What’s the Big Deal About Adobe Digital Editions?

06.22.07 | Comment?

If you’re an e-book enthusiast (or if you were paying attention to my post on June 12) then you probably already know a thing or two about Adobe Digital Editions. This post is a primer for everyone else. [11 am Edit: See new update at the bottom.]

E-book History: One Paragraph of Context

This week version 1 of Adobe Digital Editions was released. By the time you read this several days (at least) have gone by since the release so this isn’t post isn’t about “scooping the story”. It’s about context. For at least the last decade, book publishers and readers alike have been promised the imminent arrival of the e-book revolution. Publishers spent a lot of money getting ready, then they never caught on. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but two big limiting factors were the “eTower of Babel” multitude of proprietary e-book formats and the lack of decent portable e-book reader hardware. Who would want to buy a book that can only be read on a limited number of devices? Especially when those devices had a short battery life? Publishers and hardware / software manufacturers were at each others mercy, and nobody–especially the consumer–was winning.

Hardware Gets Better

Fortunately, we’ve had some important hardware breakthroughs in recent years. The crushing success of the iPod has interested manufacturers in developing their own “iPod for books”. The creation and large-scale manufacturing of e-ink has led to a new generation of devices ideal for reading. They only consume power when changing pages, they’re visible in direct sunlight, and they’re very lightweight. The most famous of these devices is the Sony Reader. Now we’re starting to see second-generation e-ink devices, with faster page changes and even better reading contrast. By third generation, we should be seeing either color e-ink devices or a perhaps a shift to OLEDs. In summary there are finally devices on the market that are the size of a paperback (or trade paperback), with good battery life, and with easy on the eyes.

Bridge Construction: IDPF

But what about the “eTower of Babel”? Some years ago publishers came together with software and hardware manufacturers in a trade group called the International Digital Publishing Forum with the purpose of creating an industry standard e-book format. It took several years–and one embarrassing episode in which a splinter group floated their own format because the IDPF work had stalled out–but we now have a e-book file format (epub) agreed upon by a broad swath of the publishing community. For example, Mobiepocket, a long-proprietary e-book format recently bought out by Amazon, has announced that they will support the new epub format*. For another example, Adobe InDesign CS3 has the built-in ability to export a file to the epub format. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you consider that it allows publishers to use one software tool to create their print publication and their ebook, the time savings alone is a huge incentive to support the new format.

Adobe Digital Editions

That brings us back to Adobe Digital Editions. This software package was designed from the ground up to support ebooks, and Adobe has committed to extending that support to include the epub format. Digital Editions is different from Acrobat Reader in that 1) it’s a much smaller download, and 2) it automatically reflows text for optimized reading. Now here’s where things get really cool–and a big reason why ebook enthusiasts have been throwing their panties up on Digital Edition’s stage. Remember the Sony Reader up above? Well, Sony announced that it (presumably the 2nd generation, although I wonder if a firmware patch may do the trick) would support Adobe Digital Editions**. So now we can connect the dots from an industry standard ebook format to a market-tested hardware device.

Now that you understand why Digital Editions could be a signal of the e-book dam bursting, why not go to Adobe and get a free download? After you install it, you can even download some free sample ebooks from their site. (I picked up Sherlock Holmes.) Get used to Digital Editions, folks. As soon as I get my hands on InDesign CS3, you’ll be seeing 12 to Midnight titles available in epub.

Edit (11 am): Teleread has a great summary of why it’s important that we have a standard epub format.

* Presumably this means that future versions of their MobieReader software will read either their proprietary MobiePocket ebooks or the new epub standard. At the very least, readers would expect backward compatibility. I think we’ll see more information about the practical logistics in the months to come.

**This is especially interesting because prior to this announcement the Sony Reader only supported their own proprietary format and poorly-converted PDFs. Sony has a history of sinking their own ships with proprietary formats requiring cost-prohibitive licensing fees from content producers–Betamax in the 70s and Blue-ray today. Seen in this light, it’s an unusual step for Sony to take on Digital Editions.

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