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