Epub, Mobi, Epub3……… We Need A Set Of Universal Ebook Formats

In a recent post on The Ebook Reader the author pondered on the mess that we now have with ebook formats.  As he so correctly points out, what used to be effectively the universal format for ebooks (ePub) has been so mucked about and modified by all manner of ebook sellers and ereader makers that it is now be almost hopeless.


We have versions of ePub that will only work on a Nook, or on an Apple device and so on,  we also have Amazon’s own private format (Mobi) that only works on Kindles, and of course, no ePub ebook will work on a Kindle.

Added to which there are a whole load of different DRM (Copyright protection software) systems out there, which makes it even harder to sort out which ereader and which ebook you can best use.   Altogether a mess.

However, the cries of “all ebooks should be in ePub format” isn’t really the answer.  ePub seems to work reasonably well for text based ebooks, but apparently is not much use when you start using graphics, videos and sounds to your ebooks, as many now do.

And to add the final joy to the whole horrible mess, we have ereaders that seem to work differently with the same ePub ebooks, so you can never tell if a given ebook will work the same on your Sony ereader or on your MiGear ereader.

A mess thus.

So what is the answer?

I suspect that what we need to do is to simply look at the way normal computers deal with the varied needs of different types of media and produce software that meets those specific needs, and which are effectively universal.   So, for example, MP3 format. As far as I know, this format works on every sort of computer or music player, and the music is always exactly the same, whether you are listening to it on a PC, an iPad, or a simple MP3 player.  Equally, there are several standard video formats out there, which also seem to work on all platforms (devices that is).

Over the years, the computer world has standardised these various media formats rather neatly, and none of us seem to experience any problems when we want to play some music, watch a video or look at images on our computers, nor are we too bothered by whatever anti-copying software system is being used for these things.  So we need something like that for ebooks.

Will this happen?

Sadly the simple answer is nope.   The whole ereader and ebook business model is based on selling what is called “content” these days.  This means that the players (ereaders) we use to read our ebooks are not the real earner but the content, i.e the ebooks are where the real money is lurking, and thus it is very much in the interests of ereader makers to try and lock us into their product, and thus into their ebook store as much as possible.  Amazon have taken this approach to its logical conclusion and created an effectively closed and walled garden with their Kindles and ebooks.

So in my more pessimistic moments I believe firmly that rather than the whole thing becoming more logical and universal, with a set of standard formats for the different types of ebook, which would work on all ereaders, tablets and computers, it will actually get much worse.   With each ereader maker with any sort of online ebook store creating their own private and mutually incompatible version of ePub (or some similar ebook format).

All the standard media formats we use on our computers, JPEG, TIFF, MP3, Avi WAV and so on all originated way back in the early days of personal computers and had been established as world standards before the problem of piracy really reared its head,  almost before the Internet as we now know it existed.  Life was much simpler in those days, and world standards for different formats were relatively easy to set up.  But those innocent days are long past, and the whole internet is firmly based on money making, rather than the diffusion of knowledge as it used to be.

So everyone is busy protecting their small corner of the market, and to hell with the idea of any sort of cooperation between companies.  And we, the customers, have nothing to say about this, and simply have to either settle for buying all our ebooks  from one supplier, or (as I do), have a number of different ereaders in order to be able to buy ebooks from different ebook stores.. A stupid and inefficient situation.

Any thoughts on this?

3 thoughts on “Epub, Mobi, Epub3……… We Need A Set Of Universal Ebook Formats

  1. Richard Adin

    One correction, Tony: We do not have “versions of ePub that will only work on a Nook, or on an Apple device and so on”, we have “versions of [DRM] that will only work on a Nook, or on an Apple device and so on”. If the DRM is stripped from the Nook ePub, the Apple ePub, the Sony ePub, and so on, any of the ePub-based devices would be able to use the ePub file. That’s why Smashwords works — it’s DRM-free ePub, which is sold to Nook, Apple, Sony, and at Smashwords itself, works on any ePub-based device.

    It is important to not mix up the DRM overwrapper with the underlying ePub.

    I do grant that devices that have not been updated may not be able to properly display ePub3 — I’m not sure about that — but that is no different than the story with HTML and other growing languages.

  2. Jim Fallone

    Yes DRM is a majority of the problem but it is not just ePub, ePub3, and Mobi but the various fixed layout formats that change device to device, then you add panel view and assorted enhanced ePubs and you really begin to see the problem of trying to heard formats and specs to some standard while the device you are creating content for keeps changing capabilities and support. The way to go is to admit the playing field has changed and the future lies not in ePub itself but in the convergence of content and inclusion of books in the giant universal soup of streaming content on the web. The environment of books is moving from retail store to broadcast channel. Rather than purchase digital content we license or rent or subscribe. Access to digital content is now expected the way we expect electricity, phone service, and clean water. DRM will solely be used for managing copyright issues as the we shift from retailer control of content back to creator/publisher control. A single standard API for books becomes less important as all that matters is its expression on the screen through your browser. Readers should work like Windows Media Player, Quicktime, DivX, and Realmedia palyers with those companies handling the interpretation of multiple formats.

    Digital Books are no longer just text on a screen. They are new ways of expressing knowledge as mini web experiences. Yes at their simplest books are just text on screen but the possibility to integrate all media formats like audio, video, dynamic charts, animation, photos etc, then we need the flexibility that only full on HTML can offer.

  3. Tony Post author

    Rich, you are, of course, correct. I oversimplified what I wrote, as for the most part, my readers have a very limited or non-existent understanding of technology, and simply want to be able to buy and read ebooks in the same way that they watch videos on Youtube, or listen to music with Windows media player or whatever, and have no interest in or ability to convert files from one ebook format to another, or remove DRM from their ebooks.

    It is the complex jungle that ereader/ebooks have become, a veritable technological nightmare, that is the problem for us all and which needs to be addressed.

    What Jim suggests is the obvious way to go, with the whole stupid mess of different formats and copyright protection systems taken out of the area of the user, and as he says, controlled by companies who provide the players.

    But, given that the ebooks are where the money is for companies such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo et.al, I really don’t see them relinquishing that control in the near future.


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