Sep 15

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Standardized Hardware for eBook Readers

In his description of how Make is taking the Sony Librie for a spin, Phil Torrone makes an important point: "Sony, Amazon and the iLiad eReader from iRex all use the same hardware/specs/tech - this is good thing." He's absolutely right. Standardized hardware was the beginning of the PC revolution, as it allowed multiple vendors to compete on the software stack (at least for a while :-)

Another interesting point came in follow-up discussion on the O'Reilly editors' list. Xavier Cazin wrote:

I wish those readers were immune to shocks, folding, coffee, sand or scratches, like a real book. Building an armoured Sony reader would be a cool Make project ;-)

Mike Loukides added: "Yes, I'm really surprised at how "nobody gets it". I was saying a good ten years ago that for electronic readers to take off, we'd need a device with no holes in it: nowhere for liquids, sand, etc. to get in. These days, we could easily make a device like that. If you do all your I/O over Bluetooth or Wifi, you don't even need a physical data port. (With EVDO in Amazon's reader, they've clearly thought about it, though not in the right way.) About the only "hole" you can't do away with would be the power cable (or the battery compartment), and those can be sealed if you do it right."

This is an interesting point, though I'm not sure that eBook readers need to be any more rugged than cell phones, digital cameras, or digital music players, all of which have succeeded despite some degree of vulnerability to the vicissitudes of life. What I think has been holding the eBook market back is the lack of content. No device has gotten enough traction to inspire authors and publishers to develop content for them, and the device manufacturers haven't given enough thought to the ways that standardization drives the market.

When we began our work with eBooks back in the late 1980s, we started by developing a standard format -- DocBook -- and a focus on creating a large enough body of content to make using an eBook (or eBook service) worthwhile for a targeted market. We also thought about what job a book does, and realized that Javascript: The Definitive Guide and Harry Potter are not really the same type of product at all. Because much of the use of our books is for reference, we built Safari as a service that is optimized for search across multiple books, rather than simply trying to create an electronic copy of a print book. We also chose to use the web as the delivery mechanism rather than specialized eBook software because we wanted to use standardized software wherever possible.

In short, we need standardized hardware, standardized software, and standardized document formats. And then we need publishers to get their books into those formats. Ideally, publishers will keep their content in a flexible repository that will allow them to output a variety of standard formats. At O'Reilly, we go from DocBook XML to postscript for printing, to HTML for Safari, to PDF for downloads, and to DAISY and BRL for visually impaired readers.

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Comments: 17

  DeanG [09.15.06 10:23 AM]

If Shel Silverstein wouldn't even allow his books published in paperback, what eBook reader would he allow?

  Ron [09.15.06 03:40 PM]

What I find very humorous about this blog post is that, for the most part, the O'Reilly PDF downloads are unreadable on these devices.

PDF, being a page layout format as opposed to an eBook format, is a poor choice for a book you want to read on different devices.

If you format your PDF for, say, an 8.5"x11" page, viewing it on a 5"x6.5" (like the iLiad) will be painful at best and not possible at worst.

  Ross M Karchner [09.15.06 08:11 PM]

So when can I expect DocBook downloads from Safari ;)

  Tim O'Reilly [09.17.06 01:37 AM]

Ron --

You're right. We haven't taken reader devices very seriously, and so far, we've been right. Every one of them so far has been a failure. They are focused on reproducing the experience of the book, without any thought about what job a book does for the reader.

The devices may be getting flexible enough (and with enough of them in the marketplace) to pay attention, but that hasn't been the case yet.

When the devices are ready, we'll be able to generate pages for them in a flash, because we keep the content in XML, and can generate target formats from there.

  John [09.17.06 09:03 AM]

With regards to the problem of powering a sealed device, most electric toothbrushes achieve this by electromagnetic induction.

  Dave Pawson [09.18.06 05:11 AM]

Tim said At O'Reilly, we go from DocBook XML to postscript for printing, to HTML for Safari, to PDF for downloads, and to DAISY and BRL for visually impaired readers.

I'm wondering how that works for the 'graphically
rich books' such as headfirst design patterns?

Is it still sourced in XML?

Google seems not to know much about the 'brl format' in terms of a definition?

regards DaveP

  Tim O'Reilly [09.18.06 06:20 AM]

Dave --

Sorry about the misdirection on BRL -- it's BRF (the digital source for Braille -- see We work with to make our books available to blind readers. We gave them the xml source so they could generate the DAISY and BRF.

As to how it works for graphically rich -- it doesn't yet. We're working to figure that out. We wish the publishing tools vendors were more on top of rich formatting and XML.

  Chip Pettibone [09.18.06 05:21 PM]

John asks �I'm wondering how that works for the 'graphically rich books' such as headfirst design patterns?�

The answer is we use both the XML and the print-ready PDFs. The XML enables navigation and search. The PDFs are used to generate the images that Safari displays for the pages. We also use the PDF text to assign the words to a coordinate space. That�s how we�re able to highlight search results dynamically, even though we�re serving out an image. In the future, we are going to enable copy/paste this way.

By the way, we are going to deprecate the term �graphically rich� in another week or so and instead use �print fidelity.� We�ll be introducing a �toggle� that lets you choose how to view the book. You can pick HTML or print fidelity. There will be around 100 books to start that will have the toggle enabled. Some books, such as the Head First series, will still remain as Print Fidelity only (no toggle) � the HTML we get just isn�t good enough.

  Chip Pettibone [09.18.06 05:24 PM]

Sorry about the bad characters in my post -- anyone have tips on how to get single and double quotes to post correctly using a Mac?

  Alison Chaiken [09.19.06 08:14 AM]

What doesn't work for graphically rich text is the kind of downloadable images that Make is using on its web site. I can't display those images so that they are pleasant to read even on my desktop. If O'Reilly books are available as HTML, why isn't Make?

On the actual topic of the commentary, I completely agree about standard formats and look forward to getting an ebook with a reflective display that fits in my panniers.

  brushin fool [09.20.06 05:35 PM]

About the power supply, I have an electric toothbrush ( that recharges on the stand without any cord/plug so I don't see why the power hole can't be done away with as well. Obviously the power requirements are somewhat different, but just the same...

  Anonymous [09.20.06 05:36 PM]

Ah, already in the comments. My bad. Guess I'm just not a readin fool...

  Anonymous [09.21.06 09:09 AM]

Interesting. Should we offer each format or use the DocBook documentation to set our parameters. Interestingly, I cannot find DocBook in e-book format.

I have been thinking lately of our company name. You have any ideas..... I would rather not stick to some generic technical name that doesn't have any true meaning........more to come.

  Mike Mudd [09.24.06 08:31 PM]

I found the following a good enough solution:

  • XDA Atom w/Wi Fi

  • Microsoft Reader

  • Adobe Pocket Reader (only works properly for tagged pdf's tho)

  • CHM Reader for tech books

  • 1GB memory card

Never have to buy a paper book again (at least for tech books), always have a back-lit reader, perfect for married insomniacs like me.

  Bill [09.26.06 06:36 PM]

Phil Torrone makes an important point: "Sony, Amazon and the iLiad eReader from iRex all use the same hardware/specs/tech - this is good thing." He's absolutely right.

No, he's wrong. No one knows the specs of the rumored Amazon device. The Sony Reader and iRex iLiad have significantly different specs -- in the critical area of screen real-estate. Yes, they may all have E-Ink displays, but that's as far as it goes. And that's a poor display technology for reading.

  Tomi Itkonen [09.29.06 07:09 AM]

IMO, the need for a specialized reader is just not there. The specs are too close to a small laptop PC. It feels limiting to use a gadget designed solely for displaying static text and images. To put simply, I want to have the PC's capabilities: large screen, USB ports, the latest browser, etc...
Any other device - excluding mobile phone - soon finds its way to the bottom of a drawer.

But that's just me. ;)

  Justin [10.30.06 01:57 PM]

Tim, it is too bad you don't take them seriously, I think the readers of your books are the ones most likely to be the early adopters. I for one, would like to be able to read about new technologies on the way to work, using an e-reader. I would prefer to put my books on an e-reader, so they don't waste space in my house and are easy to get rid of when they are out of date.

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