E-books: open standards déjà vu.

TechWatch has recently been asked to contribute its thoughts on future technology developments that are likely to have the most significant impact on library and information services in higher education. It’s for Update, the journal of the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals, and one of the interesting questions they’ve asked us is about developments that we didn’t initially anticipate or whose impact has been greater than might at first have been expected.

This is not actually a straightforward question – just because we don’t publish a report on something doesn’t mean we didn’t anticipate it – but it has prompted quite a bit of discussion. I think one of the things TechWatch may be in danger of missing is the whole e-reader development, which will present challenges in integrating e-books into academic library acquisition, discovery, and delivery systems.

At the moment there are three main devices squaring up for domination of the market: the Sony Reader (from Sony, of course), the iLiad (from iRex) and Kindle (from Amazon). One of the big issues for HE will be the document format standards used by each device.

Work is underway on an open, XML-based standard called EPUB through an organisation called the International Digital Publishing Forum. The other key standard is PDF, which is now an ISO standard. Sony’s reader supports PDF and the company has just announced that they will support EPUB in a forthcoming e-reader. By contrast, Kindle only supports Amazon’s own standards, MobiPocket and AZW. It does not support Adobe’s PDF although it provides an ‘experimental’ converter. The iLiad supports PDF and Mobipocket.

There is more than a hint of déjà vu, here. Last year TechWatch published a report on XML-based office document standards which focused on the arguments around open and proprietary standards and the difficulties that would be created by the imminent approval of a second ISO standard within the office document standards domain. You really need to read the report to get the picture, but my concern is that there may be another ODF/OOXML-type situation emerging, with Amazon taking on the role of Microsoft.

For those who would like to know more about e-readers there was a long piece in the Observer newspaper on the 27th of July, with an abridged version published online. A more technical look at matters relating to e-books, rather than the readers themselves, is provided by the team undertaking JISC’s own major investigation: the National e-books Observatory project. There is also an interesting paper, What Happened to the E-book Revolution?, by Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Heather L. Wicht, which looks at the history of e-books and some of the barriers to their widespread adoption.