Microsoft Decides

Last November, I speculated as to which, if any, eBook format Microsoft would support in Windows 8 tablets.

[Mistakenly, I also ranked Windows Media Center as “more central” to Microsoft’s media consumption story. What? It’s just one piece of the puzzle. Anyway. Always willing to admit mistakes.]

And now it looks like we have our answer. A $1.7 billion answer, by the way. Call it the Nook. From Barnes & Noble.

Microsoft agreed to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Barnes & Noble’s Nook division on Monday, giving the bookstore chain stronger footing in the hotly contested electronic book market and creating an alliance that could intensify the fight over the future of digital reading.

ePub is now the official winner in the eBook format wars. Why do I say that? It’s the eBook format supported by nearly everyone. Apple. Sony. Adobe. Kobo Reader. Blackberry Playbook. Everyone except Amazon, which uses a proprietary variant of the Mobi format; to be kind, they also support a command-line ePub converter called KindleGen. Woo woo.

Oh wait… I’m missing something… Amazon owns 60% of the eBook market. And the U.S. Department of Justice apparently wants to help them get back to 90%. Winner: Mobi.

At any rate, here’s what Microsoft has decided:

  • On the eBook format side, Microsoft chooses ePub by investing in the Nook Division. It’s the primary eBook format for the Nook Color and that’s the future. Winner: ePub.
  • On the device side, the news release says the Nook Division will create a Nook Reader for Windows 8. That reader will likely read multiple format types (the Android-based Nook already does), with ePub prominent among them. Winner: ePub.

eBook Chemotherapy

Amazon recently announced KF8, which adds HTML5 interactivity to ebooks sold on the Kindle Fire (and later other Kindles). In a counterpunch, Apple recently announced the Apple iBooks format (.iba), which adds new levels of interactivity to ebooks produced for Apple’s iBookstore.

It’s not like they’ve abandoned their previous formats, however. They’ve simply added new ones. New ones that are… somewhat proprietary. I say somewhat, because the epub format is at the core of both. I can start with an epub formatted ebook, for example, and use KF8 to generate an Amazon-valid eBook in the .mobi format. An unzipped Apple iBook Author document (.iba) looks like this, with an epub sitting in the middle of the thing, big as life.

[Hint: to get this result, one must Export from iBooks Author, then change the .ibooks extension to .epub. From there, you can unzip the file.]

iBooks Author unzipped package file

There’s been a bit of back and forth between Daniel Glazman, co-chair of the W3C CSS Working Group, and John Gruber, of Daring Fireball, as to whether the new Apple format is a helpful development. (I hope they get to Amazon’s KF8, as well. Because, as I said elsewhere, this is a salvo in the eBook Store battle between Amazon and Apple.)

I think both writers have valid points. As Gruber notes, Apple has created a tool that adds considerable value to its own platform. The output, to say the least, is not only gorgeous but truly interactive. It takes eBooks to the next level. And iBooks Author is Apple-easy to use, of course. But there is one point that Glazman makes about the iBooks Author format that sticks the hardest:

[T]his is a bad strategy because publishers are fed up with formats. For one book, they have too many formats to export to. For each format, they have to use tools to convert (usually from MS Word) that are incomplete and all require manual reformatting or validation. Adding an extra format that is almost EPUB3 but is definitely not EPUB3 output by a software that is an isolated island and does not offer any extra help to reduce the publishing burden is representing a huge extra investment…

Yes, of course this format proliferation isn’t Apple’s fault per se. And, yes, Amazon is doing the same thing (neener, neener, children on a playground, anyone?). But a quick perusal of the Wiki page on eBook formats reveals… 17 different versions, twelve of which are still active. No, wait… Add KF8 and IBA and that makes fourteen… This is definitely the “worse” part of the format war. You will have to create multiple versions of your eBook if you want to sell everywhere.

And remember, too, that Apple considers the Multi-Touch books created by iBook Author as separate entities, requiring an additional contract (Source: iBookstore: Publisher User Guide 2.0, January 19, 2012). So even Apple acknowledges there’s extra work here.

The “better” part? Standards are definitely starting to coalesce around the epub format. The Kindle Fire, for example, is said to support epub as well as mobi. Indeed, epub is the most widely supported “vendor-independent XML-based e-book format,” with a wide variety of platforms supported, from iOS, to Barnes & Noble’s Nook, to the Sony Reader, to a bunch of others.

Overall, though, I would say this is like chemotherapy. It’s supposed to make things better, but right now it really feels bad.

iBooks Author: First Look

Apple yesterday introduced a new eBook creation app, appropriately called iBooks Author. I say appropriately named because, if you charge a fee for the eBook so created, you can only sell it on Apple’s iBookstore. In other words, iBooks Author is not, nor is it intended to be, a general purpose eBook creation tool.

iBooks Author license

After a quick tryout and eBook creation exercise, I also conclude that the tool is definitely scoped for textbooks, NOT general purpose eBooks like trade or mass market fiction.

This has much to do with the constraints of the templates, which impose a structure that a straightforward eBook can do without. A Chapter and Section layout is pretty much required. This fits well with textbooks, not so well with other types of content. And, in its current iteration, iBooks Author offers no flexibility here.

Chapter and Section Layout Grid

iBooks Author layout choices

For example, take a look at the two template choosers below. The first is from iBooks Author; the second is from Pages (which, by the way, seems to have served as the code base for iBooks Author). Pages has, well, a ton of templates; iBook Author has six. That’s not intended as a knock; rather, it’s offered as proof of the latter’s limited flexibility.

iBooks Author Template
Six templates. That’s it. Six beautiful templates, though.

iBooks Author templates

Pages Template
Multiple templates. Including the highly flexible “Blank Canvas.”

Pages template

Push Pop Press Lives

After downloading the free E.O. Wilson Life on Earth textbook, created with iBooks Author, I can see where Apple is headed. The Wilson textbook is cut from the same cloth as the Al Gore Our Choice opus, available exclusively on Apple’s iBookstore. They share a very similar navigation, structural and interaction model. I wonder if Apple hired some of the Push Pop Press devs responsible for the Al Gore work. If so, Facebook got the company but Apple got the better deal.

Bottom Line

This leads me to my conclusion: iBooks Author is but the latest installment in the battle between Apple and Amazon over the future of eBooks. Both are moving toward HTML5, albeit in proprietary or otherwise restricted ways. Amazon is offering publishing deals to lock in authors to exclusive contracts. Apple is using its (so far superior) toolset to the same end.

This is not a case where I feel comfortable saying “let the best bookstore win.” Of course, I recognize that the traditional publishing model is also based on exclusivity. But both Amazon and Apple blur the lines between publishers and distributors. It’s difficult at the moment to see how the “best of both worlds” can emerge in this model. Too many walled gardens, I fear.

Other Views

Kindle Format 8 (KF8) Update

Amazon has just released an updated version of its Kindle eBook creation toolset. Let it be said, it’s a grand accomplishment. KF8 adds over 150 new formatting capabilities, including drop caps, numbered lists, fixed layouts, nested tables, callouts, sidebars and Scalable Vector Graphics. And, as Amazon notes:

Kindle Fire is the first Kindle device to support KF8 – in the coming months KF8 will be rolled out to our latest generation Kindle e-ink devices as well as our free Kindle reading apps.

Amazon simultaneously released an updated version of its Kindle Previewer, the app that lets content creators preview their Kindle-compatible eBook files.

In this installment, I’ll focus on the updates to the Kindle Previewer. The KF8 review awaits more in-depth experience with the tool (it’s still command-line, but Amazon supports epub to mobi conversion through current and previous versions of the Previewer app).

KINDLE FIRE PREVIEWER (FIRST IMPRESSIONS)

Pros:

  • Supports color. The Kindle Fire Previewer supports color. The Kindle Previewer does not; if your ePub targets multiple platforms, and color is part of the mix, you’re in a bit of a bind with the old Previewer. Kindle Fire Previewer fixes that.
  • Renders text more faithfully. The Kindle Previewer has inconsistent text rendering, making it hard to tell whether it’s your file or the Previewer that has the problem. Kindle Fire Previewer fixes that.
  • Converts epub to mobi and KF8. This is the whole point of the new toolset, so this is a no duh.

Cons:

  • Previewer Window too long. The Kindle Fire Previewer app window is taller than its predecessor, because the Fire is, well, taller. There’s more on the page. On the Mac, though, that means that the bottom of the app window is obscured by the Dock.
  • App Window not resizable. This is a carry over from the older Kindle Previewer. But the default height of the old Previewer was less, because Kindle e-ink devices are smaller, so the obscuring the dock problem was not evident. Bottom line: you can’t fix this problem except by minimizing the Dock.
  • NOTE: All tests were conducted at a screen resolution of 1920 x 1200. We get it that the fixed size on the Previewer is a proxy for what the eBook will look like on various Kindles. But something got lost in translation. The Kindle Fire has a resolution of 1024 x 600. Come on; it should fit with room to spare.

Kindle Previewer With Dock

Kindle Previewer with Dock (Mac)

Kindle Previewer Without Dock

Kindle Previewer with Dock (Mac)

Google Responds

iSuppli reports that the Kindle Fire has vaulted into second place in the tablet market. At 3.9 million shipped units, Kindle Fire numbers are nearly triple its nearest competitor (Samsung, at 1.3 million). Add in the Barnes & Noble tablet, with shipment estimates also at 1.3 million, and “forked” Android devices ring in at a solid 19% of market share.

The RIM tablet, meanwhile, is headed in the other direction, with a high level of unsold PlayBook inventory. There is some irony here, as Amazon used the PlayBook as a reference design for the Fire.

We’re not surprised at how this has turned out. The end-to-end model, with hardware, software and a retail presence, is emerging as the best way to incentivize consumer tablet purchases. Up to now, however, we have focused on Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble — they have the strongest end-to-end presence.

One wonders how Goggle will respond to this competitive threat — threat because, while Amazon and Barnes & Noble use Google’s Android to power their devices, they substitute their own ecosystem for that of Google’s Android. That’s a willful avoidance of Google’s advertising model.

Wonder no more. Claire Cain Miller and Nick Bilton, writing for the New York Times, report that Google is working “on a delivery service that would let people order items from local stores on the Web and receive them at their homes or offices within a day.” Combined with Google Wallet and Google Offers, the services offer a proxy for the retail presence of Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Will it work? Well, there’s a chance. Google’s biggest enemy at times is itself, with a penchant for perpetual Beta’s that lead nowhere fast. This is not necessarily a knock; all successful tech companies have a backlog of failed products. This time out, the pieces for an end-to-end retail experience do appear to be coming together. The trick for Google is to integrate these three experiences (wallet, offers and delivery) into a seamless whole.

One thinks Google may well deliver — if only because they must. Once they build a retail experience into Android, it will become (nearly) ubiquitous. The bigger question is whether anyone will care. Preliminary surveys indicate consumers don’t trust Google Wallet for mobile payments. That’s a big hurdle to overcome.

Update: Although it may cause another set of problems, one wonders how long Google will sit on the Motorola acquisition before trying to leverage it as part of an end-to-end strategy.

Consume + Purchase

We have noted in these pages that Amazon’s big bet with the Kindle Fire is a device that links consumers directly to the purchase experience. A cynical characterization calls it a contemporary Sears catalog. Now comes research indicating that at least one segment of device owners are willing to take that idea one step further.

As proof, the Association of Magazine Media (MPA) just released a study examining the attitudes and behaviors of a select group of consumers: tablet and e-reader owners who read app-based magazines on those devices. It’s in part a testimony to how fast things are happening in this space: a year ago, they lacked the critical mass to even conduct such a study. There are a number of interesting findings, but the data on purchase behavior was striking:

Significant to both publishers and advertisers, mobile commerce is a key point of interest to digital magazine consumers:  59% want the ability to buy directly from ads, while 70% stated that they want to be able to purchase products and services directly from editorial features.  At this point, most of the respondents (73%) typically engage with digital magazine ads.

The Kindle Fire paradigm is direct purchase: search a product listing and then purchase an item. For the study participants, at least, the indirect purchase experience is also meaningful. Here they may be reading a magazine article and either want to purchase something mentioned there — or see an associated ad that drives them to a purchase decision.

If the now vexing customer data issue can be resolved, some electronic publishing models appear to have a clear path forward. After all, customers who actually buy things are the most valuable to advertisers. The MPA survey even points to some implementation details: Most respondents want more electronic newsstands (76%) as well as the ability to easily find specific titles to download (79%).

Seems straightforward. Some caution is warranted. The MPA study is focused on early adopters; their behaviors don’t always illuminate what occurs at mass-adoption. But the signs pointing to new revenue models are encouraging. I’ll state the obvious: this isn’t your grandmother’s Sears catalog. But, then, neither is the Sears catalog.

Lending eBooks

The first English language reference to a “lending library” occurred in 1586. Since that time, they have taken many forms, including parish libraries, endowment libraries and municipal corporation libraries. Though they are to be distinguished from public (or circulating) libraries by the source of funding, they share a fundamental concept: participants “borrow” rather than “buy” the books in question.

The eBook, however, has challenged the concept of lending or borrowing books. Absent institutional support, the eBook remains tied to a single user. That’s tough to swallow. After more than five centuries of this practice, it’s also a hard habit to break. Most of us, at one time or another, have borrowed a book. I have personally lent copies of “Butcher, Baker” to a number of people, mostly family and friends. It’s an effective and efficient way to “spread the wealth.” Some of these borrowers later became buyers.

Now comes news that Amazon is taking steps to bring the eBook into the lending library tradition. Well, sort of… They’ve created the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. The operative words here are Kindle Owners’ who, by the way, must also be Amazon Prime subscribers. Yes, that’s correct. If you own any other device or eReader, you’re out of luck, even with an Amazon Prime subscription. According to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon is using this restriction to drive Kindle sales.

Truth told, however, there is less here than meets the eye. Of the major six publishers, none are participating in this program. So Amazon is “offering” a grand total of 5,000 books. If we put that in mobile app terms, this would qualify Amazon as a third-tier player. It’s naive, however, to think that the lack of lending capabilities will make the eBook less popular or that it won’t eventually dominate book sales. And Amazon is making the most disruptive moves here.

Windows 8 eBooks

Two months ago, I was wondering which eBook format Windows 8 will support. Perhaps it’s still too early to tell. After all, the Windows 8 team only recently got around to releasing Windows Media Center in its pre-beta builds. Windows Media Center is, arguably, more central to the Windows 8 media consumption story, given its focus on movies, music and TV. That doesn’t stop me from being curious.

After looking at how Windows Phone 7 handles eBooks, I’m wondering if that provides a clue toward what Windows 8 will do. The short answer appears to be that Microsoft may be content to let third parties handle this issue. A quick perusal of the Windows Phone store reveals support for both the EPUB and Amazon Kindle formats.

Again, the eBook format shoe may drop later in the Windows 8 build cycle. The unknown is whether Microsoft will replicate the Kindle Store or iBookstore experience on the Windows 8 Store. If they do, they’ll have to make a decision. If Windows Phone 7 is any indication, they won’t. This is one case where taking no decision feels like a good thing.

The eBook Fragmentation Toolset

Writer and game designer Guido Henkel has weighed in on Amazon’s recent announcement of the KF8 format, which brings HTML5 to the Kindle. He makes the very salient point that, while it promises to move the platform forward, there’s a devil in the fine print. His concern? Platform fragmentation. As he rightly points out, the Kindle line now includes three sets of incompatible capabilities. The idea of “write once, run anywhere,” the catchy slogan Sun Microsystems coined to sell Java, deteriorates into that familiar rejoinder, “write once, debug everywhere.”

This is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast. As Andy Rubin, Google’s VP of Engineering, notes in The Guardian about a recent attempt to bring sanity to the mobile space: “There is always a dream that you could write [a program] once and [have it] run anywhere and history has proven that that dream has not been fully realised and I am sceptical that it ever will be.”

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some push-back. Vocal and persistent push-back. And if anyone knows about fragmentation, it should be Andy Rubin, Google’s Android guru. The Android platform is seriously fragmented. It’s so bad at the moment that developers actually have to decide which Android version (and hardware platform) to write for.

At the same time, it is clear to me that Amazon’s push for KF8 is a much-needed move toward HTML5, in support of the Kindle Fire. I would have preferred they adopt the ePub format, but I suspect Amazon doesn’t want to cut the MOBI cord entirely. The promise of backward compatibility is always tempting, especially when some of your developers (and PMs) were schooled at Microsoft.

So am I panicking yet? Well, I’m trying to keep things in perspective.

The hardest job, in my estimation, isn’t converting a work to the eBook format. The hardest job is writing the work in the first place. As I’ve said here a number of times, what I really want are BETTER TOOLS for that last mile, where conversion takes place. I was an early fan of Push Pop Press (gone). I think Adobe’s InDesign has great potential here. InDesign isn’t perfect, but Adobe has stepped up to the plate and released an ePub plug-in; Amazon has added its own Kindle plug-in to the mix. Good first steps.

Yes, it urinates me to have to create, I dunno, three or four versions of everything. I care what my work looks like. I tweak the code to improve the result. I loathe the idea of turning it over to Smashwords or Smashmouth or whatever the hell it’s called. So please, Amazon (and Apple, for that matter), don’t let this get out of hand. Next time you have a big idea about moving the eBook format forward, call Andy Rubin. No, wait. Don’t.

Amazon Makes the (Next) Move

Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal [David Streitfeld, The New York Times]

Yes, This is About Publishing

As a disrupter, Amazon wants to shift the way people purchase and consume things. Books have always been high on their agenda. In some respects, in fact, it has taken longer to get there than Amazon expected. We’ve been talking about Amazon’s goals here since the mid-90s. If anything, they have been exceptionally patient (as have their investors).

Over the years, they’ve built an end-to-end infrastructure and platform. They know how to fill the channel. They’ll fill it with books, software and the devices to get (and keep) you there. As part of their keeping-the-channel-full strategy, they think it makes sense to go the last mile. They’ll start with the author-as-entrepreneur. One assumes they will eventually get some very big names, with extensive back catalogs, to sign on. Their hope is that the rest will follow.

This is the sound of the next shoe dropping. It comes just as I was getting excited about more publishing options for authors, not fewer.

But there is at least one competitor that can outflank Amazon. Update: Maybe too much so.

In the iPad, Apple has a great general purpose Post-PC that also happens to be a reading device. Competing on this level is not Amazon’s forte nor, I would venture, a core goal of its device strategy. Apple, meanwhile, seems to have an interest in keeping the publishing market (or at least the App Store) vital and competitive. Like Amazon, they increasingly sell an ecosystem.

This ultimately means that Apple must will take steps to ensure that Amazon does not become dominant in areas where their interests overlap. This is where we have historically seen Apple make alliances with other industry players. I expect that to play out again, although many in the industry worry that Apple already has too much power and would very much like to see Amazon become a countervailing force. I lean that way myself.

At the moment, it’s still a game of big ships, maneuvering into position, cannons at the ready. Not just these two giants. The entire publishing industry is on the water here, guns in various states of readiness. I’m keeping my options open. Which, for the moment, I can.