Oct 9, 2009

ePub vs. Kindle

The latest religious technology war is over format.

There are so many memorable technology wars, especially around format, that you have to wonder if the publishing industry has paid attention to history. There was VHS against Betamax and a very similar Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD. (While these people were duking it out, streaming video sneaked right by with a guerilla attack, slow but effective).

Publishing is looking at the abyss of another format war: ePub versus Kindle’s proprietary AZW format.

I spent many painful years in Information Technology and can give you a geek’s view of ePub and Kindle from the trench. Here are the basics.

ePub is an open standard and has the ability to present well designed books. That means an ePub book can be transferred to any device that reads ePub and there are a growing number, including the iPhone. The ability to format a book well is supported by ePub, which uses nearly complete CSS and XML functionality, but reflowable text – the very engine of eBooks – is no competition for a well designed book.

The Kindle format is roughly at the level of Netscape Navigator, that browser we all used to use. I’m talking about the 1.1 version. The Kindle only supports very rough HTML. They might say XML, but everything you can do with the Kindle format, you could do with HTML in 1995. And only a Kindle can read it.

The crux for publishers is that right now Amazon is completely dominate in this space and to not follow (actually bow to) the leader is to leave money on the table.

And Sony and the other ePub (hardware) supporters do not make it easy for small publishers and interested authors to publish to their platforms. Disregard the recent Smashwords and Author Solutions agreement with Sony. Smashwords uses a “grinder” to create ePub, which is not very attractive if you’ve invested in a carefully crafted ePub document. Author Solutions appears not to be returning emails.

Amazon on the other hand makes it very easy for small publishers to offer books on the Kindle.

The great unknown is Google, which supports ePub. They will soon be offering to sell ePub books.

The ePub vs. Kindle fight really comes down to who you think will win, Amazon or Google. It is a tough fight to handicap because Amazon is naturally dominate in books, but those Google people are very smart and competitive. Discount the hardware makers. These battles will never be about hardware, which will soon enough be cheap and readily available and in some cases irrelevant (back to the iPhone and whatever tablet Apple will offer). If you are in publishing, you know the fighters already, because in one way or another, Google and Amazon dominate you.