither choice is optimal, as shrinking distorts the type and impairs readability, while showing only a portion of a page can make navigation difficult and reading tedious. This problem is especially acute with the smaller screens on laptops, palm-size machines or dedicated eBook devices.

Industry analysts believe that there is a place in the market for both fixed-format capture systems and reflowing specifications like OEB. Adobe, for example, is an original member of the OEB group.

“Before we can make profits, we need to make an industry. And we need to avoid a catatrophic standards war that will alienate consumers,”
Brass said.
“Imagine if there were no standard and each device manufacturer created it’s own standard for arranging text. In this scenario, if a publisher wanted to publish electronically on a wide variety of platforms, he would have to create an eBook in each of these different standards. There would be chaos — just like the battle between VHS and Beta. It is critical for the success of the eBook industry to unite and provide publishers and consumers with a common standard by which all eBooks can be formatted.”

After the first NIST eBook conference, subsequent discussions about standards for conversion were held between Microsoft and two leading eBook pioneers with products already shipping: NuvoMedia Inc., which sells the Rocket eBook, and Softbook Press, which makes the rival Softbook. These discussions led to the formation of an Open eBook Authoring Group — a working group made up of representatives of the three founders, publishing houses, academics and NIST officials, plus other software and hardware firms. The working group was charged with developing a draft specification. Over the past year, members of a larger Open eBook group, many of whom attended the NIST conference, were given the opportunity to evaluate and make changes to the working group’s initial recommendations.

“The specification was developed by companies that are competing to some extent,”
Brass said.

And it had the potential to advantage one competitor over another depending on what was in the specification. But NIST and in particular Victor McRary played an important role in bringing everyone together and focusing our attentions on the common interest and benefits of working together. And to their great credit, these companies compromised and put aside their short-term interests in favor of creating a standard that will ultimately benefit consumers.

Microsoft developer Jerry Dunietz was co-author of the draft specifications.
“The process was remarkably collegial. The first time all three companies got together it was kind of awkward, but soon our common vision led us away from parochial positions to an amazing spirit of cooperation,”
Dunietz said.
“And the specs have definitely evolved significantly as a result of the contributions of the larger authoring group.”

Microsoft group program manager Jeff Alger and Microsoft program manager Kate Hughes also contributed to both the evolution of the standard and to Authoring Group logistics. Microsoft marketing manager Anne Schott created the Open eBook Web site, which serves as a central and up-to-date source of information on the initiative and its status.

The resulting Open eBook Publication Structure Specification addresses the primary needs of the electronic publishing industry: definitions for content and distributuon.

Content definition for a publication was achieved by drawing together the best of existing standards within an Open eBook industry framework. OEB is based primarily on XML because of its generality and simplicity, and because it increases the likelihood that documents will have greater longevity. XML also provides well-defined rules for the separation of structure from presentation.

This separation of content and presentation means a publisher can explicitly determine how a book should appear to a consumer on an electronic reading device, while being able to maintain a structured set of references to content that reduces costs of data management and facilitates its reuse in other forms. Elements and attributes selected from HTML for the OEB specification were chosen to be consistent with current directions in HTML and XML development. The significance of this approach for the eBook industry is that the OEB specification uses systems and taxonomies of proven integrity and that versions of OEB can be created with existing development tools.

The Open eBook specification ensures that all important distribution information is described to an electronic delivery system and reading system by using an OEB
“package file”
. An analogy for this package file is the gift wrap you put around a gift when sending it though a postal service: Just like your
“gift wrap”
, one (and only one) package file must be present for an OEB publication to be considered
and, just like the information you provide on the giftwrap, the “package file

will determine who receives the package and any particular instructions they should follow on receipt.

Specific examples of instructions included in
“the package file”
include defining the linear reading experience (something we take for granted in a paper book but which is of the utmost importance for providing a reading experience for an electronic publication,), and drawing attention to specific features of the book. A reader interested in a book on operating systems, for example, might choose to read only the overview of Windows versus all operating systems described in the book; a vegetarian chef might choose to exlude all meat recipes from his
“Cordon Bleu”
recipe book.

Because it can be defined uniquely for each publication or set of content, the
“Package File”
will enable innovative publishers and reading system providers to differentiate themselves in the marketplace without breaking the rules of the OEB specification.

The specification also conforms with World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) accessbility standards; the emphasis on extensibility (including extensible metadata; style definitions and the ability incorporates a variety objects such as embedded PDF documents or images of varying complexity); and the support for content in multiple natural languages.

“I believe that electronic reading is literally around the corner. It could be a few years before eBook sales explode, but I think that the beginning of the industry is now,”
said Dick Brass.
“The potential gain from the elimination of paper in reading is incredible. Pubishers will be able to sell titles without paying for printing, paper, Authors will find easier access to the public and the number of new voices will swell. In time, the cost of titles will drop significantly, too.”

“As the cost of computers and dedicated reading devices declines, the cost of educating a child also drops considerably as well,”
he continued.
“Even in the most remote villages of Africa and India, people will have access to an electronic library with tens of thousands of books.”

“Everyone will benefit if we get a standard for content distribution in the eBook industry,”
says Kate Hughes.
“Where we want to go next is to extend our reach in international markets. We want to embrace a worldwide content supply.”

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