The great eBook format war: the headaches and the solutions

eBooks seem like such a great idea: no more lugging heavy books around with you at school, no need to accidentally hit the person next to you on a plane as you unfold the newspaper, and purchasing any new releases can be instantly delivered to your eReader. Throw in the environmental benefits of saving paper and it seems like an obvious winner.

Yet the reality is that the world of eBooks is confusing, complicated and restrictive as multiple device manufacturers fight over multiple formats. If that wasn't enough, selective use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) can turn a great open source format into a device-specific option only.

So what are our options, what does it mean for people with disabilities and why isn't there a standard in this area? This month I'll try to unravel — or at least share my confusion — over the challenges around eBooks and what standards organisations such as the W3C are looking at to try and address the issues.

eBook formats

One of the questions that comes up a lot is 'which formats are the main ones?' A question that is harder to answer than it seems. There are scores of eBook formats out there depending on what you want to read: for example, there are specific eBook formats for comic books, technical reference manuals and scientific publications.

People who are blind or vision impaired may already be familiar with the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) format, and there are plenty of more general consumer book formats. While this discussion focuses on three of the most popular formats, there is a good list on Wikipedia in its comparison of eBook formats if you are interested in the others. The three looked at here are the ones used on the Kindle, iOS devices and the PDF format used across all popular platforms.

Kindle — an evolution of Mobipocket

One of the most popular eBook formats in the world today is better known by the device it runs on: the Amazon Kindle. The format the Kindle uses stems from French company Mobipocket, which was purchased by Amazon in 2005. The format was originally based on HTML 3.2, but has evolved to be highly propriety-based. While older Kindle devices continue to use this format, the Kindle Fire released in 2011 led to the use of the Kindle Format 8 based on HTML5 and CSS3, and some propriety features. DRM is a big factor here in the Kindle formats being limited to Kindle devices or Kindle reader apps on other devices.

ePub — a standard of sorts

The ePub format is the closest thing we have to a specific eBook standard at the moment, but it's not always used that way. ePub was developed as an industry-wide standard for eBooks. The format incorporates many different technologies and is maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) which is made up primarily of publishing and technology companies. However, one of the most popular ways to purchase eBooks in an ePub format is through Apple's iBooks app and the format is tweaked slightly so that there are DRM issues in moving the file to other platforms, although there are workarounds available.

PDF — not eBook-specific but very common

The final common format for eBooks is the PDF, a well-established standard. While the format is used for a variety of reasons, eBooks remain one of them. Google books are usually either ePub or PDF.

eBook devices and accessibility

While the three formats mentioned above are all capable of being accessible to some degree, their accessibility primarily comes down to how they are created and the accessibility of the device.

As discussed above, many formats are locked into a specific device due to DRM, so it's difficult to view a Kindle book on anything other than a Kindle itself or the Kindle apps available for operating systems such as Android, and IOS. Likewise, while standard ePub documents can be transferred to any platform, the Apple versions are also difficult to move around. This makes it tricky when it comes to accessibility.

To take the Kindle for example, it's been a long, hard battle to get decent accessibility in the device, with a series of protests by people who are blind or vision impaired over the years. As it stands, the older models of the Kindle support text-to-speech to some degree depending on publisher settings, and the new Kindle Fire has now provided some accessibility due to its Android-based OS. Protests continue though at the AppleVis website as the Kindle app on iOS devices does not support the VoiceOver screen reader.

On the Apple side of things, eBooks purchased from the store work pretty well with the built-in assistive technology for the most part, but you're limited to just using iOS devices such as the iPad and iPhone. PDFs can be viewed on pretty much anything but any mention of the words 'PDF' and 'accessibility' in the same sentence is generally met with concern as it's more likely than not that a PDF has not been designed with accessibility in mind.

Ironically, Microsoft Windows, which is one of the most used operating systems in the world, is often viewed as an eBook wasteland: not because there aren't lots of eReaders available but more likely due to the reading experience not being as pleasant when you're reading it at a desk on a computer screen. Perhaps Windows devices like the app-friendly Microsoft Surface will make Windows more eBook-friendly.

Creating an eBook standard

Clearly the combination of formats, devices and locked-down DRM techniques is making it difficult for consumers to choose an effective eBook solution, and harder yet for people with disabilities to find the best option to work with their assistive technologies. So is there any hope of things improving?

To answer this question, the W3C held a workshop in New York in February titled 'eBooks: Great Expectations for Web Standards'. The workshop, run in partnership with the IDPF, was designed to bring together the major players of the eBooks market, including publishers, standardisation organisations, booksellers and accessibility organisations to find out if there were any options to progress towards standardisation.

Topics included:

  • How should we deal with format version and fragmentation concerns?
  • Should we standardise a way for screen size, orientation, resolution, colour, etc. to adapt logically to different ereader specifications?
  • How should we address the challenge of producing and displaying eBooks whose ergonomy would compete with traditional books?
  • How should authorship, ethical and legal rights be described and handled?
  • How should eBooks, websites, and native applications built with web technologies inter-relate in terms of links, interactivity, etc.?

The main focus of the event was to look at ePub as leading the way. Technologies and standards such as HTML, CSS, SVG, XML, XSLT, XSL-FO, PNG and RDF are already extensively by the IDPF and associated with the ePub 3.0 standard so it makes sense for this format to continue to be developed as part of the Open Web.

The advantages from an accessibility perspective to look to ePub as a standard is partly due to the fact that's a popular open format already, it is not propriety like the Kindle and is used solely for the purpose of eBooks, unlike PDF. While it's likely that the accessibility issues of eBooks will remain a challenge until the general format war is sorted out, such workshops do offer some encouragement that the issue is being looked at and that accessibility issues will be addressed in the future.

Overall, it's clear that while the eBook market is a bit of a mess and will remain challenging for some time, especially for people with disabilities, progress towards a standards-compliant eBook format is encouraging. Hopefully the day where a personal eBook collection can be used cross-platform and without DRM isn't too far away.


Want to learn more about WCAG 2.0 and web accessibility?

The Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility, a university-accredited online qualification jointly conducted by W3C member Media Access Australia and the University of South Australia, is a fully assessed six-week program that covers both accessibility principles and techniques. The course provides students with all the essentials needed to achieve compliance with international best practice in accessibility. Accessible documents, among many other aspects of WCAG are covered in Access iQ’s complete guides to web accessibility for content authorsweb developers and web designers.