An eBook Standards Carol Part 1: Ghosts of Formats Past

Hey folks, brace yourselves for a lot of information about the eBook format wars; I’m going to switch hats for the next two posts and write as a technical writer rather than a novelist. I’ll get back to the ghosts and goblins soon, I promise. This post began with a two-part post over at A List Apart about the state of standardization in the current eBook market and where it might be going, including the need for a standard format that everyone can use. You can read Part One here and Part Two here, then come on back.

I shared the post with JW Manus, as she’s explored quite a bit with formatting eBooks and even taught me some tricks that I didn’t know. I was interested in seeing her take on it (and she is sharing her thoughts in tandem with my own here – we’re going for complimentary posts here, so please read hers, too, it’s a worthwhile read), but we ended up in a discussion and I realized that I, too, actually have some things to say about the current state of eBooks and format standardization. Here is the drive of my argument, cleaned up just a bit:

“I’ve come to realize that I’m fortunate in some ways, as I’ve been fighting the formatting wars for close to 13 years when creating documentation (I’ve become a style sheet wizard, which helps in HTML transformations, but that’s a hard-fought victory). Standards can definitely be a double-edged sword. Implementation is everything – MS Word, for example, has some standards, but the implementation is incredibly sloppy. Anyway…he’s right in that we’re becoming a bit more platform agnostic, but everything seems so very patchwork. The most reliable application that I have found for converting Kindle files is an antiquated command-line application. We have to use the ridiculous workarounds that come with translating legacy file formats, and the future is just more of those workarounds if we continue down the same path of everybody following their own paths. This line, in particular, echoes something I’ve written on my blog: ‘The publishing landscape of 2012 looks similar to the music landscape of 1998, crossed with the web designs of 1996: it’s encumbered by DRM and proprietary formats, it treats customers as criminals, it’s fragmented across platforms, and it’s hostile to authors who want to distribute their work through independent channels.'”

Essentially, I realized that I had lived through so much of the period described above that I should talk some about what that was like, and what I learned. Here’s a bit of my own journey, and how I see things eventually playing out, from the standpoint of a technical writer.

My career journey began in 1995, when I acquired a steady point of access to the Internet via my University’s connection. Sure, I had been on before, using a patchwork combination of friends’ Prodigy and AOL accounts (the latter kind of not really qualifying but a mindblowing deal at the time). This was the REAL wild west of the Internet: our browsers didn’t have images unless they were running on high-powered computers, which you almost never saw; our chat was IRC, and while it could be simple to use, it was also very flexible and allowed you to do incredible things – for yourself or to others; and the quickest way to send files was a shared FTP site. Having your photo online was unthinkable. You get the picture.

I started learning rudimentary HTML at the time, though pretty much all HTML was rudimentary. So few people were creating their websites  and there were so few browser options that things were opened wide up. Remember, Internet Explorer wouldn’t even debut until the end of the year  – as if we would ever use that. Your options were either the text-based Lynx, Netscape (formerly Mozilla), Omniweb, and Grail. I only heard of the latter, but never saw them. HTML as a standard was still fairly new, and didn’t have anywhere near the features that it would support in ten years, so you were pretty safe writing a web site in a certain way; browsers would handle HTML in the same fashion. My original site is long-gone, or I would show what I’m talking about. What you need to know is that it was fairly straightforward: these tags did that, and you’re ahead of most of the game if you can italicize words or indent.

Internet Explorer 1.

Internet Explorer is pretty much where that started to go off the rails. This is probably a familiar pattern to most folks – open standard is established, big company comes along and bastardizes the format into a proprietary format that enables said company to corner a part of the market. Microsoft was bad about this, but are far from the only culprits. Suddenly your HTML might not look the same in Internet Explorer as in Netscape. You had to start customizing your code for certain browsers. You other Internet graybeards will no doubt remember this, along with the “Optimized for Netscape” disclaimers on sites:

I think you can probably see where I’m going here. The fragmentation just got worse and worse over the years, as new browsers came and went and different companies dug in their heels. Yes, HTML was supposed to be an international standard, but no one could really enforce this. So too, today do we have a myriad of different major eBook formats. Most draw on HTML, but have their own implementations and interpretations of the tags. Here’s just a sampling, though I’m sure you’re familiar with most:

  • ePub
  • eReader (pdb)
  • HTML (yes there are still eBooks that are pure HTML)
  • Kindle (.azw and .kf8, also works with MOBI)
  • Mobipocket (MOBI)
  • Microsoft .lit (LIT)
  • Acrobat (PDF)
And so on. You get the idea. Loads of different formats out there, and no one “ring to rule them all”. These each have their own advantages and drawbacks, which I’ll talk about in the next post. For now, I think you might have a picture of where the web and HTML lie around the turn of the century: the whole thing was a mess (and we haven’t even talked about things like VRML, Java, or SGML, but we’ll get there soon). The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international standards organization that governs…well, web standards, saw the need to move the web forward with new features but also an increasing need to have everyone speaking the same language.
Enter XML. We’ll talk some about that in the next entry.
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  1. Pingback: Do We Need Standards in Ebooks? | J W Manus

  2. This whole idea of standardization excites me and makes me nervous. I just want to see the day when I can worry and fuss over things that count (like how my ebook looks) instead of obsessanating over petty details the end user never sees.

    Thanks for this!

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