Switched On: Making book with ePUB

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The ePUB standard, developed by Adobe, allows consumers to purchase books at a variety of digital stores and use them on a wide range of compatible devices without the manufacturer having to explicitly support them. That may sound a bit like the PlaysForSure initiative that Microsoft tried mounting to challenge the iPod but ultimately shifted away from (at least for MP3 players) in favor of the Zune, but ePUB has a better shot than PlaysForSure did.

First, unlike PlaysForSure, which was playing catch-up to the already dominant iPod, ePUB is appearing relatively early in the market; it need not break anyone's "stranglehold." Second, after attracting the support of Sony, the format achieved a significant coup with the support of Barnes & Noble, which noted last week that it was "excited" to be supporting the format in its forthcoming Nook e-reader.

Like Sony did and like Amazon would have to, Barnes & Noble moved to embrace ePUB after pursuing its own proprietary file format. Even more impressively, the bricks-and-clicks bookseller is embracing ePUB while innovating in rights management; Nook users can lend each books out once each for 14 days. The Nook is also well-positioned not only because of very competitive hardware, but because of Barnes & Noble's nationwide retail footprint and multichannel presence, and because of the close connection the retailer has to readers -- combining many of the advantages that Sony and and Amazon have enjoyed up to this point. ePUB is also supported by Google for

its public domain Google Books initiative as well as Shortcovers, another digital bookseller affiliated with Canadian retailer Indigo. It is all but assured that any other major consumer electronics vendor that enters the e-reader market moving forward will support ePUB.

On the other hand, even though ePUB should enjoy prevalence, it may have limited relevance. This is because of another shift in device dynamics since the 2001 debut of the iPod -- wireless broadband access. Integrated, free 3G connectivity first appeared on the Kindle. Amazon could justify subsidizing access since the Kindle store was the only practical source for content for the device and because the device had little value without books purchased from Amazon. To a greater extend than the iPod, the Kindle is a digital vending machine.

But Sony and Barnes & Noble's support for ePUB does not mean that either will subsidize wireless connections to buy ebooks from rival booksellers. ePUB content will have to be sideloaded, and assuming we see the most popular "short-tail" content available at the Sony and B&N digital bookstores, there will be little reason for most consumers to look elsewhere. ePUB's impact will be blunted since Barnes & Noble, seeking to reinforce its brand and experience, will make its own reader client available on a broad range of devices anyway.

Amazon has already improved its support of PDF (ePUB's technical cousin) with the Kindle DX, and already allows sideloaded content, so it would not be too surprising to see the Kindle vendor add ePUB to the device. That would be a win for astute consumers aware of digital rights management and even provide added value to the Kindle in terms of tapping into a broader array of books such as the public domain library offered by Google Books and potentially digitally lent books from public libraries. It may also help Amazon in its textbook ambitions, as the retailer would need more buy-in from institutions such as colleges and boards of education that are far more likely to be concerned with having the assurance of an open format. Just as millions of consumers bought billions of songs from Apple despite a closed DRM system, though, Amazon could happily continue to sell books incompatible with ePUB.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.