Ebooks Part 2: Trends and Standards

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A week doesn't go by without an announcement about new e-readers, new ebook stores, and new ebook apps for readers, phones, and devices. It's the Wild West all over again in the quiet world of publishing, schools, research, and information users. It's a whole new reader roller coaster!

LAST time, I wrote about some of the issues facing us in the transition to a new and much more complicated ebook ecology. I noted that things were happening fast, and even more has happened since writing that column. In Part 1, I explored our too shallow understanding of ebooks and how they differ from traditional books. There is a wealth of difference in how we experience a book electronically depending on the kind of book it is: fiction, nonfiction, a scholarly work, an encyclopedia, a dictionary, a textbook, or, indeed, not a book at all but rather a magazine or newspaper. That said, we need to develop a better understanding of a few other things regarding what is happening in ebooks. This container for information and experiences isn't going away but is indeed mutating and growing in importance to research, libraries, entertainment, and education.

EMERGING STANDARDS, PLUS LEGAL AND OTHER ISSUES

Two issues that are guaranteed to be hot topics for many years are copyright and digital rights management (DRM). Our advice as information professionals will be sought even more regularly as our organizations struggle to adapt and be compliant with changing laws and practices. With small battles over Apple's App Store censorship of some books and the ability to limit or deny access to some apps, there are real concerns being expressed about the impact on our freedom to read. It's getting warmer and more complex out there.

As educators, we wish there could be just one ebook standard. We can dream, but it seems that every new technology evolves for many years in several directions at once. We can all recall when PC software wouldn't run on Apple machines and when there were competing browser standards. There were even different versions of videotape standards followed by the DVD/Blu-ray debate. It sometimes seems that "computer industry standards" is an oxymoron. But we must get on board early enough to understand and hopefully influence the development of these transformational technologies.

Right now we have a few competing standards largely driven by the various big e-reader vendors and not so much by the education, library, and publishing industries. There are a few international standards committees, and much good work is being done. However, the fat lady isn't singing yet, and there may still be time to influence the direction of events. In order to do so, you need to read up on these standards and understand each one's strengths, weaknesses, and openness.

In my opinion, it's premature to pick one. But I would suggest that, in terms of purchasing e-readers, you should choose a device that supports the most standards--unless you're only interested in fiction from Amazon! Keep close watch on EPUB, MOBI, and changes in HTML and HTML5 as well as PDF. Keep close watch on innovations in DRM such as the nook's announced ability to allow its books to be previewed and read in stores or to allow books to be lent from reader to reader. This competition won't just be about the level playing field but also about features and functions that support student, instructor, reader, research, collaboration, and information behaviors. The Wikipedia charts in Figure 1 are the most complete I've seen about the score in the spring of 2010.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

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IN THE PIPELINE FOR EBOOKS AND DEVICES

Since my Pipeline column tries to be about trends, let's think about what is in the pipeline for the coming months with respect to ebooks.

We have already seen the first big skirmishes in the price wars for books, with Amazon trying to set the allowable price(s) for all books. …