Two Roads Diverged
A Review of New E-Publishing Products From Adobe and Microsoft
By Danny O. Snow
New technologies may make publishers want to echo Robert Frost's classic lament, that a traveller can follow only one fork in the road at a time.
Major new products specifically designed for delivery of online content have set the publishing industry abuzz, amid a flurry of controversy over earlier efforts to bring e-books more squarely into mainstream markets. Software industry leaders now offer e-publishers new strategies for the presentation of online content to readers -- but both systems must face the challenge of protecting intellectual property for the author and publisher.
WebBuy and PDF Merchant software from Adobe Systems were rolled out earlier this year, promising secure delivery of online content across a wide range of hardware and software platforms.
Meanwhile, industry watchers are closely following the introduction of the new Pocket PC devices and Microsoft Reader, designed to make electronic content almost universally available.
In March, Simon & Schuster released Stephen King's electronic-only novella Riding the Bullet, and received orders for more than 400,000 copies within 24 hours. As the first electronic-only bestseller, the book marked a watershed in the history of publishing. Yet within 48 hours of its release, pirated copies of King's story began appearing on the Internet, raising serious issues about the security of e-books.
Nevertheless, by the end of May, a new partnership between Microsoft, Simon & Schuster and Random House was announced, including the release of Michael Crichton's thriller Timeline and other e-books for the Pocket PC with Microsoft Reader. According to The New York Times, the releases were planned "even if it is not clear yet how protected the electronic titles are from hackers."
Time Warner also jumped into the e-book arena when it announced in May it will launch iPublish.com at Time Warner Books in the first quarter of 2001. The venture will include a suite of channels -- iRead, iWrite and iLearn -- covering a broad range of online content ranging from major bestsellers to books by aspiring writers. And of course, the venture is potentially strengthened by an impending corporate relationship with America Online, the world's largest internet service provider.
In this climate of huge change, we've compiled the following comparison of new products from Microsoft and Adobe. Of course, any fair comparison of these products must reflect that Adobe WebBuy and PDF Merchant are already publicly available, while the full version of Microsoft Reader with ClearType had not yet been widely released when this issue went to press. For this
reason, the amount of information available about the MS Reader is less detailed.
Senior representatives from both companies recently were queried on their latest products. Jeff Ramos, director of marketing for e-books, responded for Microsoft. Mark Heisten, former public relations manager of ePaper Solutions, and Rebecca Michals, senior public relations manager of ePaper Solutions, responded for Adobe.
How does MS Reader compare with Adobe's WebBuy and PDF Merchant?
Adobe: "One of the most obvious differences is that the Adobe digital rights management solution is shipping today, and tens of millions of potential customers already use Acrobat or Acrobat Reader and can easily and securely buy content. Adobe's solution is also cross-platform and cross-device -- today it operates in the Mac and Windows environments on the devices that most of us are already using, i.e. desktop or notebook computers.
"Adobe PDF is the de facto standard for the print/publishing industries, and most content today is available in PDF (or PostScript), or easily convertible to PDF. Therefore, our solution is designed to work well with existing workflows with only minimum incremental effort.
"Our strategy is based on partnerships with others in the commerce chain who provide a variety of industry standard solutions. We believe the only way to get a Microsoft solution is to work directly with them.
"Any other solution is based on technology that is not yet commercially available or tested, and this creates a great risk in terms of the reliability of the proposed solution, the time needed to implement a new solution, as well as the risk that customers won't adopt it. Acrobat and PDF have been around since the early 1990s, and there's no question they work and are widely used."
Microsoft: "PDF is a great solution where you need to ensure that a document will faithfully reproduce when printed to a fixed page size. In the future, though, one of the key consumer benefits of e-books will be the ability for content to dynamically reflow across multiple devices -- allowing consumers to move their e-books from a laptop to the Pocket PC and back again, as just one example, or from a purpose-built reading device to a PC.
"This was one of the factors that collectively drove the formation of the Open eBook Authoring Group and the Open eBook Publication Specification, which has been adopted by a broad cross-section of the e-book community, including Microsoft, Nuvomedia and Softbook. Microsoft Reader was designed to facilitate that kind of reflow across the broadest possible range of devices. We believe that flexibility, coupled with Microsoft's digital rights management solutions, will be a compelling customer proposition."
Author's Commentary: According to respected digital designer Charles King of Unlimited Publishing, PDF works best with a fixed aspect ratio, rather than a fixed page size.
However, the fundamental choice remains: faithful reproduction of page design, versus the ability to more easily reflow across screens of different shapes. This echoes the dilemma faced by Web designers. Content creators and designers instinctively tend to favor systems that afford them greater control of presentation to readers; yet the marketing advantages of more flexible presentation (read: more potential customers) are equally compelling for publishers.
How is copyright protection achieved?
Adobe: "PDF Merchant encrypts PDF files and allows the encrypter and seller to control permissions for printing, copying and annotating documents to fit their business models. When content is sold to a customer, the seller has several easy-to-set options for locking content to a user's CPU ID, user ID, local hard disk or portable media.
"We license our encryption technology from RSA technology, which provides the highest level of encryption available for worldwide use. To further enhance security, we leverage industry-leading certificate authentication from GTE Cybertrust."
Microsoft: "We recognize the importance of digital rights management to owners of content, and we have invested heavily to develop a system we believe will be supportive."
Author's Commentary: In April, Microsoft took a minority investment stake in Xerox's ContentGuard technology, which markets a digital rights management system based on XrML.
Closing Comments: As noted by one industry expert, the share of the e-book market ultimately won by each product may depend less on the technology itself than on the partnerships and licensing agreements each company forms with others in publishing and bookselling businesses.
In addition to the Xerox-MS spinoff of ContentGuard, and major announcements from Time Warner, Simon & Schuster and Random House, a welter of other significant corporate realignments have occured. To cite just one, Lightning Print, a new Ingram subsidiary that produces print-on-demand books, bought in April JNMedia, a leading developer of e-publishing software.
Soon after, Lightning Print formed an alliance with Microsoft under the new name Lightning Source, LaVerge, Tenn., to offer publishers a full range of services for delivery of books in both printed and electronic form, in multiple formats.
Rapid and dramatic changes make the best pathway to the future hard for publishers to predict. But as Frost's famous verse suggests, whichever road is taken, it seems doubtful we'll ever return.
Author/publisher Danny O. Snow specializes in new publishing technologies. He is co-author of U-Publish.com, written in collaboration with Dan Poynter. The book is available in both printed and electronic form. For More Info
* Extensible rights Markup Language (XrML), www.xrml.org
* CoolType from Adobe, www.adobe.com/print/columns/felici/20000424.html
* ClearType from Microsoft, www.grc.com/cleartype.htm
* Open eBook Initiative, www.openebook.org
* Lightning Source, www.lightningprint.com
* "U-Publish.com" by Dan Poynter & Danny O. Snow, www.u-publish.com