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Rubber and Glue

The most general-purpose hardware boxes of all are personal computers. Yet despite hundreds of millions of PCs in use around the world, only a few hundred thousand of their users have downloaded e-books. The slow start is partly due to the perception that an e-book doesn’t fully replicate the book-reading experience. More importantly, the download culture-first evident with browser plug-ins, then with software upgrades and MP3 music files-has only taken hold recently with the non-geek public.

Ads by Microsoft would have us believe that what the e-book world has been waiting for is the company’s Reader program, which will be given away with every new copy of Windows. Microsoft Reader features ClearType software that evens out type edges on the screen. The reality is, however, that ClearType is warmed-over technology that failed to save handheld Windows CE devices from oblivion. To people accustomed to reading text on a computer for hours at a time, e-book screen clarity is a nonissue. Microsoft Reader also provides copy protection for authors and booksellers. But while e-books rights management may be important to intellectual property holders, it could be a futile quest. Any PC-based copy protection scheme can be cracked, as happened within two days of Stephen King’s first e-publication.

With more than 100 million Acrobat readers already downloaded onto computers, PDF is the de facto standard for e-book publication. PDF was specifically designed for preserving professional-quality documents across computer platforms and printers. And PDF technology offers a ready solution for those reluctant to read off a screen; simply print out the files. To counter Microsoft Reader, Adobe has recently beefed up its offerings with e-commerce encryption software called PDF Merchant, allowing rights to an electronic copy of a book to be assigned to a single computer. In addition, Adobe has challenged Microsoft’s ClearType with screen-enhancement routines of its own, which it calls CoolType; the competing technologies are similar enough in performance to make screen clarity even less of a concern. This year PDF will face a worthy challenger in the e-book format battle, as a consortium of e-book hardware makers, traditional publishers, and Microsoft push the new Open eBook (OEB) standard.

The difference between OEB and PDF is like the child’s rhyme that begins: “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” PDF is glue, locking in a book’s formatting so it can be preserved intact across output devices; once created, it is not meant to be modified in any way. This can be a drawback if an author or publisher wants to access parts of the text for excerpting or reconfiguring for a customized e-book, or for sampling or sale in smaller increments than book length. OEB is rubber: It allows an e-book’s content to be reformatted on the fly, using a markup language that is essentially an extension of HTML. OEB also makes it easy for dedicated reading devices to reformat text to fit their proprietary display configurations.

The first published spec for OEB addresses neither security nor e-commerce protocols, leaving it to individual vendors to come up with their own approaches. This omission raises the possibility that the proposed standard could splinter into a variety of incompatible implementations. Ultimately, both OEB and PDF could survive, with the rival formats used for different output stages of the same e-book-OEB in the intermediate stages of massaging editorial content, and PDF for final versions. (For all the flexibility of digital books, scholarship will probably demand that different editions of a work remain available in permanent form.)

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