On the interoperability of e-book formats

A study into interoperability of e-book formats was unveiled at the EIBF Annual Conference, Brussels, 16 May and was presented during the CONTEC conference, in the TISP session ‘Business models for e-book distribution. Interoperability and opportunities in the multilingual Europe. Here’s Christoph Bläsi introduction to the study:

We had been used to different, competing file formats of text-only e-books for many years, think of the Mobipocket format (later called .azw by Amazon), PDF, a proposal by Microsoft called Reader, and many others. Attempts to establish an e-book format standard go back many years (OEB / OEBPS, from 1999), but did not get appropriate recognition. It was only when e-books gained relevant market shares from 2007 / 2008 (introduction of the Kindle in the US and other countries, respectively) and the iPad (2010) and ideas of interactive multimedia books from the 1990s were revived, that standardization efforts took up speed: it seemed finally possible to make enhanced e-books, as they were called, available on portable devices. EPUB 3 is the standard proposal for the enhanced e-book future; it was approved as an official standard by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) in October 2011 and recognized by the International Publishers Association (IPA) as the preferred standard in March 2013.

Our definition of interoperability is that e-books bought via different channels or in different ecosystems can be read using the same reader software or application, including using its administration and social reading funcionalities. Interoperability does not occur if the reading of different books requires the use of different reader applications, even if they run on the same (hardware) device.

In 2014 we can observe a remarkable range of e-books on offer in EPUB (mostly EPUB 2); a considerable market share, however, is still taken by e-books, also enhanced ones in proprietary formats, mostly .azw and .kf8 in the Amazon stores and .ibooks in the Apple stores. Moreover, there is also a growing number of book apps, platform-specific applications with book content, available in various app stores; these are not in the focus of this study, however.

It was the task of this study to find out, if Apple and Amazon have technical or functional reasons to stick to their proprietary formats, e.g. since these formats allow e-book features not realizable using EPUB. If this would be the case, interoperability could be justified for the time being. We have analyzed EPUB 3, Kf 8 (Amazon) and .ibooks (Apple) with respect to features like metadata, text appearance and fonts, layout of text, multimedia and interactivity, as well as globalization and accessibility.

The result of the study clearly shows that EPUB 3 can express everything needed for enhanced e-books (as we envisage them today) and that therefor there are no technical or functional reasons to use proprietary e-book formats: EPUB 3 realizes the superset of features needed for enhanced e-books.

It is interesting to know that for historical reasons (early standardization concepts and structures had been taken onboard by the proprietary formats) the formats in question are related very strongly internally. And it is also interesting to observe that a further internal convergence of the formats in the direction of EPUB (3) can be observed. This strengthens the result that adhering to proprietary formats is motivated (business) strategically, not technically or functionally.

The use of EPUB 3 by all e-book publishers and distributors would solve all problems of non-interoperability, then? Unfortunately not: the ecosystems – as they are often called, using a life sciences metaphor – in question, the Apple ecosystem and the Amazon ecosystem, are not only fenced-off against each other and the rest of the e-book world by the use of non-interoperable e-book formats, but also by the ease of use of the platforms, by the tight coupling between hardware, software, and content, by corresponding terms & conditions (it is often just not allowed to export e-books out of theses platforms), and above all by ecosystem-specific DRM measures.
It seems, as if there would be still quite a few problems to be cracked, before there will be a free choice without lock-in for customers and a fair competition just on content and service between publishers and retailers.

This study had been commissioned by the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) in Brussels and carried out by Prof. Franz Rothlauf (information systems) and Prof. Christoph Bläsi (book studies) from Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz in spring 2013.


The report is available HERE 




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