November | The story is familiar. One innovative
vendor develops a browser, and that browser quickly rises
to the top of the heap. In comes Microsoft, initially with
a work-in-progress alternative, that slowly evolves into
an alternative that crushes the original innovator.
Could Netscape Navigator's sad fate befall Acrobat just
as the eBook industry takes off? Its hard to imagine any
product surpassing Acrobat at what it initially set out
to do: producing digital renditions of paper documents.
Instead of printing to paper, you printed not an image but
a digital rendition replacing pictures of fonts with fonts
themselves. Since fonts are smaller than images, the result
was smaller, searchable renditions.
Adobe, inventor of PostScript, applied its experience
to Acrobat, trumping its two rivals with a new marketing
twist: instead of extracting expensive licensing fees for
PostScript systems, it would (eventually) give away the
viewers. If you wanted to create these digital renditions
(Acrobat Portable Document Format files, or PDFs) for others
to view, you paid a modest fee for the Acrobat product suite,
including a print driver (PDFWriter) and a higher-quality
rendering engine based on PostScript, Distiller. If you
could print it, you could "PDF" it for others to view and
search the digital rendition even though they might not
have the application (e.g., Quark, Excel, MS Project) originally
used to produce the product.
The quality of PDF files, and the ease of producing them,
quickly made PDF a publishing hit. Adobe's licensing of
Verity's search system, downsized as an Acrobat plug-in,
allowed electronic media publishers to fill media and Web
sites with searchable content that could replace hardcopy
manuals. When Adobe expanded Acrobat with bookmarks and
linking, rudimentary security, annotations, and some support
for multimedia, its competitive advantage seemed beyond
challenge. Today, 160 million people are estimated to be
using Acrobat PDF files. As for eBooks themselves, some
predict that the market will grow to nearly $3 billion in
five years. Adobe's Warnock believes the number should be
20 times that when you consider the ability to distribute
eBooks securely (using Adobe's WebBuy technology).
What could go wrong with Adobe's high-wire act? Acrobat
did a peerless job of producing digital renditions of paper
layouts, but tied itself to the two-dimensional limitation
of paper. The PostScript legacy made display of TrueType
fonts problematic, and zooming for clarity with the magnifying
glass eliminated a sense of context, especially in multicolumn,
multipage copy. Acrobat provided layout fidelity par excellence,
but it also delivered an essentially flat, two-dimensional,
proprietary, and unstructured medium.
Enter Microsoft (and lesser players such as Glassbook
and netLibrary). As the market for eBooks has now begun
to skyrocket, so have Microsoft multimedia products like
Multimedia Player and the universal influence of XML. Suddenly,
Acrobat's monopoly seems vulnerable. The new Microsoft reader
offers clearer type ("ClearType"), and thanks to an agreement
with Audible Inc., this reader can convert its text to speech,
allowing a readable book to read itself to youbook
and book-on-tape in one package.
As slick and appealing as that capability is, Microsoft
didn't stop there. In late May, Microsoft announced a partnership
with OverDrive Inc. to develop a comprehensive set of authoring
tools and other services to develop an authoring platform,
tuned for creating eBooks based on Microsoft Reader. With
an upgrade to the free standard tool for building Microsoft
titles, authors can easily convert content from MS Word,
HTML, ASCII, image files, or OEB. OverDrive's ReaderWorks
Publishing toolan upgrade to the free standard tool
for building Microsoft Reader titleswill accept MS
Word, ASCII, HTML, images, and OEB formats.
The "Open eBook Initiative" (OEB) may over the long term
prove the most powerful impetus for developing eBooks based
on Microsoft Reader. The current OEB content document type
definition (DTD) is conservative, with elements much like
XHTML, although the standard already permits some customization
beyond HTML-like tags. Additionally, OEB permits easy creation
of marketing and copyright protection data in ONIX, XrML,
and Microsoft Digital Rights Management architecture, and
uses the Dublin Core standard for metadata. All this, combined
with Microsoft's marketing muscle, won it a deal with Barnes
and Noble to produce eBooks for its barnesandnoble.com superstore.
What about MS Reader itself? The interface is very simple
and offers no full-text searching or ability to index collections.
"ClearType" isn't any better than what you see with Acrobat.
However, there is clearly an architectural difference between
MS Reader and Acrobat: via OEB, Microsoft is based on structure
and XML rather than on PostScript.
Will the emergence of MS Reader lead to a balkanization
of eBooks? MS Reader's long-term prospects are anybody's
guess, but given Acrobat's persisting popularity (on and
off the Web), we don't expect it to go away anytime soon.
Still, the different architectural directions of these two
products suggest that adding support for XML in Acrobat
may be a matter of plug-ins and third-party support products,
where Microsoft's approach builds in support for both proprietary
formats (like Word) and XML. As the OEB extends its use
of XML, Acrobat's high-wire act may need a safety net.