Executives not really understanding the difference between ebook readers and apps? Frustrated when you explain you need to produce different book files for different platforms? Having difficulty deciding in which format(s) you should be producing your books? This simple guide explains the basics of ebook formats and technology.

The term ‘ebook’ can mean a range of things in different contexts, which is confusing enough; worse is the level of knowledge many writers assume on behalf of their readers. Writers with technical and production backgrounds assume a basic level of IT knowledge which many people in the publishing industry do not have, though they are both competent and experienced book publishers, editors, marketers and so on. They forget it is easy to use a computer or smart phone every single day, without any understanding at all of the hardware, software and data involved.

For example, an “app” is just another name for software. Can you imagine a senior (non-IT) executive enthusiastically declaring “I love software!”,  in the same way that I heard one declaring “I love apps!”? The terms “software”, “program”, “application” and “app” are very much interchangeable (though there are some real distinctions for IT purists, for most of us they are the same thing). So when we refer to ebooks, are we referring to the content, the format, the app, or the device?

Sometimes it is difficult to make any distinction, and it is in the interests of some vendors to blur the distinctions between hardware and software, and software and content, to entice publishers and readers to choose their content, on their platform, on their device. Most publishers, authors and most readers prefer choice: publishers and authors want books available in as many channels as possible and readers want as many books as possible available in their chosen channels. The following is designed to provide some ebook basics to empower both publishers and readers to make informed choices.

The digital file

An ebook is a digital file. Most people are already familiar with digital files: wordprocessing documents, spreadsheets, images, emails, web pages, PDFs, and so on are all digital files.

Digital files are, by definition, digital. At a certain level, machine level, they are all a series of 0s and 1s (binary digits). How you read and manipulate the files depends on your hardware (the machine), the hardware’s operating system, the software installed on that operating system, and of course the format of the file. Some familiar examples follow.

Word documents are saved in Word files with the filename extension “.doc”. To read a Word file, you need the Word program (usually as part of the Office suite). But the Word program you use depends on which version you have (eg Word 2003, Word 2007) which will also be dependent on which operating system you are running (eg Microsoft Windows or Mac OSX). The operating system also depends on your hardware, eg Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 are all operating systems that work on PCs, while OSX and iOS are operating systems that work on Apple Macs and iPhones respectively. To read a Word file, then, the file needs to be saved in a format compatible with your Word software, which version will be dependent on which operating system is installed on your hardware.

Similarly email files are generally .txt, .rtf or .html files. To read an email file, you need an email program such as Outlook, Mail, Eudora, or a Web browser (for web-based mail such as gmail). You then need to have this program installed on the right operating system (eg Outlook on Windows, Mail on OSX) which depends on your hardware.

Ebooks are no different. To be accessed (read), an ebook file must be saved in one of several specific formats. Most people are familiar with the .pdf and .html formats, and increasingly familiar with .epub. Just like for other digital files, you need the right software to read the right format, and you need that software installed on a compatible hardware device. Below is a table of the major formats and software for reading ebooks, and their compatible operating systems and devices.

Ebook formats, devices and platforms

Whenever new hardware arrives on the scene, such as Apple’s iPad, the Kindle, the Nook, they come with new operating systems too. The manufacturers make a decision as to whether users can install software on the device as you please (most computers, tablets and notebooks), under controlled circumstances (eg approved “apps” on iPad and iPhone), or not at all (eg dedicated ebook devices such as Kindle, Nook and the Sony eReader). If you can install software, then the chances are there will be an ebook app for your device. If not, then the ebook app is built into the device, and your choice of format is made for you. In some cases, the app is freed from the device for installation on other devices – for example Kindle is now available for multiple hardware/operating systems.

It is easy for people to forget that the most common apps for reading ebook files are in fact web browsers and PDF readers. Many PDF ebooks are sold via proprietary vendor platforms which control access to the ebooks. They are usually web browser-based platforms. Examples include ebooks.com and books.google.com (Google Books will in fact be offering books in a choice of PDF or ePub formats, for viewing within your web browser online and offline). So while many people think buying an iPad means you are choosing Apple’s iBook platform, in fact you can read ebooks on any web-based platform that supports Safari, in PDF Reader apps (I use iAnnotate for taking notes directly on PDF in lectures), in the Kindle app, the Kobo app, the Stanza app, and so on.

Ebooks have been, and still are, going through “format wars”, which has been as much about devices as actual file formats. The likely winners in the format wars look to be the .epub format and .xhtml, both of which are open XML-based formats and are able to be read on a multitude of software platforms and devices. The PDF format is also likely to remain in the picture for some time to come. Other important formats with niche markets are Mobipocket and DAISY.

So that’s what ebooks, at a very basic level, are all about. This information will help make sense of the myriad competing vendor platforms, hardware devices, and ebookstores. Navigating what’s available, from whom, and why, will be the subject of a future post.

FORMAT SOFTWARE (“APPS”) OPERATING SYSTEMS HARDWARE (DEVICES)
PDF (Adobe) Adobe Reader 

Adobe Acrobat

Web browser plug-ins

Mobile apps eg iAnnotate, GoodReads

Vendor platforms

Windows 

OSX

iOS

Desktops 

Laptops

Notebooks

Tablets

Smartphones

HTML & XHTML Web browsers: Chrome, Firefox, Explorer, Opera, Safari 

Vendor platforms

Windows 

OSX

iOS

Blackberry

Android

Desktops 

Laptops

Notebooks

Tablets

Smartphones

.ePub Adobe Digital Editions 

iBooks

Kobo

Stanza

Windows 

OSX

iOS

Android

Blackberry

Various ebook device systems

Desktops 

Laptops

Notebooks

Tablets

Smartphones

B & N Nook

Kobo

Sony eReader

Kindle Kindle Kindle 

Windows

OSX

iOS

Blackberry

Android

Kindle 

Kindle DX

Desktops

Laptops

Notebooks

Tablets

Smartphones

© 2010 Linda Kythe Nix. All rights reserved.

A version of this article was published in the January 2011 issue of the IBPA Independent (member only access).