Digital Ink

At a Phoenix Science Ficton Society inc. meeting, I hosted a discussion on Future Tech from Science Fiction, and how much was available now, from Robots to Ray-Guns. One of the comments was that the iPhone and similar smart portable devices finally made me feel like I was now living in the 21st Century. I still dont have a flying car, I don’t have a robot butler or maid cleaning my home, I still can’t talk to my computer (and actually have it do what I ask), but what I do have in my hand is the equivalent of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. A small electronic gadget, that can access the vast store of random information that is the Internet. I have Wikipedia, untold number of blogs, newpapers, music, movies and TV shows, but until recently one piece of the perfect pie was missing… books. This is now changing as the reader technology becomes cheaper, and more people start swapping paper and ink for pixels and LCDs.

But like any modern piece of Tech gadgetry, the story is not simple. There are many types of digital book readers, many formats, and in some of these formats will only work on some readers.

What I hope to cover in this article is the common formats, and readers availble to New Zealanders, and a quick review of its features and limitations. I have the most knowledge of what is avalable for Apples iPhones and iPad (as I have one), but I’ll also try and cover other devices too.

File formats, and terms.

One term I’ll often use here (and try not to swear when I type it) will be Digital Rights Management (DRM). This is simply a way for the publishers to manage how, and where, and when, you are able to use the ebook file in your reader. The rights being protected are not yours, but the publishers. In some cases, you don’t even own the book you just downloaded, only a limited right to view it, that can be revoked by the distributer at their whim. Be careful of paying for any content with DRM in it. Your right to fair use or resale will not be protected.

Just like with digial movies and music, there are several different and often incompatible file formats used for ebooks. Here is some information from Wikipedia on the most common you are likely to find here in NZ for english language e-books:

Plain Text and HTML:

Format: text
Published as: .txt, .html

E-books in plain text exist and are very small in size. For example, the Bible, a very large book by most standards, is only about 4 MB. The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) standard allows ASCII-only text files to be interchanged and readable on Unix, Apple OS X, Microsoft Windows, DOS, Linux, and most other systems.

HyperText Markup Language (HTML) also makes use of plain ASCII text, but adds formatting commands (the Markup) and the ability to link to other documents or locations within the same document (HyperText). Open, well documented standars that makes it easy for someone to impliment a 100% compatible reader.



Format: Mobipocket
Published as: .prc; .mobi

The Mobipocket e-book format based on the Open eBook standard using XHTML (think of this as Xtended HTML) and can include JavaScript and frames. It also supports native SQL queries to be used with embedded databases. There is a corresponding e-book reader.

The Mobipocket Reader has a home page library. Readers can add blank pages in any part of a book and add free-hand drawings. Annotations — highlights, bookmarks, corrections, notes, and drawings — can be applied, organized, and recalled from a single location. Mobipocket Reader has electronic bookmarks, and a built-in dictionary

The Mobipocket reader software has a full screen mode for reading and support for many PDAs, Communicators, and Smartphones. Mobipocket products support most Windows, Symbian, BlackBerry and Palm operating systems. Third-party applications like Okular and FBReader can also be used under Linux or Mac OS X, but they work only with unencrypted files without DRM.



Published as: .epub

The .epub or Open eBook Publication Structure (OEBPS) format is an open standard for e-books created by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). It combines three IDPF open standards:

Open Publication Structure (OPS) 2.0, which describes the content markup (either XHTML or Daisy DTBook)

Open Packaging Format (OPF) 2.0, which describes the structure of an .epub in XML

OEBPS Container Format (OCF) 1.0, which bundles files together (as a renamed compressed ZIP file)

Currently, the format can be read by the Kobo eReader, Apple iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Barnes and Noble Nook, Sony Reader, BeBook, Bookeen Cybook Gen3 (with firmware v. 2 and up),COOL-ER, Adobe Digital Editions, Lexcycle Stanza, BookGlutton, AZARDI, Aldiko and WordPlayer on Android and the Mozilla Firefox add-on EPUBReader. Several other reader software programs are currently implementing support for the format, such as dotReader, FBReader, Mobipocket, uBook and Okular. Another software .epub reader, Lucidor, is in beta. Additionally, the Stanza application and Apple iBook for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch can read ePub files.

Adobe Digital Edition uses .epub format for its e-books, with DRM protection provided through their proprietary ADEPT mechanism. The recently developed INEPT framework and scripts have been created to circumvent this DRM system.

DSLibris, a Sourceforge.net project, is able to decode e-books in .epub and .xht format for reading on Nintendo DS systems.


Amazon Kindle

Format: Kindle
Published as: .azw

With the launch of the Kindle eBook readers, Amazon.com created the proprietary format, AZW for them. It is based on the Mobipocket standard, with a slightly different serial number scheme (it uses an asterisk instead of a dollar sign) and its own DRM. Because the eBooks bought on the Kindle are delivered over its synchronisation system called Whispernet, the user does not usually see the AZW files during the download process. The Kindle format is now available on a variety of platforms, Amazons own Kindle hardware readers, and the Kindle client on Windows, OS X, iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch and Android.

As part of Kindles DRM, Amazon maintain complete control over the file on your Kindle. If Amazon wishes, it can remove any title from your library without notice or refund, for any reason they see fit. Unfortunately today it still remains one of the easiest ways to actually buy legal content for an ebook reader, and so is wildly more popular than the open formats for actual commercial use.


There are also many more both proprietary and open formats. The table here (thanks again Wikipedia) shows how complicated a mess it can be to make sure you have all your ebooks available for the readers you may want to use or already own:


Plain text PDF ePub HTML Mobi- Pocket Fiction- Book DjVu Broadband eBook1 eReader1 Kindle1 WOLF1 Tome Raider1 Open eBook2
Amazon Kindle 2,DX Yes Yes No No Yes No No No No Yes No No No
Amazon Kindle 3 Yes Yes No Yes Yes No No No No Yes No No No
Android Devices Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes5 Yes Yes5 No Yes5 Yes5 No Yes5 Yes5
iPod Touch
Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes5 Yes5 Yes5 No Yes5 Yes5 No Yes5 Yes5
Azbooka WISEreader Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No No No No No
Barnes & Noble Nook Yes Yes Yes No No No No No Yes No No No No
Bookeen Cybook Gen3, Opus Yes Yes Yes3 Yes Yes3 Yes4 No No No No No No Yes
COOL-ER Classic Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No No No No No
Foxit eSlick Yes Yes Yes No No No No No Yes No No No No
Hanlin e-Reader V3 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No Yes No No
Hanvon WISEreader Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No No No No No No No
iRex iLiad Yes Yes Yes No Yes No Yes No No No No No No
Iriver Story Yes Yes Yes No No No Yes5 No No No No No No
Kobo eReader Yes Yes Yes No No No No No No No No No No
Nokia N900 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No No No Yes
NUUTbook2 Yes Yes Yes No No No No No No No No No No
OLPC XO, Sugar Yes Yes Yes Yes No No Yes No No No No No No
Onyx Boox 60 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No No No No
Pocketbook 301 Plus, 302, 360° Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No No No No
Sony Reader Yes Yes Yes No No No No Yes No No No No No
Viewsonic VEB612 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No No No No No No

1 Proprietary format – 2 Predecessor of ePUB – 3 Versions support either ePUB or MobiPocket – 4 Only ePUB version and with FW 2.0+ – 5 Requires additional software.


Note: This table doesn’t include full laptop or desktop general purpose computers. There is often plenty of software readers that will read any open format for any OS. For Kindle, Amazon only support Windows and OS X. (Even though their hardware Kindle reader runs on Linux, they have not released a Linux client to the public)


Now that formats are covered, one other thing keeps e-books in the dark ages, and it is not a technical limitation, but rather limits put in place by the publisher and rights managers. Not all books avilable in every format are allowed to be disributed or sold in every country or region.

Take Amazon for example. I can go on the website for amazon.com and buy a paper copy of Neil Stevensons Diamond Age, and it will be sent to me over the seven seas in a few weeks. But if I try to buy (sorry, I mean rent a limited licence to view) the Kindle version from the US Kindle store – nope, I have to swap to the Asia Pacific store, where (when I last checked) this book was not available. It is similar for many other of may favourite authors. And not only Amazon. I tried to buy a copy of (ironically) Ben Bova’s Cyberbooks from another online store and got all the way to handing over my credit card before they declined me because my billing address wasn’t in the US. The blame for this rests squarely on the agents and distributers, protecting their regions to the actual detriment of sales of the books globally. In these conditions, piracy of the e-books will thrive, and as the music industry has learnt, DRM won’t stop it. DIY book scanners can be built from some spare wood and two cheap digital cameras. Currently it only takes a little time and effort to scan a novel. If it can be viewed, it can be copied. I’d rather just be able to buy the book I want in the format I want, to read it on whatever I want, if someone will just sell it to me with no DRM, because I may want to read the same file again in ten years.


So you want or already have a reader, how do you get your books onto it? Kindle is a special case. Once you buy *COUGH* a book from the Kindle store, it is just sent to your reader. For everything else, at least as far as New Zealand goes, well, first pick a format and google for sites that will sell you ebooks in that format. Plain text will work on everything. PDF files will also work on just about anything, but often suffers from inflexibility as they often can’t be repaginated or reshaped to fit your readers screen. My current favourite is EPUB. This will work on every thing except Kindles.

Your next best friend is some software to run on your PC to convert all the other random formats to the one you want. For me this Rosetta Stone is called Calibre. A really nice piece of sofware, available, free, for Windows, OS X or Linux that will convert most book formats into every other format, and offer synchronisation to many devices (on my iPhone it just puts it in the iBook library be default without all the messing around in iTunes normally required). It will also help add all the information about the book based on name, author or ISBN by searching through GoogleBooks, and even help find cover art. You can also set it to run a tiny webserver on your PC that if you have something like an iPhone or iPad with Stanza as your reader, you can download books over the network from your PC with no cables required (if only Apple could work out how to do this with music too). This has helped immensly in converting over my older e-books I had for my Palm to work on my current reader. The other software I use occasionally is Sigil, another free piece of software, which opens up ePub files and lets you edit the content. This can help fix minor flaws in the conversion of formats, or, if you wish to self publish, create your own ePub files to distribute.





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