Open Standards

October 30, 2006

My recent post on Adobe’s Acrobat-disguised-as-an-eReader Digital Editions software drew a response from m’learned friends over at Mobileread. Alexander Turcic pointed out that DE doesn’t only support PDFs, but also the forthcoming Open eBook Publication Structure (OEBPS), a new standard for content creators and consumers – about which the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) has just published a press release.

The new standard also includes a container standard for packaging ebooks (the Open eBook Publication Structure Container Format, or OCF), and is intended to make it easier and cheaper for all concerned. The IDPF and the OEBPS have some fairly heavyweight backers too – Adobe themselves, unsurprisingly, the Hachette Book Group, ebookseller Mobipocket (another of Amazon’s recent acquisitions), Random House, Simon & Schuster, and many others.

But the OEBPS isn’t the only standard available, and this is where it gets interesting. Their main rival, OpenReader, is a non-proprietary standard which nevertheless includes a standardised DRM. At first glance, this sounds counterintuitive to our position on DRM – in general, a bad thing for readers. But the OEBPS’s lack of a standardised DRM means that any publisher can slap their own conditions on the ebooks – meaning, for example, you could only read a particular book on a Sony Reader, just like you can only listen to MP3s from the iTunes store on an iPod. And the presence of people like John Perry Barlow endorsing OpenReader gives us a great deal of hope.

What is without doubt is that a new and consistent standard must be settled upon before the ebook market takes off and the book world gets into a VHS/Betamax type fight. The strength of the web’s open standards community comes from the fact that grassroots organisations had time to flourish before the corporations stepped in. With Adobe’s and the Publishing Conglomerate’s billions depending on this, that won’t be the case here. Both standards are based on XML, but there are many significant differences, and choosing the right one will be crucial for the future of books.

For the technically minded, specifications for both standards are available at and Some interesting places to go for more info include OpenReader Director of Strategic Information David Rothman’s blog at (and his excellent piece in Publisher’s Weekly on the overcomplication of ebooks), and the blog of Abobe’s General Manager of ePublishing Business, Bill McCoy.

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