If you don’t think ebooks are the wave of the future, Adobe wants you to think again. On June 19, the San Jose, Calif.-based company announced the release of its new ebook software, Adobe Digital Editions, a product that Bill McCoy, general manager of Adobe’s epublishing business, calls "the centerpiece of Adobe’s expanded digital publishing strategy." Major companies such as Sony, Random House, and HarperCollins are already working with Adobe’s new ebook technology; Digital Editions will be integrated into the Sony Reader product line, and publishers are taking advantage of Adobe’s DRM capabilities and the new International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF; www.idpf.org) EPUB XML-based open standard for text reflow, a technology that McCoy believes "has the potential to be at least as important to the future of portable documents as today’s PDF."
Adobe Digital Editions is a lightweight (2.5 MB) application that allows users to read and to manage any ebook or other digital publication that is supported by the PDF- or XML-based files. The software combines an iTunes-like interface with support for Flash SWF for audio and video enhancement as well as DRM and EPUB. Adobe offers free applications for Microsoft Windows and Mac-based operating systems, and a Linux version is in the works. To download the software and read the complete press release, see www.adobe.com/products/digitaleditions.
The Digital Editions client downloads and installs within seconds (no .exe file involved) and runs faster than Adobe Reader. The sleek, black interface has an iTunes feel to it (although some viewers might find the dark buttons and scrollbars hard to locate). Whether online or offline, users can create and organize multiple playlistlike bookshelves in their libraries as they add titles. Users can drag and drop files from the general library into the bookshelves to categorize documents by genre, type, or source. When titles have been added to the library, readers can view the items by cover thumbnails or as a detailed list (title, author, publisher, last read, number of pages, date added, or status). Users can also read any metadata, such as permissions information, attached to a file. Titles are sorted into default bookshelves—all items, borrowed items, purchased items, and recently read items. Users can also add bookmarks and annotations (stored in an open XML format that, according to McCoy, facilitates future social networking features) and view a table of contents.
The interface offers flexible reading modes—single page, facing pages, and a zoom mode that allows the user to control the page size (from 87 percent to 919 percent) using a zoom widget. As the text is resized, it can wrap and reflow to fit the screen with the help of IDPF’s EPUB open standard, developed as the universal distribution format for reflowing text from large to small screens to portable devices quickly and efficiently. (For an explanation of the EPUB format, see IDPF executive director Nick Bogaty’s comment addressing the if:book blog’s [critical] review of Digital Editions.) Those used to viewing documents with Acrobat Reader will note the absence of the page-grab scrolling and a visible +/- zoom tool on the main interface.
With the versatility of its EPUB technology, the IDPF proudly states that it has pulled off a "triple play." Along with Digital Editions and Sony Reader support for the format standard, Adobe has also introduced EPUB authoring in its new InDesign CS3 product. This tool will allow publishers to export EPUB files just as easily as one creates PDFs with InDesign. The exported file includes a JPEG thumbnail image from the first page (or cover) and an automatically generated table of contents that includes links to all documents in the book.
Bogarty believes this "publisher creation of .epub digital books through their conversion vendors and via authoring tools like Adobe InDesign CS3 will lower book production costs for publishers, will increase flow of content through distribution/retail, and will increase interoperability for consumers of digital books." The IDPF does not require fees to use the specs to develop software or produce ebooks, which will help small publishers and individuals to create their own digital publications.
Adobe Digital Editions has gained the support of leading publishers and online ebook retailers. EPUB adopters include Random House, HarperCollins, Harlequin, Peachpit Press, and O’Reilly Media, which announced this month that it will sell (DRM-free) books by the chapter. According to Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO: "The future of publishing is no longer tied to the printed page, yet the rich heritage of print and the sheer usability of print mean that we can’t leave it behind. Meanwhile, reflowable XML content allows for the kind of agility and remixability that readers have come to expect on the Web, but getting it to print has always meant jumping through hoops. A new publishing platform that joins the benefits of print and online into one seamless experience is the holy grail of publishing."
Neil De Young, director of digital media at Hachette Book Group, praised Adobe’s collaboration with publishers. "We’re encouraged and happy to see Adobe working together with publishers to foster open standards. The support for dynamic adaptive content in Adobe Digital Editions will be a major plus for readers and will bring the reading experience of digital content to a whole new level."
For publishers that choose to use DRM technology, the Digital Editions uses Adobe ADEPT (Adobe Digital Editions Protection Technology), which is a hosted service for protecting premium digital content against unauthorized use. ADEPT supports both purchase and lending transactions for libraries. Although it is unclear whether ebook DRM will spark a music-industry-level debate on the issue, according to David Rothman, a critic of DRM, "standardized e-book formats help everyone, DRMers and DRM-haters alike, by allowing sophisticated typographical niceties and other advantages—especially useful for scientific, technical, and mathematical publishing."
McCoy agrees. "With PDF for final-form content and EPUB for ‘liquid’ content that adapts to the user’s display size and preferred font size, I believe we have achieved an open standard format platform that the industry as a whole will rapidly adopt, and finally end the ‘Tower of eBabel’ of competing proprietary formats."
However, skeptics such as Dan Visel at the if:book blog (the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, which is developing the Sophie ebook software) are concerned that Digital Editions, with its DRM capabilities and the user’s expense of having to upgrade to InDesign CS3 and purchase a pricey device such as Sony Reader, benefits the publisher much more than the consumer. Yet, DRM and purchasing iPods did not stop consumers from buying iTunes music in record numbers. Only time—and sales figures—will tell.
So, bring on the ebooks! Adobe Digital Editions is already compatible with about 150,000 commercially published titles, but the desktop application, unlike iTunes, does not link to a particular ebook store, and therefore the user is not able to directly search and download new ebooks from within the application (not yet, anyway). Adobe does provide a Sample eBook Library (http://adedemo.com) where users can download free books or sample chapters from EPUB partners. One major online retailer, eBooks.com, supports Digital Editions and advises patrons to switch from Adobe Reader. If sales do not disappoint, more publishers and retailers will likely follow suit.
Adobe admits that it still has a lot of work to do. Right now, only Macs, Windows-based PCs, and PDAs can use the software, and there is no support for many of the mobile devices—specifically any Linux-based reader or any of the smartphones. (Adobe has not disclosed whether the highly hyped iPhone will contain Digital Editions in the future.) So right now, reading on the run—the strength of its potential—is limited. Additionally, Adobe needs to reach out to an international audience. The English-only software will be available in French, German, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese in the second half of 2007 with other languages on the horizon. (One would think that a Spanish version is also in the works, but at press time Adobe representatives had not verified this.) Additionally, Adobe plans to incorporate dynamic ads within the user interface of the Digital Editions application, along with a premium, ad-free subscription version.Ebooks have a long way to go before they become a mainstream way to read publications, but with continued industry support and further development of technology to reach a wider audience, Adobe has a good chance of leading a market that seems ready to take off.