On the Adobe eBook Platform – Part 5 of 10: What is Adobe Vendor ID?

This is part 5 of a 10 part series by Micah Bowers, Co-Founder and CEO of Bluefire. Click here to read the first post in the series.

Adobe Vendor ID is a new solution from Adobe that is the most important new addition to the Adobe eBook platform since RMSDK. It enables eBook retailers to deploy branded ereading client applications that don’t require customers to have an Adobe ID in order to download ACS4 protected content.

With Vendor ID, customers can use the same username and password they use to log in to their account at the retailer’s website to authorize their client applications and devices. This greatly simplifies the user experience for consumers and also enables retailers to offer a single sign-in in for shopping, account access, and downloading—all working seamlessly with the Adobe eBook platform. The Adobe Vendor ID service is available to retailers through resellers such as Bluefire.

Have you ever used Adobe Digital Editions or a mobile app such as Bluefire Reader and been asked to authorize your device with your Adobe ID? This identity based DRM approach is useful because it enables interoperability of content acquired from a range of sources, across a range of commercial apps and devices. It also enables consumers to use neutral apps such as Adobe Digital Editions on the desktop, or Bluefire Reader on mobile devices, that are not affiliated with any particular retailer and thus do not include end user accounts.  These free apps provide a useful “Swiss army knife” function for ad-hoc documents and for reading content acquired from retailers and libraries that don’t offer their own ereader apps.

However, the requirement to have an Adobe ID to read an eBook purchased from a retailer or checked out from a library can also be a point of friction for the consumer. Before the consumer can download and read books they purchase or borrow, he or she must first visit the Adobe website and sign up for a free Adobe ID account. Consumers see this as an additional hoop to jump through, and this extra step can cause all kinds of confusion, including questions like “Who do I contact for support?”, “What is an Adobe ID?”, and “Why do I have to have an Adobe ID to buy or borrow eBooks from you?”

This friction has been one of the biggest challenges in the Adobe eBook ecosystem to-date for everyone involved. Vendor ID solves that. And, the great thing about Vendor ID is that it does not forgo the consumer benefits of interoperability.  Retailers who deploy applications that leverage Vendor ID can enable their customers to import and re-download content that they previously acquired with an Adobe ID,or another Vendor ID, and then read that content in the retailer’s branded application.  This removes one of the big barriers to acquiring new customers who have prior eBook purchases. And it offers a key point of differentiation from the closed, “private” ecosystems of the market leaders that trap their customers in their walled garden.

Retailers can now sell and deliver eBooks to the hundreds of millions of consumers with smart phones and tablets. They can provide the ease of use and convenience that consumers expect while providing consumers with greater freedom of choice. This is the kind of technology that can really change the game.

- Micah

On the Adobe eBook Platform – Part 4 of 10: What is the Reseller Model Anyway?

This is part 4 of a 10 part series by Micah Bowers, Co-Founder and CEO of Bluefire. Click here to read the first post in the series.

The software reseller business model is a model in which the developer of a technology product (such as Adobe) authorizes other companies to sell licenses to their products. The reseller has the ability to offer services and support that are related to those products. In the case of enterprise products, these authorized resellers are often focused on a particular, sometimes very narrow market vertical. Sometimes resellers are also “systems integrators” – offering integration services for the software they license.

This reseller model has a long history at Adobe, both in the packaged software sold via retail channels, and – more to the point here – in enterprise software. For example, the Adobe PDF Library is a Software Development Kit (SDK) that has been licensed via the reseller channel for many years. Licensees use the SDK to incorporate PDF functionality into their systems, often with the help of an Systems Integrator who has special expertise in PDF related software development. A similar model is employed by Adobe in a variety of verticals, such as education and government.

In the case of the Adobe eBook Platform, resellers provide important services such as consulting, support and systems integration that help retailers and publishers entering the rapidly evolving ebook marketplace make good strategic and technical decisions, while lowering overall costs and time to market.

Adobe announced the transition of their eBook Platform technologies to this reseller model on February 14th, 2011. They are working with a growing group of highly capable resellers with deep expertise in the digital publishing industry, including Bluefire. Products now sold through the reseller channel include RMSDK, ACS4, and Adobe Vendor ID. This switch to a reseller model takes time. It’s nearly a year after the announcement and the transition is still underway. Resellers are being added in new markets as demand warrants. The switch to a reseller model is indicative of a platform that is reaching maturity.

One downside of this transition is that it has at times caused some people in the ebook world to wonder whether Adobe is somehow “abandoning” the platform, as Adobe has transitioned their sales efforts to other areas and inquiries to Adobe about the products are referred to the reseller channel.  That is certainly not the case.  It is incumbent upon the reseller channel companies to promote the products they license, provide product information and deploy sales and support teams. We and others have been doing just that. The ebook marketplace is expanding so incredibly rapidly, with so many companies entering the market recently, that the bulk of our focus and energies have been spent on these new customers. We all have to get out and evangelize the platform to a larger audience.

Bluefire is aggressively pursuing our current business strategy because we believe that Adobe is actively supporting their eBook ecosystem. Supporting our belief is the fact that Adobe has continued to make significant enhancements to the platform throughout this transition. I described these enhancements in the previous post in this series. Adobe provides excellent support to the reseller channel and we talk directly to the developers and product management team at Adobe on a weekly basis. Based on this demonstrated history of support, it is my expectation that Adobe will continue to innovate in the digital publishing arena with solutions for magazines, newspapers and books. To learn more on what’s going on at Adobe visit http://www.adobe.com/solutions/digital-publishing.html.

In my next post in this series I will look a bit deeper at Adobe Vendor ID which enables developers to create RMSDK based desktop and mobile apps that don’t require the use of an Adobe ID.

- Micah

Meet Jason Sacks

(This is the first post in a series of introductions to the Bluefire team.)

Jason Sacks, Bluefire Project Manager

Hi, I’m Jason Sacks and I’m the Project Manager at Bluefire Productions.  I manage the processes and workflows around our white-label eReader products. I have about twelve years experience in the computer industry, most recently as the Release Manager for the Windows Protocols team at Microsoft. I joined Bluefire in the summer of 2011 and am really delighted to be part of a company that is making a real impact eReading.

I have a particular passion for eReader technology because I’m a voracious reader. My favorite books are nonfiction works about history and economics. These types of books help provide a deep perspective on our complex world. I really believe that the only way to understand the future is to understand the past, so I find history to be endlessly fascinating.

My other great reading passion is in graphic novels. I’ve read comic books since I was a kid, and as an adult I have grown a deeper passion for this art form. The graphic novel is a medium for really interesting work these days. It’s an infinitely malleable medium that offers amazing and unique storytelling opportunities that one can’t find in any other format.

Yeah, you can see I have a passion for this stuff, which is why I also own and manage a comic and pop culture website, Comics Bulletin. I work with a team of about 40 writers and editors and we cover all kinds of aspects of pop culture and “geek culture”, including TV, movies and video games. I think it’s a pretty great site and we run a lot of outstanding writing. It’s pretty much all run by volunteers, but we produce a lot of content every day for the site. Thankfully I have a great team that keeps me from having to spend all my nights and weekends working on site business.

Obviously with this background in technology and love for comics, you can see why I have a deep passion for eReading technology. As a company, we need to find ways to help companies improve and streamline the experience of reading ebooks and comics on iPad and Android devices. More than that, though, we need to work to make the device invisible for the user.

Just as you seldom think about the actual three-dimensional book that you’re reading, you should also seldom think about the actual tablet or phone that you’re reading on. The real trick when working on these apps is to allow the reader to feel engrossed in their book, to create apps that help readers to connect to the material they love without feeling the electronics sitting in their way.

A small, nimble and extremely entrepreneurial company like Bluefire is the perfect place to be tacking these complex issues in smart ways. Because we can think on our feet and innovate quickly, Bluefire is in the perfect position to have a dialogue with our users and clients about the best ways to make the right choices in eReader technology. I’m loving this journey so far, and can’t wait to see how this business evolves.

- Jason

On the Adobe eBook Platform- Part 3 of 10: What’s New?

This is part 3 of a 10 part series by Micah Bowers, Co-Founder and CEO of Bluefire. Click here to read the first post in the series.

In my previous post in this series I provided a concise overview of the Adobe eBook publishing platform. Many of you are probably already familiar with the basic elements of the Adobe ecosystem, but may not know about the following recent and exciting developments.

Adobe has released significant updates to RMSDK (versions 9.2 and 9.3) in the last year. Along with the usual fixes and minor tweaks, Adobe delivered a brand new EPUB rendering engine. While there are too many enhancements delivered as part of the new rendering engine to do it justice to in one short blog post, the most significant set of new features is related to foreign language support, notably Asian languages. There are also big improvements in typography and text rendering, including support for hyphenation and, importantly, support for text-to-speech (TTS) for content accessibility.

Adobe has also released Content Server 4.1.2 which enables what I call “pass-hash” protection for PDF and EPUB files. This pass-hash system is a new option beyond the “identity based” system that was already supported with the use of an Adobe ID account to authorize a limited number of devices. This pass-hash system embeds an encrypted (or “hashed”) version of a user name and/or password into the ebook file. Any user who receives a copy of the file and knows the username and password associated with the item can read the eBook. Adobe calls this a form of “Social DRM” because the eBook and password info can be shared with others and is not limited to a specific number of authorized devices. (Note that the release of this system does not imply a change to the concurrent device limit used in the more popular identity based DRM option.) Content Server 4.1.2 also added support for TTS as part of the available content protection permission set. More information on these topics can be found on the Adobe Digital Publishing Blog.

Adobe has also released a new generation of the Adobe Digital Editions desktop app, currently available as a Beta release in Adobe Labs. It has a very different look-and-feel than the first generation app, but the most important new feature is its integrated accessibility support. You can learn more about the latest release – “Adobe Digital Editions 1.8 Preview” which was released in November 2011. Download the preview and check it out for yourself! It is still a work in progress but this Beta is a good step forward.

That said, even as ADE improves I think many organizations will choose to release their own RMSDK based desktop applications. The reason for this is that desktop operating systems simply don’t enable a great way to “push” ebook file downloads from a retailer or library website into an application. So in order to offer a good consumer experience, the content acquisition interfaces need to be integrated within the applications themselves.

I believe this is a key reason why Adobe has focused so much of their development efforts toward providing enabling technologies to 3rd party developers – so that the 3rd parties can in turn build ereading apps and devices that tightly integrate discovery, download, and reading features.

The down-side of this focus on providing enabling technology is that it is sometimes “invisible” to a broader audience of folks in the digital publishing space – until companies like Bluefire build things with it.

A great example of this is another new capability of the platform: Adobe Vendor ID. This allows developers to create mobile and desktop applications that do not require that the end user have an Adobe ID. The user can simply “sign-in” to the ereading application with the user account they are issued by a retailer, library, employer, etc. This capability was first introduced in November of 2010, but companies have only begun to release their own products that take advantage of this capability in the last few months.

Another major change took place in 2011 as well: the transition of the eBook Platform to the “reseller” model. I’ll dive deeper in to that and Vendor ID in the next two posts.

- Micah

On the Adobe eBook Platform – Part 2: Overview

This is part 2 of a 10 part series by Micah Bowers, Co-Founder and CEO of Bluefire. Click here to read the first post in the series.

The Adobe eBook Platform is a set of technologies, applications, and web-based services that in total equate to an ecosystem for the creation, distribution, and display of rights managed digital content such as ebooks. There are many moving parts to this ecosystem, but one could vastly over-simplify it by describing itas an ebook publishing platform that any company or organization can leverage.

The notion that “any company” can use the Adobe eBook platform is a key element of what makes it different than other popular ebook platforms. For example, Amazon’s Kindle platform has a similar set of moving parts, but only Amazon can store, deliver and display the content in devices and applications created and controlled by the company. It is a private ecosystem that no other company can participate in, except as a “supplier”.

The Adobe platform allows many different kinds of organizations to participate. These organizations have the ability to participate either as end-to-end players that publish and deliver content directly to consumers, or as a company with specific industry vertical focus such as app developers, hardware manufacturers, retailers, and aggregators. These vertical players are as much parts of the ecosystem as are the individual technology components themselves.

Those technology components are:

  1. Adobe Reader Mobile SDK (“RMSDK”): This is a very deep set of C++ source code libraries that any organization can license and use to build ereading applications or ereader devices. A few companies have leveraged RMSDK to build their own applications, including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Overdrive, and Sony, among others. However, developing a mobile or desktop application with RMSDK is a significant undertaking requiring a highly skilled team working for many months at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because of these high costs, many companies turn to software developers that specialize in this area – such as Bluefire and a handful of others.
  1. Adobe Content Server 4 (“ACS4”): This is a server-side software product that is operated by hundreds of organizations around the globe. It encrypts ebook files and enables the operator to set permissions that control how the ebooks can be used. These forms of control manage  how much content users can copy or print, whether content can be moved to other devices, etc.  You could say that it “applies DRM”, though it does *much* more than that. A publisher might operate ACS4 themselves, or it might be operated by a distributor, aggregator, library, or retailer. The software supports ebook “purchase” models as well as loans, rentals and even subscription business models.
  1. Adobe Digital Editions (“ADE”): This is an ereader application for desktop computers. It provides a “neutral” platform for reading ebooks. It is neutral in that it is not associated with any particular retailer, publisher, or library. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength in that many different ebook retailers feel comfortable delivering content to end users to read in ADE. Freely available, ADE allows retailers to avoid the cost of either licensing a white label app or licensing RMSDK and developing apps for multiple desktop operating systems (as Sony, B&N and a few others have done). The fact that ADE can not be customized is also a weakness because it does not enable retailers to integrate the shopping and ebook download features that consumers have come to expect – features that provide a much more seamless and intuitive experience.
  1. Adobe Web Services: There are several web-based services that Adobe operates 24/7 that make this whole ebook ecosystem work. These services include the Adobe Activation Service, which comes into play when consumers authorize their application with their Adobe ID or Vendor ID (I’ll discuss the ID system in detail in a later post). Another service is the Adobe License Signing Service which comes into play when a user is downloading a purchased or loaned ebook. Lastly, there is the Adobe Vendor ID service, which I will cover in part 5 of this series.
  1. Authoring: And of course there are the Adobe Creative Suite apps such as inDesign that everyone knows about and which are used to create the content in the first place. That said, one could create EPUB or PDF content in a huge variety of applications – including the most simple of text editors.

The Adobe ecosystem is a wide-reaching and mature ecosystem, and there really is no major competitor in the marketplace. That is not surprising as the investment of time and money required to build and maintain such an ecosystem is intense. Amazon and Apple have built their own versions of this in some ways, but these closed systems are in many ways “smaller” in scope because they don’t enable the direct participation of literally hundreds of other companies world-wide.

And, while the Adobe eBook platform enables so many organizations in the digital publishing ecosystem to build ebook businesses and services, there is also a key benefit to people who love to read: Choices. As a consumer, I can choose to buy ebooks from a host of different companies world-wide, both from major retail chains and small indie bookstores or publishers. I can choose to read that ebook on a wide variety of ereader devices from one of many established hardware brands, or read it with any one of dozens of ereading applications  available on just about any smartphone, tablet, or computer, including apps developed by Bluefire. And I get to actually keep my own ebook files and mange my own collection instead of having them managed in a closed system. I can back my files up, put them on a thumb drive, and so forth. For me personally, this  control has always been essential.

In part 3 of this series: “What’s New?” I will describe the many improvements that have been made to the platform recently.

- Micah

On the Adobe eBook Platform – Part 1: An Introduction

This is the first of a 10 part series where I will talk about my perspectives on the Adobe eBook Platform. I’ve noticed that while the platform is broadly used internationally by publishers, retailers, distributors, device makers and libraries – not to mention many millions of consumers – there is not a whole lot of in-depth discussion and coverage on it to be found online. My goal in this blog is to help fill that void a bit, start a conversation with our peers, and to advocate that those of us that participate in this ecosystem make renewed efforts to cooperate and work together. We need to work together for our collective benefit and for the benefit of the most important people to us all: the people who read.

This series will be focused on the business and technical side of things, so probably of interest mostly to folks who work in the digital publishing space. Here’s an overview of the topics I’ll be hitting on:

  • Part 2: Platform Overview
  • Part 3: What’s New?
  • Part 4: What is this Reseller Model Anyway?
  • Part 5: What is Adobe Vendor ID?
  • Part 6: Why Should I Care?
  • Part 7: But Doesn’t DRM Suck?
  • Part 8: Resources and Players
  • Part 9: What Does the Future Hold?
  • Part 10: A Call to Work Together

To provide context for the subsequent posts in this series, here’s a short introduction to me and my company, Bluefire:

I’m Micah Bowers, the CEO of Bluefire Productions, an independent software company in Seattle. We offer digital content distribution tools for retailers, publishers, libraries, and anyone else who has high-value content that they’d like people to read, and with whom they’d like to build a deep and lasting relationship.

Our core products today are “white label” (customer branded) ereading applications for smartphones and tablets.  These apps support PDF and EPUB documents as well as Adobe’s ebook DRM. Our current customers include Books-A-Million, Hastings Entertainment, Mardel Christian & Education, the American Booksellers Association and Kaplan Publishing, along with many others in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Latin America and South America.

You can learn more about Bluefire and our services by visiting our website at www.bluefirereader.com. For those that are already familiar with us, you might want to check out this recent blog post that explains what we’ve been up to the last couple of years. For my personal background, you can look me up on LinkedIn here.

While it probably goes without saying, I do want to be clear that my comments here on this blog are my own personal perspectives, and in no way reflect the views of Adobe Systems Inc.

It also goes without saying that I’m far from impartial on this topic as these technologies sit at the core of our products.  That said, my intent here is to avoid simply being a cheerleader for the platform, and to instead provide useful information and personal perspectives on the technologies and the role they play in the overall digital publishing landscape.

- Micah

Hello (Again) World

Wow, three years have gone by since my last blog post. It has been quite a journey.

That last blog post was in January 2009. At that point we at Bluefire had been working closely with Adobe for a couple years on a substantial overhaul of their ebook platform. At that point, Adobe Digital Editions had been available for about a year and Adobe Content Server 4 had been out for a few months. Sony had recently become the first major ebook retailer to adopt the new Adobe eBook Platform.

In February of that year Adobe released the Reader Mobile Software Development Kit (“RMSDK”) and it took off like a rocket ship. Many hardware companies built ereader devices using RMSDK, and key industry players leveraged the platform including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Overdrive, Ingram, and Google – among many, many others.

As 2009 progressed we continued to work with Adobe on building out components of the platform and worked with several other clients in the digital publishing space. A lot of our client work that year was focused on developing technologies for browser-based reading systems.

By the end of 2009 my partner Patrick Keating and I recognized an unmet need in the market: mobile ereader apps. Yes, any company could license RMSDK and build their own app, but that process is a time consuming and expensive proposition that requires skill sets that are still very hard to find. We recognized that this skills gap represented a big opportunity for us because we were intimately familiar with the technology, and because, after many years working in the ebook space, we had been bitten by the ebook bug. We believed that many retailers, publishers, and libraries world-wide would be interested in deploying their own mobile ereader apps. Even large companies and institutions that we don’t necessarily think of as being in the “book” business seemed to be likely candidates to want to distribute long format content to their employees, investors, partners, and members on mobile devices.

So, after 8 years working as a boutique UX design and development services firm, Patrick and I decided it was the right time for us to reinvent Bluefire as a digital publishing platform provider. Our initial goal was to create a “white label” mobile app development system that would enable us to deliver customer-branded ereading apps to retailers and publishers so that they in turn could distribute ebooks directly to their own customers under their own brand. The idea was to “level the playing field” so that lots of new retailers and publishers could enter the rapidly evolving ebook marketplace quickly and affordably.

In the fall of 2010, after many months of hard work, we delivered our first white label iOS app to Books-A-Million, one of the largest brick-and-mortar retail chains in the US. In early 2011 we became an authorized reseller of Adobe eBook Platform technology licenses and services. And in August of 2011 we began delivering Android ereader apps to our customers as well.

I’m pleased to report that today, just one year after releasing our first product, we have over 75 enterprise customers in 18 countries and that Bluefire is entering 2012 as a growing, profitable and 100% independent company.

All of us here at Bluefire are looking forward to what should be an eventful and exciting year.

- Micah