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Avoiding the e-reader wars?a call for ePub standards

By  Mar 31, 2010

Topics: Apple, Design

As a veteran of the Browser Wars between Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator in the 1990s, I’m growing increasingly concerned about the potential upcoming conflict between e-readers such as Stanza, Adobe Digital Editions, and Apple's iBooks app for iPad.

The other day I read on Ibis Reader’s blog that they intentionally “try to override the following CSS properties when used on an iPhone” and other devices:

  • left and right padding and margin
  • width
  • font-size
  • font-family

Even when visitors are using the Web version of Ibis Reader, they discourage the use of padding and margin, width, min-width, max-width, background-image (and friends), and absolute positioning.

These last two seem reasonable, as they are already excluded from the official OPS spec, but the first set smack of paternalistic design sensibilities that, frankly, get my goat. I know they mean well, but frankly, no thank you.

And I don’t mean to single out Ibis Reader—which in many other ways is a very elegant solution. Every e-reader I’ve seen to date would rather reformat your carefully crafted ePub document than trust you to have designed your book on purpose.

I truly believe that one of the reasons that the Web took off like it did was because there were no authorities on high dictating elitist rules of design. If you were bent on making a hideous page, there was no browser that was going to stand in your way or choose more “appropriate” fonts or colors to save you from embarrassment.

And although there may have been a number of ugly pages at the beginning, this lack of censorship also lay the groundwork for a most beautiful explosion of democracy. Anyone could create a Web site. And everyone did.

Enter the ebook. Somehow, e-readers have decided that those of us who want to create our own ebooks shouldn't be able to design them the way we want. They’re afraid we may choose ugly formatting: perhaps brash fonts or large indents that make our ePubs hard to read. Oh, the horrors! The solution they offer is to ignore the formatting that book designers have chosen—across the board!—and instead, apply their own styles to our eBooks.

There are numerous problems with this approach. Most importantly, no designer is spared. Whether your design is beautiful or hideous, every e-reader I’ve seen will ignore big pieces of it. There will be little creativity allowed or tolerated.

Second, I imagine it won’t surprise you to hear that each e-reader ignores the book design from the ePub file in its own special way. Stanza strips out almost everything, Adobe Digital Editions likes tables, but not small caps, Ibis Reader overrides the properties outlined at the beginning of this article. We’ll see on Saturday how Apple’s iBooks app for the iPad will treat formatting from ePub files.

This means that book designers will have very little control over how a book is laid out in each e-reader, and that in addition, that layout will change from e-reader to e-reader.

A much more sane approach would be for book designers and e-reader software manufacturers to agree to follow the OPS spec. If the OPS spec says a particular CSS property should be supported, the e-reader should support it and not assume it knows better. Book designers should be able to rely on the OPS spec to determine which CSS properties are allowed in the final design.

If e-readers are so scared of ugly books, they should add a single “Override Original Design” option and let readers, human readers, decide.

Otherwise, it is just a matter of time before some enterprising software developer (Marc Andreessen, I know you're out there) comes up with an e-reader that does allow you to, say, add video, background images, and whatever else a book designer wants to add to their ePub-based ebooks—and that a book reader might want to have there. And by then, it will be too late: The E-reader Wars will have begun.