EPUB 3 launches but devices may not be ready

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The release of EPUB 3 was one of the big news announcements of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Sian Harris reports back from the fair on what this might mean

During the Frankfurt Book Fair the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) announced the completion of EPUB 3, a major revision to the standard interchange and delivery format for e-books and other digital publications.

EPUB 3 is based on HTML5 and adds support for rich media (audio and video), interactivity, global language support (including vertical writing), and styling and layout enhancements. It also supports SVG, embedded fonts, expanded metadata facilities, MathML, and synchronisation of audio with text and other enhancements for accessibility.

‘As digital publications evolve from digitised text into enhanced e-books and new forms of expression, EPUB 3 will dramatically expand the ability of authors and publishers to deliver richer experiences to their readers across disparate devices, in browsers and in apps,’ said Bill McCoy, executive director of the IDPF, when the launch was announced.

EPUB 3 already received widespread industry support when it gained proposed recommendation status in May. Now that it is a final specification, the IDPF anticipates that a number of companies will provide support for it over the coming year. However, there are unlikely to be immediate transformations, according to show-floor conversations in the STM hall of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

‘The real bottleneck is with the devices and reading platforms,’ explained Jonathan Hevenstone, executive vice president, business development & consulting for Jouve North America, at the fair. ‘Just because something is in the specification does not mean that it’s available on a platform. EPUB 3 includes maths support but the question is when platforms will support that natively.’

Having said that, he pointed out that plenty of progress has been made even without the latest version of the standard being completed. ‘There is quite a high level of interactivity possible already with EPUB. The iPad and iPhone are the most advanced today and probably do most of what EPUB 3 promises,’ he said.

Alex Schrijver, VP of sales EMEA and APAC for MPS, commented: ‘EPUB 3 will probably require changes in devices.’ However, once these issues are addressed, the standard promises major benefits for users of a range of e-reading devices: ‘EPUB 3 is cross platform and readable on many devices so you don’t need lots of different versions. The whole trend in the industry is towards one-size fits all,’ he added.

Beyond the device challenges, there are issues because the latest version is so new. ‘One of the biggest problems is EPUB 3 validators for checking that the code is right. If you don’t know the code yet you can’t develop validators. These will probably take a few months to emerge,’ Schrijver said.

In addition, as Hevenstone pointed out, the EPUB 3 standard references the HTML 5 specification, which itself isn’t final.

Nonetheless, there is excitement about the existence of a new standard. Hevenstone pointed out that, like with HTML, it is not so much that the technical capabilities are amazing but the standardisation that is key. ‘EPUB is essentially a zipped website, following HTML 5 on the web,’ he said. ‘It’s just an extra challenge because you are delivering to mobile devices so you have to think about, for example, file size and whether Flash is supported.’

And the potential benefits of the new standard go beyond e-books, believe publishing services companies: ‘EPUB 3 extends to many different types of content. It certainly could extend to journals,’ said Hevenstone. ‘EPUB is a smart way to go.’

In this respect it poses potential challenges to the app market: ‘I think publishers will come to EPUB because of cost too,’ he continued.

‘Many people are now saying that the app is not a sustainable business model because the only way to market is through the app store and this means you need to lower your prices to get to the top of the list. There is still a model for developing apps but they will probably be mainly based on EPUB.’

Schrijver of MPS agreed: ‘With EPUB 3 it is so much easier to make an e-book – and cheaper than apps too,’ he said. ‘I don’t feel that apps have really taken off in e-books. A lot of publishers are still behind with e-books themselves, let alone apps.’ However, as he cautioned, ‘never say something’s going to die. After all you can still buy vinyl records.’

Meanwhile, the industry – and end users in many sectors – eagerly wait for e-books that take full advantage of the big promises of the new standard.

Further information

The final IDPF recommended specification for EPUB 3 is publicly available at idpf.org/epub/30