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Which is the best format for ebooks?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — admin @ 6:05 pm September 18, 2011
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check out gigatrike.com for more good stuff  Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Which is the best format for ebooks?” was written by Jack Schofield, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 15th September 2011 16.34 UTC

Could you please clarify the various formats for digital books? Then I can decide which hardware to buy. I hope to avoid opting for a latter-day equivalent of Betamax.
Lydia W

An ebook format should offer a good reading experience, be an open standard format (or at least openly licensed), have the support of both publishers and hardware vendors, and be guaranteed to work for the foreseeable future, if not forever. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. Buying ebooks requires compromises and an act of faith. Always assume your ebooks will not last very long, so you won’t be disappointed if they don’t.

The Wikipedia page on ebook formats lists a couple of dozen, but most can be discounted. Some are effectively out of date, such as Microsoft’s LIT. Some formats are supported because they are common in other areas and it’s useful if an e-reader can handle them. Examples include Microsoft Office document formats (doc, docx) and web-style HTML.

Some formats are proprietary and may not be widely supported where you live, such as KML (the HieBook eBook format), RB, (Rocket) and WOLF (HanLin). Another Wikipedia page, Comparison of ebook formats, has a table to show which e-readers support which formats.

At the moment, the most attractive (or least unattractive) formats in the UK include AZW (Amazon’s proprietary format), BbeB (Sony’s proprietary format), ePub, MOBI/PRC (MobiPocket), and PDF (Adobe’s Portable Document Format). However, the situation is worse than it sounds because the files can be either unprotected or protected by a DRM (digital rights wanagement) wrapper. DRM can stop you from reading an ebook even if the file format is compatible with your e-reader.

DRM is particularly dangerous when the file has to be authenticated by an online server because the supplier can go bust or shut down the server or cut you off. You might think this is unlikely but both Google and Microsoft have done it, albeit not with ebooks.

While DRM is often hated by users (if they know about it), book publishers may insist on it. They are understandably afraid of the widespread piracy that afflicts the music and movie industries. Most authors are not going to make up any losses by performing live.

In many respects, ePub is the best choice. It was developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (design by committee), and most popular e-readers can handle it, with the notable exception of the Amazon Kindle. It has two main drawbacks. First, ePub files are based on XHTML and CSS cascading style sheets, and like web pages, can look different on different machines. Second, ePub doesn’t require DRM but it allows it, so protected books may be unreadable on the “wrong” system.

Historically, MobiPocket has also been a reasonable choice. It is based on an earlier XHTML-based Open eBook standard, which was superseded by ePub, so it could be regarded as a “legacy” format. It is not supported by many leading e-readers including the Sony, Barnes & Noble and Kobo models. However, MobiPocket has two things in its favour: it is supported by software for many mobile phones, and Amazon’s AZW is a version of MobiPocket with a new file extension and different identification numbers. This makes it relatively simple to convert a MobiPocket file into an AZW file. There is even a fix that enables MobiPocket vendors to enable the DRM-protected books they have sold to be redownloaded in Kindle format.

Adobe’s PDF is also an important format because virtually every e-reader can handle it, and it retains page numbers, but it may not provide the best reading experience on a small screen. Also, PDF files can have DRM copy protection.

Finally, there’s Amazon’s AZW. This is an awkward one to recommend because it is proprietary to Amazon, and most files have DRM. On the other hand, it works well, it has massive support from publishers, and Amazon makes it very easy to buy and consume books on multiple platforms. Although Amazon’s ebooks are associated with Kindles, you can also read them in a free Kindle application on a PC or Mac, an iPad, or an Android, BlackBerry or iPhone smartphone.

Although we are used to PCs that offer a wide range of choices at every level, the Kindle is a typical vertically-integrated consumer platform. In these, a single company owns or controls everything (or as much of it as it can) from top to bottom: hardware and software design, content distribution, retailing and sometimes pricing. Apple’s iPad and Nintendo’s Wii are also examples. Vertically-integrated businesses can develop more integrated products with greater ease of use, while freeing consumers from all the burdens of choice. Basically, you give up your freedom in exchange for a simpler and perhaps more satisfying life.

Of course, when the vertically integrated company goes bust, gets out of the business, or changes its mind for any reason, then you may well be stuck with a dying or unsupported system. Usually, you will also be stuck with a load of content that you can no longer access conveniently, if at all.

However, ebooks are bits, not atoms, so there should be no physical obsolescence, as there is with Betamax tapes or cartridge-loaded games. As long as you buy ebooks that don’t have DRM – or have a breakable DRM – then you can use a program such as Calibre or MobiPocket Creator to convert them from one format to another.

I’ve spent a couple of decades warning people against storing data in non-standard file formats (Schofield’s First Law), but the fact is that all formats change over time. In the wise words of Mark Pilgrim: “Long-term data preservation is like long-term backup: a series of short-term formats, punctuated by a series of migrations.” If DRM prevents you from converting ebooks to new formats, as they appear, their chances of survival are probably fairly slim.

The safest long-term options are plain ASCII text and RTF (Rich Text Format), neither of which provides a very satisfying format for reading ebooks. The next best is ePub, but I can understand why people buy Kindles.

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