Thirteen Ways of Looking at Ebook Standards

Some thoughts, inspired by a blog post by Eric Hellman.

  1. For me, the biggest question is not the organizational structure of the standards bodies, but who participates. IDPF in the early days was an interesting mix of Adobe, Microsoft, DAISY, and reading systems startups. There was almost no publisher involvement on the standards side until recently. Oddly, as more publishers participate, fewer reading systems seem to be involved. Where are Apple, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo?
  2. Ebooks are made of web stuff. Involvement from the web community (as found at W3C) has already been invaluable to the PWP effort. Most ebook folks are not expert on service workers, the web security model, the semantic web, etc. We need to know about all those things. We’re also seeing some participation from the library and archiving communities through W3C, which is most welcome.
  3. W3C specifications, unlike IDPF specifications, require both implementations and tests before they are finalized. This is a good thing. Compare how interoperable the web is with how interoperable ebooks are.
  4. Standards work is political—people with different interests, perspectives, and goals trying to agree on what should be done. It’s going to be messy no matter what. And of course standards organizations are organizations, with their own cultures and processes. They are also surprisingly undemocratic in various ways. Note that all of the organizations we’re talking about are committed to open, non-proprietary standards.
  5. Nothing we do will bring Amazon to the table. KF7 is OEB inbred with weird Palm stuff. KF8 is zombie EPUB3. It’s all HTML + CSS + package file + zip. But remember that publishers did get Amazon to ingest EPUB.
  6. The big problem is how to get more people participating, especially people from outside larger companies that can afford the very significant costs of IDPF or W3C membership. The Extensible Web Manifesto is trying to bring web developer’s voices into W3C process. How can we bring #eprdctn voices into our process?
  7. Even those massive companies with seemingly infinite resources don’t participate as much as one would hope. Standards work is just plain weird. The barriers to entry are not just financial, not just having time, not just having management support. There are cultural issues, steep learning curves, a lack of information on how to get started.
  8. Anyone can file an issue on GitHub for EPUB 3.1, PWP, the PWP use cases document, BFF, the various ongoing experiments from Hadrien Gardeur and Dave Cramer, etc. Perhaps ebookcraft should have a standards feedback session. Maybe we need chapters.io for ebooks.
  9. We—meaning all the people I know involved with ebook standards—do want to hear from you! We don’t care what company you work for, if any. We just want to know what works, what doesn’t work, how you think it could be better. That being said, we are human. It does matter how you say things, and how you act. If you are convinced your way is the only way, and there’s a vast conspiracy against you, you may be ignored.
  10. There are hard problems to solve, and even new ebook standards might not be able to solve all of them. How can we make ebooks interoperable, not just on the technical level but on the business level? How do portable documents fit with the security model of the web? How do we work with browsers to add core document features to the web?
  11. The phrase “competing standards” scares me. I’m all-too-familiar with the time when we had four utterly incompatible formats (OEB-based, PDF, BBeB, and Palm).
  12. I want things to be better. I want to spend more time on design and experimentation and less time on workarounds and testing. I don’t want to be completely dependent on complex reading systems and existing distribution channels. The web has given us tremendous scope for innovation and experimentation. Let’s do that with books, too.
  13. I know, it’s not just books