Thoughts on the IDPF and W3C Combination

Prior to the IDPF vote on the combination with W3C, I wrote up my thoughts on why I supported the combination to share with interested colleagues.  The members ultimately voted in favor of it, but since then there has been a fair amount of ongoing conversation in the ebook industry about the merits and potential downsides of the combination. As such, I decided to share my own prior thoughts on the topic publicly to add my own *personal* perspective to the conversation.

Now, I certainly do not claim to have superior insights into the ebook publishing and retail industry as our company is after all, a tech firm only, and I’m still somewhat new to the industry (just 10 years). But FWIW, here were my thoughts for those that are interested:
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Why it seems like a good idea:
1.  The merger enables the book industry to have more direct self-interested influence on web standards as a whole through focused participation and engagement with W3C – standards that are, and will continue to be the foundation of EPUB, and that will also drive, shape, and largely power the future of nearly all digital content, marketing, eCommerce, distribution and back office infrastructures used by the book industry.
2.  Beyond influence on the standards themselves, increased engagement with W3C and co-contributors will result in increased knowledge and expertise of digital technologies within the industry, along with building relationships between people in the book industry and people in other industries that are critical to its success (e.g. social media, retail, marketing, advertising, software, hardware, and others)
3.  Increased engagement and alignment with EPUB by the W3C will facilitate increased adoption of EPUB in other industries, which will lead to more tools, services and vendors ultimately becoming available to the industry, as well as driving down the related technology costs through economies of scale.
4.  This increased scale and adoption helps offset the power of the tech giants to leverage proprietary technology to exert control over the industry and increase their competitive advantages, a risk that will increase dramatically under the current trend of market consolidation. Stronger open standards, with broader adoption and a diverse ecosystem facilitate a more level playing field, which is critically important to the financial growth of every company trying to thrive in this age of global tech titans.
5.  It is clear that W3C will pursue specifications related to digital publishing and digital publications irrespective of the merger. As such, if separate, competing and/or overlapping standards will emerge. This will create technical fragmentation in the industry, and lead to increased costs on many fronts, including  the costs of participation and membership fees in two different organizations – an inefficient use of resources and duplication of efforts.
6.  There are important business and trade topics that can and should be addressed by the collective industry to grow the market and reduce costs. Many of these topics are out of scope of the IDPF mission, are not international in nature, or rightfully encompass both digital and print.  There are organizations such as BISG and other industry bodies that can be appropriate venues for these topics. The merger will create increased clarity around the appropriate venue for such business and trade topics and provide an opening for such organizations to step up to those plates.

What I’m afraid of if the combination does not happen:
1.  IDPF membership, participation, and funding have recently declined greatly for a variety of external reasons, and this ongoing trend creates an increasing risk that the organization will, as an seperate body, be unable to make meaningful and sufficient forward progress on behalf of the book industry moving forward.
2.  Most of the individuals and companies that are very active in IDPF working group activities appear to strongly favor the merger, and are committed to engagement with W3C whether or not the merger occurs. Thus, If the merger is rejected, there are strong risks that participation in and support of IDPF by these important active members will erode.
3.  Given these factors, there is a substantial risk that the IDPF will find that it can no longer adequately fulfill its mission in the relatively near future, and therefore the EPUB standard will either become deprecated, or taken on by a different organization, under terms that are far less helpful to the book industry than what can be obtained now.
4.  Ebook standards now and into the future require the use of modern browsers to be displayed. It is no longer technically nor financially feasible to build alternative rendering technologies, as was common practice in the past. The book industry alone, via the IDPF, simply does not have sufficient leverage and engagement with the major browser vendors and operating system makers to facilitate implementation of the features that are now, and will be in the future, critical to the marketplace success and competitiveness of ebooks against other media types.
5.  Accessibility is increasingly important in ebooks both due to emerging marketplace requirements and govt regulation. Accessibility related standards and technical considerations therefore clearly must be a core component of all ebook standards efforts from now into the future, and must be developed in tandem and in close collaboration with A11Y specifications. The W3C will be the nexus of A11Y efforts and expertise in this rapidly developing arena. IMHO the IDPF will not be able to sufficiently achieve this as a separate entity. Even if possible, it would likely result in time to market delays, giving powerful momentum to alternative W3C standards or proprietary solutions.  The nature of regulation is that it places hard deadlines on deployment of compliant technologies, often having nationwide scope. This presents very significant risks that EPUB could be supplanted completely by competing and potentially proprietary technologies that get to market faster. This risk is particularly acute due to IDPF’s extremely limited resources (a single employee) and the small number of current volunteer working group contributors.
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I myself have reservations and don’t begrudge those that have more. Just sharing my own personal perspective on why I supported the combination.
Happy Reading,
Micah

Announcing Cloudshelf Reader for iOS

We are pleased to formally announce Cloudshelf Reader, an all new ereader application from Bluefire that supports digital publications in the EPUB3 open standard that can contain video, audio, animation, interactivity, media overlays, fixed layout content, and other advanced features of the EPUB3 specification.

Cloudshelf Reader empowers learning and productivity with tools for bookmarking, highlighting, annotations and full text search as well as tools for browsing, tagging and searching bookmarks and annotations across all downloaded documents – in one place. We’ve also included a fun drawing feature for annotating publications with a stylus or finger. This feature is experimental at this point, but we see opportunities to extend and refine this feature in many exciting ways.

The app was designed from the bottom-up to leverage the accessibility features of the iOS operating system such as Voice Over. We intend to further improve the a11Y related reading features, and with this 1.0 version we have a solid foundation to build upon. For us, accessibility is the most meaningful and important aspect of the EPUB3 specification, and we are strong believers that accessibility is not just the right thing to do, it will soon be seen as mission critical for all major business and institutions worldwide.

In Cloudshelf Reader, we are leveraging the work we’ve been doing with the Readium Foundation over the last few years to build core open source technology components necessary to build browser and platform native reading system apps that support EPUB3.

For use cases that require digital rights management we chose to integrate an all-new DRM technology from Sony DADC called User Rights Management Solution (URMS). This technology makes use of the robust Marlin DRM specification. URMS provides unique flexibility in content license management including optional license transfer and on-demand revocation which we believe will enable innovative new products and services for digital publications. As such, we have decided to become a reseller of URMS.

Cloudshelf Reader is not an update to, or replacement of Bluefire Reader. It is a completely new product and we continue to offer our popular Bluefire Reader white label app service. More information about our Cloudshelf Reader products and services can be found on our website.

Please download the free Cloudshelf Reader app, give it a spin, and let us know what you think. The Dropbox feature provides a convenient way to import your DRM-free EPUB files, and of course the “Open-in” feature of iOS is handy too. We’ve put together a Cloudshelf Reader community site, and we very much value and appreciate any feedback, feature requests, or bug reports.

Cloudshelf Reader apps for Android and modern browsers are coming soon.

-Micah

Changes at Bluefire

Today we are announcing the departure of Cliff Guren, our VP of Business Development. Over the past five years I have had the pleasure of working with Cliff as we’ve successfully grown our software licensing business. During this time we’ve created white-label applications for 70 companies around the globe, and licensed Adobe Content Server to more than 90 companies worldwide. Our impact and global reach have been amazing for a company our size. Cliff has done a fabulous job for us and we hope to find opportunities to work together in the years to come.

Cliff will be focusing on re-launching his consulting business, Syntopical. He hopes to use the digital media related expertise that he has developed working at Bluefire, Hearst, Microsoft, and Apple to help publishers and other content focused businesses refine their digital media strategies, build key business relationships, and grow their revenues.

Over the coming months you will hear more from us about updates to Bluefire Reader and our white-label apps. You’ll also be hearing from us as we launch Cloudshelf, our new family of EPUB 3 reader applications and distribution services. Cloudshelf will enable businesses and institutions of all types to easily and cost-effectively deploy digital private libraries and subscription services to their constituent groups (employees, students, association members, and consumers). But that’s a story for another day… Stay tuned!

We are grateful to Cliff for his significant contributions to our success.

– Micah

Announcing the Readium Foundation and the Readium EPUB 3 SDK Project

As you may already know, today marks the public announcement of the Readium Foundation and the Readium EPUB 3 SDK project. Bluefire has made a big investment in this initiative, supplying executive leadership, development resources, and funding. We want to share our thoughts on why the work we’re doing as part of the Readium Foundation is so important—both to the future of Bluefire and to the future of digital publishing.

EPUB 3 is the expression of a dream. It embodies the publishing industry’s hopes for rich, interactive books of all kinds that are widely distributed and easily read on a broad range of PCs and mobile devices. But EPUB 3 will remain a dream without a robust, consistent rendering experience that works across a multitude of vendor and device platforms. As Bluefire progressed in its independent development of our EPUB 3 renderer it became clear to us that the EPUB 3 spec is open to a considerable amount of interpretation—and that developing a great EPUB 3 rendering engine would require substantial ongoing investment. So we started talking to and meeting with other interested industry players. What evolved was a small working group and a new dream: a collaborative project focused on the development of a robust, open source EPUB 3 rendering engine that each of us, and others in the industry, could use as the foundation for commercial-grade reading systems. The dream is now on its way to becoming a reality.

Publishers need to know that the books they release look great and function as intended no matter which reading application is being used—a Bluefire-powered application or an app from a developer or retailer from anywhere around the world. It’s clear that critical mass matters in ebook technologies. The challenge for the incredibly diverse range of digital publishers and retailers is achieving critical mass. Working together is a great start. We don’t expect the Readium open source engine to be a silver bullet, and it is unrealistic to think that every ebook platform in the world will utilize this engine. However, we do believe that the use of a common, shared rendering engine across a wide spectrum of large and small companies will be an important step forward—similar to the manner in which Webkit has facilitated consistency in HTML5 rendering across browsers, even in those that don’t utilize Webkit.

Bluefire has worked along-side the other initial founders of the Readium Foundation to bring this initiative to life. We will be working even harder moving forward to bring it to fruition. We will also be integrating the Readium EPUB 3 SDK with the Adobe Reader Mobile SDK so that our publisher, retail and library customers can use Bluefire-powered apps to distribute EPUB 3 content that leverages the industry-standard Adobe Content Server rights management system.

We know that many of you are hungry for details about when we will be rolling out our next generation apps, features, and pricing. We will share this information as the development effort progresses in the months ahead. Today, we’re celebrating: our industry has come together in an unprecedented way to help realize a vision of the future that creates and sustains opportunity for all—especially for readers.

– Micah

Customer-Friendly ACS

This is a post for readers of this blog who are currently using (or are planning on using) Adobe Content Server for the distribution of eBooks. Below you’ll find a few “best practices” for you to consider based on our experiences working with ACS technologies over the last several years. These suggestions mostly apply to retailers, but often require the agreement and cooperation of rights-holders and distributors to make these practices a reality.

  1. Enable customers to re-download purchased items multiple times.  Do not restrict a purchase to a single download. Avid readers often have multiple devices and acquire new devices over time.
  2. Enable customers to transfer content between devices. The Adobe solution provides the option to restrict a downloaded file to a “single device,” but it is rarely advisable to do that. While buyers can often re-download files directly to another device, there are many different reasons why customers may need to transfer files (a tethered reading device is a good example), and it is important that customers can back up their purchased files to future-proof against unforeseen events.
  3. Craft distribution agreements as a long-term commitment whenever possible—at least for previously sold content even after sell rights expire. Consumers fully expect to be able to re-download purchased content well into the future so it is important that retailers do not find themselves in a position where they are unable to provide that service. This fact is true with or without the use of DRM.
  4. Offer your customers free branded reading applications for mobile devices and desktop machines and tightly integrate your content acquisition workflows into these apps. This greatly reduces customer friction and builds your brand identity and customer relationships.
  5. Utilize the Adobe Vendor ID service that enables your customers to authorize their ereading applications with their retail store account credentials rather than having to go get an Adobe ID account. This enables you to offer the “single sign-in” user experience that consumers expect.
  6. Make sure that your reading applications support multiple user account authorizations for your customers that share devices with their spouse or child, or have multiple accounts for several other valid reasons.
  7. Enable customers to re-download purchased titles to devices that are authorized with a different user account. An example of this is enabling a customer to re-download a file that was initially downloaded to a device authorized with their Adobe ID account—to a different device owned by the same customer—but that is authorized with their spouse’s account credentials.  While many modern apps enable users to add multiple account authorizations to a single device, many older apps and devices do not support that. It is reasonable to limit this to two or three accounts as that covers the vast majority of valid use cases while limiting the potential for abuse.
  8. Offer customers an alternate download link option that is not “tied” to your own reading apps that enable customers to more easily read purchased items on their favorite third-party reading app or device that leverage the Adobe platform.
  9. Offer good help and support content and services.  Don’t try to sweep it under the rug or ignore it just because it is not an easy topic.

– MIcah