Monday, June 27, 2011

A Look At The Nook Simple Touch Reader, with Kindle Perspective

I bought a Nook Simple Touch Reader, and it has nothing to do with the fact that people sometimes mispronounce my name as 'Tom Simple'.

I like my Kindle a lot, and would recommend the experience to almost anyone who is in the market for a dedicated eReader. But there are a few things it just will not do, or do well, or that I have special requirements for:
  • reading ebooks borrowed from a library
  • as an ePub 'reference system' that I can use for learning and developing ebooks in that format
  • to feed my curiosity about reading and reading technologies
  • for holding my library of computer books, with quicker navigation and better formatting than Kindle provides
  • desire for a touch interface

OOBE ('out of box experience')
The Nook arrived promptly on my doorstep (I followed it there couple of days later). No eco-friendly packaging here: glossy full color cardboard box with foam lining. After a glance at the quick start guide, I turned it on and began the registration process (what, it isn't already registered?). Wow, a 140 page EULA to read (and another 178 pages for the Open Source Licenses).  There's no way to register the device without wi-fi. Dig out my 63 character cryptic router password, I'm lucky and type it correctly the first time. Finally, sync Library. My B&N library appears. Not so bad, but Kindle comes pre-registered to your account, and you need only configure the wi-fi (and not even that, if it includes 3G).

First, I'll walk through the various screens one navigates when not in reading mode:

I won't be coming here very much. Half of the screen is taken up with ads for books, there's a button to open the most recently read book, and a few items from my library. This screen is pretty much redundant. Fortunately, it can be avoided entirely.

This is very similar to Kindle's Home screen, but it has more options and views. Books can be listed as thumbnails or as items in a list, sorted by Author, Title, or Most Recent. The view can be filtered by All, Books, LendMe, Shelves, My Files, Archived, and Everything Else. Some of these categories are not self-explanatory. For example, 'Everything Else' consists of B&N content that can't be viewed on the Nook Touch (incompatible formats, multimedia, etc.). 'Books' is a list of the books actually on the device, but for some reason this does not include ebooks borrowed from the library (those can only be found in All or in a Shelf that you've added them to). You cannot delete any content found in the library. B&N content (including Samples) can Archived, but to delete you have to go on the web to your B&N account. Side-loaded content has to be removed using a computer. Shelves can be created to hold books, which can be on more than one shelf. I found the Nook library more efficient to navigate than Kindle.

Content is either downloaded directly from B&N over wi-fi, or side-loaded from a computer via the included USB cable. B&N advertises '2GB' of storage, but only 1GB is actually available for content, and 750MB of that is reserved for B&N content downloaded via wi-fi, leaving 250MB for side-loaded content. The latter can be expanded through use of microSD cards to as much as 32GB.

Library search is restricted to Title and Author. To search content, you have to open the book (assuming you know which one has the content that you want to search).

I don't like this label, 'Shop'. It connotes a time and money wasting activity, certain to result in the acquisition of Crap I Don't Need Or Want. I never 'shop for' books, and have never been to a 'book shop'. It seems sexist too, somehow. 'Store' (the term Kindle uses) is more more neutral, and thematic (as in 'bookstore'). Shop has a set of scrolling ads that rarely seem to change, none of which interest me at all. But as with 'Home,' you never have to visit this screen if you don't want to.

The Shop 'Browse' UI is much like the Library UI and is easy to use, organized into categories and sub-categories. Book details include a short summary, file size, User and critical reviews, and Related Titles, much as on Kindle.

Another of the device navigation options is Search. By which is meant 'Search the Library'. This is redundant, as you can launch such searches directly from Library.

This is where you access device info (battery status, available storage, SD card info, About Your Nook, Erase & Deregister, and those ever-fascinating Legal notices.

Form Factor
Nook is smaller and lighter than Kindle (mostly because it doesn't have keyboard). The rubberized skin (not customizable) makes it workable without a case, while Kindle is a little slippery without one (but the lighted cover is awesome). I can slip Nook into the cargo pocket of my REI trail pants, or tucked under the elastic band that holds my Kindle case shut (aww, they look so cute together!).

The screen is identical, and specs are the same in resolution (600x800), greyscale depth (16) and contrast ratio (whatever it is).

Each claims to have better battery life than the other, I'll just say that it doesn't matter, they are both good.
Nook has a faster CPU, and indeed seems more responsive or at least more efficient.

Both have page advance buttons for forward/back on both left and right sides. Both have page buttons that take a little getting used to.

Both use the same microB USB connnector for charging and connecting to a computer.

Kindle has the keyboard and various other buttons. Nook has only the 4 page turn buttons, a 'menu' button, and a 'power' button (which is only needed to lock the screen when you want to tuck it away for the night).

Wi-fi setup is slightly easier on Nook. It's easier to find the settings & enter passwords when required. I did have a little trouble connecting via proxy to a particular, unsecured network, but only because it was using an invalid SSL certificate. I had to invoke the hidden browser by typing an URL in Library search, then elect to Continue when it offered that option, and was able finally able to touch the 'Accept' button on the authentication page to connect. Normally, such proxied connections would be more seamless on Nook.

Where the two devices diverge is in how much they are able to leverage the wifi connection. On Nook, wi-fi is good only for 'Shop' access, and the occasional tweet, facebook, email posting. The web browser is not currently usable (except for very specific tasks, like hooking up Nook to Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail, and to authorize proxied wifi connections).

Kindle does everything Nook does with wi-fi, but also has a serviceable web browser, and you can browse web sites and download compatible content (dropbox, calibre content server, etc.) directly without tethering to a computer and side-loading it. Wikipedia lookups and Google searches are integrated with the reader. The browser has an 'Article mode' reading mode which extracts text from a web page and makes it much more readable (wikipedia for example).

But you can also 'push' content to the Kindle, converting it to Kindle format if necessary, using email, services like Instapaper, calibre, and browser plugins like 'Send To Kindle'. It's very powerful and useful to be able to do this.

Reader viewing options
Nook has 8 text sizes, six built in typefaces, margin and line spacing adjustment, and ability to toggle something called 'Publisher Defaults'. It must be said that the typefaces vary in quality, and the smallest text sizes are 'too small': there isn't enough resolution to render them with clear, dark strokes. But even the larger text sizes don't 'pop' like Kindle's: to use a photography analogy, they seem to be 'underexposed' (I'm still trying to determine if this applies to all Nooks, or just mine). Arguably, the best Nook typefaces are the same ones Kindle has: Caecilia, and Helvetica Neue.

Kindle's typefaces all look sharp, clear, and even, at any size. But Kindle's smallest text size is larger than the two smallest B&N text sizes, so they left themselves a little more 'margin of safety'. Kindle's fonts look slightly better to me at the sizes I like to use, but Nook's are just fine for the most part, as long as you avoid the small text sizes. Hopefully an update can address the apparent issues with lack of contrast/saturation.

As it is, I would regard the smallest 2 sizes as 'special purpose' options, not to be used for productive reading because of their lower quality, but useful on occasion. For example, code listings (in computer programming books) often are made more difficult to read due to word wrap. Having the option to make the text smaller to avoid word wrap is a useful thing to be able to turn on once in awhile, even if the letterforms are not as 'black'. I would not mind having one or two smaller text sizes available on Kindle even if they are not as high quality. Again, not for regular use, just something occasionally useful.

The Publisher Defaults option allows the Nook to render ebooks with CSS formatting defined by the publisher. This disables the ability to adjust margins and line spacing, and the result is not always pretty for reasons that will require further investigation. In particular, zero line spacing often results. On the other hand, turning the option off breaks CSS features which depend on coordinated styling. So, for example, drop-caps don't work correctly (Nook's styling doesn't properly justify the text around the drop-cap).

Nook has hyphenation, a step in the direction of better typography. However it's not a clear win since there's no way to turn it off when it's distracting, and it hyphenates indiscriminately (including headers), and occasionally makes outright errors (truncates a header, hyphenates in odd places). There are ways to turn it off selectively in the ePub source, but hyphenation is new on the scene so most ebooks are at the mercy of the reading system. I would like an option to turn hyphenation off as it can be distracting, particularly at larger text sizes.

Nook cannot zoom embedded images at all. Kindle has the ability to zoom medium sized images to full screen. On K3 that maxes out at 600x800; still not enough zoom in many cases, especially where images are 'optimized for DX' (Kindle mobile apps let you zoom in to full resolution and pan around—I wish Kindle itself had that ability as well). So both fall short of perfection (as do we all).

Kindle has landscape viewing, Nook inexplicably (given the obvious symmetries of the device) does not. But for the most part, this is a nice-to-have for ebook reading, not a necessity.

Text search
Nook does not use indexes for fast lookup. Every time you ask it to look for a word, it takes a little time to think about it and build search results. It keeps a list of recent search terms for reuse, which Kindle does not. It offers navigation from one 'found' location to the next (similar to a text editor), which Kindle lacks.

Kindle is faster at generating search results, because of its content index, and you can type in more than one word to search for and it will generate search results show the words where they are found in close proximity to each other. And as mentioned, text search can extend to all content on the device when invoked from the Home screens.

Dictionary lookup
Nook is a lot quicker to pull up a definition. Just touch and hold, (the selected word appears at top of screen, and updates as you move your finger around on the page, making it easy to select the desired word even with small text) then select 'Lookup'. Kindle's 5way can be quick, but is more awkward, even with a lot of practice.

However, Nook has only one dictionary, and doesn't allow you to substitute others for lookup (e.g. translation dictionaries). B&N has a number of dictionaries for sale, but they can't serve as the lookup dictionary. The saving grace for Nook is that there aren't that many alternative 'lookup' dictionaries for sale to Kindle users, so the limitation is rather moot.

Also there's no way to look up an arbitrary word or even a selected phrase using Nook's built-in dictionary, you have to find it in the text, or purchase a dictionary that you an open and search for a word in (ick). It's a nice feature on Kindle (together with always-at-hand wikipedia and google search). I was not able to search for a phrase, it just looks up the first word in the selection. One bug in the current Nook implementation is that you can't look up a word that is hyphenated.

So despite the generally more convenient implementation of Nook, Kindle is more flexible in its use of dictionaries (which may not matter to the masses).

Image viewing
Nook advertises that they support viewing of PNG, JPEG, and GIF image formats. In Real Life, that applies only to the custom screensaver images that you can load in. You can cycle through the screensaver images by pressing the Power button repeatedly, but it is a poor substitute for an actual picture viewer that could view content in the Library on demand. Kindle has an undocumented picture viewer that is reasonably functional (but buggy).

Custom screensavers
Nook lets you create folders for different sets of screensaver images that you can switch between. Kindle does not support custom screensavers, though hacks are available.

PDF support.
Nook has bookmarks, 1 level of zoom (trims margins a little bit), TOC navigation, and PDF reflow. Also ability to view Adobe DRM PDFs (still a common format in library collections), but no landscape viewing.

Kindle has landscape viewing, password support, text search, zoom/pan, contrast adjustment, annotation/bookmarks, landscape viewing mode, but no reflow option or TOC navigation.

Ideally you'd have a superset of these features, and while both devices offer useful if narrow PDF functionality, neither comes close to Sony Reader's support.

With some caveats, this is where Nook is clearly superior to Kindle. It has multiple, complementary ways of navigating a book, and nearly all of them are quicker and less awkward than what Kindle offers. These include:
  • 'Contents' navigation. You can bring up the Content navigator with two taps, and then view and navigate a list of the Table of Contents, a list of Bookmarks, or a list of Notes and Highlights. Touching the TOC item, Bookmark, or Note takes you right to that location. On Kindle 
  • Go To Page navigation. Use a 'scrubber' to navigate to a new location in the book, or enter a page number to navigate to a specific page. A Back button on the Go To navigator takes you back to a previous location. The panel also displays the chapter title, and the number of (logical) pages left to read in the chapter.
  • Hyperlink/footnote navigation. Touch a footnote reference, or a hyperlink, and it jumps to the referenced location immediately. A Back button appears at the top of the screen to take you back to the reference.
  • Fast Page(TM). holding down one of the page turn buttons turns pages at a rate of 4 or so per second, allowing ability to establish a new reading position quickly, with some visual feedback.
  • Navigating search results. If you type a word to search for, you can jump to any of the locations where the word is found at a touch. Then you can navigate to previous and next 'found' positions or jump back to the search results using the find panel that remains on screen.
It is damn quick and versatile. But it is not perfect. In particular, you can lose your position pretty easily, without recourse to more than one 'take me back' (Kindle's Back seems to have unlimited memory of previous reading locations that are arrived at by 'jumps'). The hyperlink Back button disappears if you need to turn the page to read a continuation of a footnote or description, or if you bring up the reading options menu. Contents navigation offers no Back facility (but it does provide context so you can see where you're headed). Bookmarks reference the start of a 'logical' page, which typically will extend over several screens/page turns, and as such are not precise markers for a location in Kindle terms (use a Note or highlight instead). The current TOC list implementation includes only top-level TOC items. So you can't navigate directly to 'part 3, chapter 7'—you need to navigate to 'Part 3' and then forward from there, or to 'Part 4' and backward from there. This is probably the worst bug I have seen so far in terms of impairing functionality, and is also present in Nook Color apparently, but B&N hasn't seen fit to fix it yet.

Kindle lacks much of this versatility and agility, and as a consequence, you're much less likely to lose your place. But what both systems need is a 'History' navigator that logs each new reading position that is established, and lets you navigate back and forward, like a browser.

But I'll take Nook's navigational agility and flaws over Kindle's relative awkwardness, any day of the week. It's particularly useful for 'reference' books that are not read linearly, and for footnote-laden material.

Nook 'has this feature', but as far as I can tell, there's no way to export notes, apart from tweeting or emailing them as you go. They don't sync, if you remove the book they reference from your Nook, they are gone. If that works (and it might for some), great. But I can't really see the point (I may be missing something).

As far as I can tell Sync does not work on Nook; I've tried every reasonable thing and can't get it to sync reading position with Nook for iOS. Others claim some success.

Nook and Kindle are pretty evenly matched in terms of individual page turn times, but Kindle lacks 'fast page' or 'burst' mode and overall efficiency. Kindle is a little quicker to build search results (due to the content indexes it builds). But Getting back to the Home screen can take several seconds. On nook it is almost instantaneous.

Library borrowing
Nook wins by default, since Kindle does not yet offer this feature. But come December 31, Kindle will have much better integration, and will have more than neutralized this advantage, and its support will be best in its class.

In practice, format is not currently an issue for most people. Text is text, and that is what most books consist of, and what every ereader is designed to optimize the display of. But for more discriminating reader, ePub potentially offers more typographically pleasing options, better table support, scalable graphics, floating images, a richer set of design options, and other possibilities, particularly as ePub 3 is phased in. It should be noted that it is easier to create badly formatted books in ePub than mobi, and support for ePub features varies from device to device. But that can hardly be blamed on the format.

I think we can expect some ePub 3 features to make their way to Nook, as part of an update to the Adobe client libraries, even as early as later this year. Amazon, meanwhile, has yet to announce any plans for improving the existing Kindle formats to achieve greater parity with ePub, or to adopt ePub itself in the future. It's a continuing, lingering weakness of the Kindle platform, that Amazon will need to address sooner or later.

In Store Features
Nook offers free wi-fi access at B&N stores, 'special in-store offers' (or at least a free cookie?), and ability to read any title for up to one hour per day. Some people might find this of value, so I feel compelled to mention this, though it has no value to me personally as I don't even 'infrequent' B&N stores—there isn't one that's conveniently located where I am, and I find the store experience not to my liking. As a 100% online retailer, Amazon can offer no direct equivalent, but I see Kindle with Special Offers as a sort of virtual equivalent.

Nook does not do Audio, much less Text To Speech or 'talking menus'. This makes it largely unsuitable for visually impaired readers, not to mention those who like to listen to audiobooks.

Customer Service
It's hard to compete with Amazon on this one. Amazon has a very good reputation that continues to be upheld. B&N's support is probably at least on par with the industry average, but seems bad by comparison.

The Touch Screen
I have nothing but good things to say about the touch screen. It is responsive, intuitive and accurate, and when combined with the physical page turn buttons, I prefer it to Kindle's 'real' keyboard and navigation buttons.

I have yet to clean fingerprints off of the screen, and to the extent that they are there, they are completely invisible except under lighting conditions that would render actual reading impossible. If you think you would not like a touch screen because of fingerprints, do yourself a favor and try one of these out in a B&N store. It's a non issue.

However, without voice-assisted navigation, Nook is not as 'accessible' for visually challenged people. Kindle has voice-assisted and its keyboard can be operated with tactile feedback only.

Nook has made a lot of progress since Nook 1, and has some compelling features that make it worth considering (at least in the USA, so far the only market it is officially available in). I'm finding it to be an excellent complement to Kindle, which remains my main ereader. However, the ecosystem Nook is part of is not quite so compelling. Until B&N demonstrates improvement in support, selection, and service, including 'cloud' features, it is difficult to recommend Nook over Kindle now. Once library borrowing on Kindle is possible, and Amazon releases a Touch Kindle, Nook will lose every advantage that it now enjoys except perhaps for ePub support.

Update 10Oct2011:
Library borrowing for Kindle has arrived, and my Nook Simple Touch has gone back on the shelf, its role diminished to one of 'reference device'. It is just not nearly as convenient to move library content onto and off of the NST as it is with Kindle, and of course there is no note backup of library content for any side-loaded content on the NST.

Having read a number of books on the NST, however, some new annoyances became evident. For best 'styling', often Publisher Defaults is the way to go, because the Nook styling breaks correct styling of drop-caps (and perhaps other types of styling as well). But some books don't look at all good with that option applied (line spacing becomes zero, making the text hard to read). So I found myself constantly switching the options when switching between books. And I found at least one book that looked terrible either way (but was better on another Adobe RMSDK-powered reading system I tried). This sort of trouble just does not happen on Kindle, because of its more limited support of CSS.

I had previously counted myself among those clamoring for ePub on Kindle, but this experience (together with experience with other ePub reading systems) has me to re-calibrate my ePub enthusiasm somewhat. I would still like to see the better typography that ePub offers—in theory—but have no desire to be forced to tweak settings (much less hack CSS) all of the time to achieve best results.  Some of this can be laid at the feet of publishers or book designers who don't take the time to identify and correct layout issues, but in all fairness, they can't be expected to test with every reading system their book might end up on, for there are dozens of them.

In many respects this reprises the problems we've seen with web browsers. There are many ePub rendering systems, and it is nearly impossible to have a single ePub file render in each of them with consistent results, particularly when more advanced CSS is used. It defeats the purpose of the ePub standard if publishers are required to design different ePubs for different reading systems, to workaround all the limitations or bugs. Perhaps with ePub 3 there will be a fresh start, and renewed resolve to achieve the high quality and consistency that has only relatively recently arrived in browser rendering. And perhaps there will be more convergence on underlying technology like WebKit. And maybe then Amazon will join the ePub party.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How ePub came to Kindle-land (a Fairy Tale)

Once upon a time, a humble bookseller named Bezos had a compelling dream: "Every book ever printed, in any language, available to read in under sixty seconds."

With these words still echoing in his head upon awakening, he looked around. There were some people reading books on their desktop and laptop computers. A few on their Palm Pilots and Pocket PCs and Symbian phones. There were seemingly dozens of digital formats, but limited availability of professionally produced content. This type of reading was an unpleasant and inconvenient and dangerous activity, undertaken only by People of the Fringe, willing to withstand the rigors of mobile, digital reading without complaint or concern for their deteriorating eyesight, due to the constant eyestrain caused by reading miniscule text on low-resolution, backlit computer displays. Bezos cried out to the skies in despair: how could he ever realize his wonderful vision? He was, after all, just one man. (Well, okay: a very rich and powerful man, with billions of shareholder dollars at his disposal.)

So he looked around some more. There was a new, magic, low-energy reflective display called 'e-ink', that had a paper-like look to it. Even ordinary people could stare at it for hours and hours and hours without the slightest discomfort. There was even a new device designed to utilize the Magic Screen for the specific purpose of reading digital text, confusingly called 'Sony Reader' (the device itself could not actually read anything, it was up to the user to do the reading). He also learned that Sony didn't understand publishing, or marketing, or people who read books, or even where books come from, and that this was just another piece of electronics to them. "They don't understand," Bezos thought. "I guess I'm just going to have to make one of those things myself somehow."

He looked further, and wider, to the shores of Europe, and finally, to Paris. There he met Monsieur Mobipocket (an unusual French name to be sure), who had developed a Reading System that worked on many mobile devices, coupled with a small but vibrant internet bookstore, with a number of participating publishers. For, it is true, the Reading System included the semblance of protection from the ravages of Digital Piracy, as demanded by said publishers. The System used its very own Format, adopted from ideas that had taken shape as the Open eBook Standard. They named the Format 'Mobi'. Mobi was very small, and very quick, and could render formatted text on the smallest devices using but the puniest of computing resources. But these devices were the same devices that only People of the Fringe could understand or tolerate. Bezos liked what he saw, but something was missing.

Following his meeting with M. Mobipocket, Bezos' mind reeled with possibilities. What if...? Yes, what if you had a Magic Screen device, added the wireless connectivity of a mobile phone, and combined it with M. Mobipocket's System? He did some quick calculations on a napkin at what had become his favorite café in Paris, "Le Kindle", withdrew a tiny portion of the money which his Investors had given him, and set immediately to work.

He rushed back, cash in hand, to buy M. Mobipocket's System. Their catalog provided the nucleus of a new, rapidly expanding one, as publishers got even more content in quickly with the help of Bezos' ebook-fabricating dwarves. He had some of his elves design a Sony Reader clone with a Magic Screen, but with a keyboard, for he knew readers would want to add their own notes to the books they love, and the touch screen technology of the time would have reduced the Magical properties of the Magic Screen to almost nothing. Some other elves adapted the System for wireless delivery.

Finally it was finished. He named it 'Kindle', priced it just below Sony Reader's price. Homely as it was, it quickly became a best seller and it was time to refine and improve the System further. The elves added TTS, a web browser, and fairy dust. An update added PDF support, with it, Adobe's Reader Mobile SDK. And sharper fonts. Always the fonts must get sharper.

"Wait. Isn't that the very same Adobe RMSDK that enables rendering of ePub files, and support for DRM that allows sharing of content among the reading systems that license it?" you ask. Why yes indeed. We were just about to introduce Mobi's younger sister, ePub, and you'll come to understand everything about this.

ePub, like most younger siblings, learned by example and improved on it. She refined Mobi's more primitive formatting. Adobe had known her since she was born, and incorporated her into their expanding digital publishing business. Soon they partnered with Sony and developed a mobile reader SDK to rule them all, combining the new digital document standard, ePub, with Adobe's old digital document standard, PDF, so that anyone could create a reading system quickly with all of the basic functionality required. Combined with Adobe Content Server, it comprised a secure ebook delivery system like that which M. Mobipocket had pioneered.

Even as pleased as Bezos was with Kindle, he recognized the importance of PDF to many readers, and while Mobi was proving its worth, in the back of his mind, Bezos understood that support of standards like ePub was important, and that one day, he would want Kindle to work with her as well. But there was so much to do, and it was all so exciting! and so very Profitable! So he licensed the Adobe RMSDK, had the elves implement the basic PDF support that was required, and moved on to other things.

There was a larger screen Kindle. Then a new Kindle with an even more Magical Screen, wi-fi capability that provided a lower cost option with wireless capability, Collections, social networking features, even sharper fonts, basic support for Cyrillic, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean script, and even Real Page Numbers! Kindle apps for Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Windows, and Mac, all in perfect synchrony! A more affordable, Kindle with Special Offers! Library borrowing capability was announced. Was there anything more to be done?

It was at this point that the ePub3 specification was released. ePub was all Grown Up! All the ebook designers wanted to work with her, and explore her many fine qualities and capabilities. Mobi was still functioning well, but his time was nearing an end. Reading Systems, including Kindle, were gaining more power, and no longer required or even appreciated his elegance and efficiency. Even Bezos was smitten with ePub. It was time to bring her on board.

He began talking with his elves and marketing fairies and business wizards. "How can we make this happen? How can we help Mobi have a well-deserved retirement? How can we make ePub happy here?"

The elves spoke first. "We already have the Adobe RMSDK. We didn't dare tell you before, but we already have a beta version of the firmware modification that will allow the current Kindle models, and even the penultimate generation models, to render ePub handily and seamlessly. We can continue to make Mobi files for the Kindles and Kindle apps that can't read ePub. A large portion of the source we get is already in ePub format, and we've been setting these aside just in case and have tested everything on our development servers. We're really smart, in case you didn't notice." If only they paid us accordingly, they mumbled under their breath.

The business wizards interjected. "That's going to be expensive! MAYBE we can update the current models, but not anything before that! And there's no way we're going to license the Adobe server and pay them transaction fees! Jobs saw right through that scam!"

The elves responded. "Well as to that, there's really no technical issue. We can handle multiple formats, and deliver the appropriate format to the appropriate reading system, we created all of them and know their capabilities. We'll use the existing device IDs to generate the encryption keys to apply DRM to the ePub content, as per the specification. We don't need the Adobe server for any of this, we're only selling these to Kindle customers."

The marketing fairies could no longer contain themselves. "We want everyone to be a customer! We want to sell ebooks to anyone no matter what reading system they are using! They will come to appreciate the advantages of becoming Kindle customers as well, with all of the exclusive content and services we offer, and we'll need to let them take the ebook content they already own with them, or they'll never switch to us. We have got to support Adobe DRM."

The wizards hemmed and hawed. "Well, I can see your point. We can always use more customers, and we won't actually be giving non-Kindle customers the services they would have as Kindle customers. We can probably afford to pay Adobe a little something for that side of the business. But what about the rest?"

One of the elves, who was something of a smart-ass, spoke up. "You do realize that in the Kobo reading system, Adobe only gets paid for licensing fees of the RMSDK that is used on their reading devices to allow side-loading of 3rd party DRM content—it is not licensed for their reading apps, which use a non-Adobe ePub rendering system—and Adobe DRM is applied by Kobo's Adobe Content Server only when someone requests to download an ePub file for reading on a non-Kobo reading system? You do realize that's really all we would be doing? Anybody can see that, can't they?"

Bezos weighed in. "Okay, enough of the attitude, Elvis, but that makes it pretty clear. How soon can we do this? I want to be first out the door with an ePub3 implementation. Work out the arrangements with Adobe, have Legal go over things to see what we need to tie up with publishers and get them to give us their ePub files ASAP—that is, the ones we don't already have because they were to darn lazy to convert them themselves. It's time to join IPDF and get ePub to like us! To like us a lot!"

And so it came to pass. And everyone lived happily ever after. And every book ever printed, and even those never previously printed, in every language, was ready to read in under sixty seconds. (*)


(*) With a fast internet connection. When they don't have embedded audio and video. Statement assumes people still read and write.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Kindle does Libraries!

Amazon recently announced that they had completed a partnership with leading library vendor, Overdrive, to offer titles in Kindle format through Overdrive's many public library customers. Even as confident as I had been that such a deal would take place at some point this year, I found myself surprised and thrilled to learn that it was indeed moving forward.

As a denizen of many a Kindle discussion forum, I've witness many a thread complaining that they could not borrow ebooks from the public libraries that their taxes support, despite Amazon's dominating market share (in the U.S.A. at least) in ebook sales and in dedicated ereading devices. The usual discussion ran as follows:
"Why doesn't Amazon make it possible to borrow books from the library like Sony and Barnes and Noble do?"
"Because their priority is selling books. If you could borrow a book, why would you buy one from them?"
"The selection at libraries is lousy, and the wait lists are long. You aren't missing anything."
"The publishers don't want to give Amazon more market share and leverage than they already enjoy. They want to make sure ePub remains a counterbalance."
"Overdrive has decided Adobe ePub is all they need. They don't want Yet Another Format."
"You idiot. You knew what you were getting when you purchased a Kindle, and it didn't include the capability to borrow ebooks from your library. Get over it already. Go buy a Nook and leave us alone."

I tried to argue to the contrary:
Given the inherent scarcity of content borrowed from libraries, Amazon would much rather the borrowing took place on a Kindle than on a competing device, because any ebook purchasing a Kindle owner does will most likely be with Amazon rather than a competitor.
Libraries know that most of their patrons have Kindles and want to borrow ebooks to read on them.
Overdrive wants to be the company that libraries turn to for fulfilling demand for ebooks. If Amazon were to partner with one of their competitors, it could seriously disrupt their business. But if they partner with Amazon, when none of their competitors do, they become even more indispensible.
Furthermore, Overdrive has already has demonstrated that they have the technical ability to deliver Kindle format. They have been distributing Mobipocket format for much longer than Adobe ePub, Amazon owns Mobipocket, and the format and DRM system is virtually identical.
Publishers can't afford to ignore Amazon customers or the potential library market. They make significant amounts of money on library sales, and when libraries cannot fulfill demand, it drives purchases in the end. They may not always like dealing with Amazon, but they have no choice when Amazon sells so many of their books.

And so it has transpired.

I was concerned that any such agreement would force libraries into taking sides in the ebook format war, and have to purchase the same titles twice. However apparently that's not the case: Overdrive can offer the same title in any available format for the same price. Publishers get paid the same regardless of format. Patrons get to choose the one they want. Adobe and Amazon split the DRM licensing revenue, depending on the relative popularity of their respective solutions.

Needless to say, demand for library ebooks, already skyrocketing, is going to spike when Kindle format comes on line. But there's no holding back the tide: library patrons have a right to expect their library to deliver media in all popular formats, and while ePub is popular, Kindle format is currently even more popular.

I'm very curious about how this will be implemented. Interestingly no software updates of Kindle or Kindle apps will be required: this capability has long been demonstrated (since Kindle 1) by a simple hack of Mobipocket ebooks to make them readable on Kindle without stripping DRM, and such books expire at the end of the lending period.

However, the server side of things will need to change. To borrow a Mobipocket ebook, you have to supply a 'PID' (device identifier). The Kindle platform involves PID's as well, but there is no way for the average user to discover what it is for any given Kindle or Kindle app. So I suspect that after choosing a book to borrow on the library's Overdrive site, patrons will be redirected to an Amazon site to authenticate with their Amazon credentials, choose the device to prepare bits for, and the delivery method (download to computer or use 'whispernet'). I think the entire fulfillment back-end will be Amazon-hosted, not Overdrive-hosted. All that Overdrive's site will need are the ASIN's (Amazon item id) for the titles it offers, so that it can supply this when redirecting to the Amazon site.

With the addition of library borrowing, Amazon has erased one of the last feature advantages competitors had. While the lack of this feature didn't seem to impede Amazon's success, it no longer represents a consideration for those contemplating a purchase decision.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A k3 web browser enhancement I'd like to see: Save To Kindle

The K3's WebKit browser is a very useful complement to Kindle's core reading functionality. While not as nimble or functional as many other mobile browsers, it's great for reading a broad range of web content. One feature that makes it particularly pleasant is 'Article Mode', which strips out complex layout and styling and lets you focus on the main content of an article.

To take Article Mode to the next level, I'd like to see a 'Save To Kindle' menu option when viewing in Article mode. This would save the contents as an HTML file to Kindle's 'documents' folder for off line reading. This would enable the ability to resize text, annotate, sharing to Twitter/FB, and use Text To Speech, while retaining the article's hyperlinks. The article could also be later copied to a computer and imported to a word processing document for re-use.

Kindle can read simple HTML files directly without conversion, if the file is given a '.txt' extension. The HTML code represented by the contents viewed in article mode qualifies as 'simple'. At most, href values that jump to other locations within the same web page (many articles have a sort of TOC of links to sub topics) would need to be sanitized so that they jump to the location in the current item instead of launching the web browser.

This would be a low-cost, high-return enhancement that many Kindle users would come to appreciate.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Inside the new Kindle 'page numbers' feature

The new prerelease software for the Kindle 3 (v 3.1) has a feature called 'Real Page Numbers':
Real Page Numbers -- Our customers have told us they want real page numbers that match the page numbers in print books so they can easily reference and cite passages, and read alongside others in a book club or class. We've already added real page numbers to tens of thousands of Kindle books, including the top 100 bestselling books in the Kindle Store that have matching print editions and thousands more of the most popular books. Page numbers will also be available on our free "Buy Once, Read Everywhere" Kindle apps in the coming months. If a Kindle book includes page numbers, press the Menu key in an open Kindle book to display page numbers.
[For a more complete description on, click here.]
Page numbering corresponds to a specific print edition, as identified by the print edition's ISBN number.

I was curious about the implementation, so I downloaded "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" from my Amazon Archive and had a look.

I noticed that there is now a sidecar file with ".apnx" file extension. Hmm, could this have something to do with page numbers? As in 'Amazon Page Number indeX'?

Indeed, viewing the file in a hex viewer confirms this suspicion:

At the top, you can see a string table/dictionary at the top (this one is for 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest'):

{"contentGuid" : "78a941d9", "asin" : "B0031YJFCQ", "codeType" : "EBOK", "fileRevisionId" : "1"} - {"pageMap" : "(1, a, 1), "asin" : "030726999X"}

So we see both the Amazon ASIN and print edition ISBN here.

This is followed by an array of 16 byte values which appear to represent a sequence of numbers arranged in ascending order. I'm guessing that each of these defines an offset to the position that corresponds to the start of a given physical page number. The number of 16 byte values seems to be very close to the number of page numbers in the book (there are a few additional rows of bytes that precede the presumed 'page map' as such, and may have some special significance).

In the book I looked at, material before page "1" does not display a page number (such as i, ii, iii, iv etc.). (Wonder if that's a limitation of Amazon's page mapping scheme, or just what they did for this particular book?) I'd also note that the last page number (in this case '563') was applied to content that almost certainly spreads over more than one physical page, and indeed, is assigned to material not in the physical book. In this case, the ebook edition puts the copyright page at the end, as well as a cover image, these should not have been labeled as being page '563'. Okay, so it is not perfect, at least in this case.

Presumably this scheme also works with Topaz format books, a requirement Amazon would need to take on, and it's something they can do after material is submitted to them for publishing.

It's not clear how self-published books can get page numbers, since 'locations' don't exist until you bake the .azw file. Hopefully Amazon will clarify this for its KDP ('Kindle Direct Publishing') users.

I noticed that there are also two other file extensions associated with Kindle Store books now (not just those with page numbers):
.ea - this is an xml file that contains the data for the 'Customers who bought this book also bought' and 'More by this author' lists that now show up after the last page of the book, including ASIN so it can jump to the title's Kindle Store page.
.phl - is an XML file that identifies a position offset of popular highlights in the book, and the frequency number for each. That's probably been there for awhile, since the popular highlights feature was introduced for K2/DX.

I was curious as to when these files show up or are updated, so I turned off wireless, connected to my computer and deleted all three. Page numbers went away, the .ea lists went away (leaving only the 'tweet' and 'rate' links), and the popular highlights went away - as expected. Then I did 'Sync and Check for Items'. Still nothing. Finally, I removed the book and added it again. Everything's back!

So to take advantage of the new 'real pages' feature, it appears you must remove the item and download it again.

I trust this has been as educational for you as it has been for me!

Monday, February 7, 2011

'Send to Kindle' extension for Chrome browser

I've often wanted a simple way to send a web page to my Kindle for off-line reading. Many people like InstaPaper for this, but it requires signing up for an account, and does more than I need it to. 

'Send to Kindle' runs only on the Chrome browser, so you can stop reading unless you are willing to switch. I use a Mac most of the time, and had been more or less lazily running Safari, which has certainly improved quite a bit over the last year or two, but is not without its quirks (well what would a browser be without quirks?). I also use Firefox, but mostly in a development and testing context (Selenium, Firebug, ePub viewer etc.), not for everyday browsing. I'm a minimalist when it comes to plug-ins, also, so while Firefox probably has the largest selection of any browser, that's not high on my requirements. 

It didn't take much for me to switch over to Chrome, which I've been playing with for a number of months, and have been very impressed with. It seems faster and more robust, is at the forefront of HTML5 adoption, and I like the simplicity, the integrated search+address bar, built in translation, and security features (and many more features that I've yet to explore). Since it is a WebKit-based browser like Safari, I felt more confident that the web sites I typically visit would continue to work as well as they did in Safari.

So once I discovered what 'Send to Kindle' could do for me, I was ready to switch to Chrome.

Once you have installed Chrome, installing Send To Kindle is simple:
- choose 'Extensions' from the Window menu
- click 'Get more extensions...' link
- search for 'Kindle'; 'Send to Kindle' should be listed. (there are at least 2 other Chrome extensions that appear to do the same thing; I reserve the right to prefer one of those once I've had a chance to try them!)
- click to install - a box with a checkmark should appear next to the address bar
- right click on the icon and select Options
- follow the instructions to complete configuration (includes adding '' to your Kindle's 'approved email' list, specifying the Kindle email address to send to, etc.
- now when you want to send a web page to Kindle, click on the Send2Kindle icon (you can configure '1-click', otherwise you'll see a preview before clicking on 'Send')
If your Kindle is listening on Whispernet, it will soon receive a azw-format rendering of the web page.

The extension is under active development. I sent a couple of suggestions; one was already implemented, and the developer will implement the other in the next iteration.

UPDATE (10Feb2010): Another option for Chrome users is 'Later On Kindle'. It's very similar to 'Send To Kindle', but adds the option of sending a PDF that you're viewing in the browser to your Kindle (with an option to attempt 'convert' to azw). It seems to be a little more agressive in terms of cleaning up web page formatting, which may or may not be to your liking. I'd like to see it include the originating URL as a link in the resulting ebook, so it is easier to go back and look at images, etc. that get stripped out.

UPDATE (16Feb2010): 'Send To Kindle' has been updated and the two issues I had have been fixed. Still, I would install both extensions, as each offers features the other lacks.

It would be really nice if this function were added to Kindle's web browser for any page that can be viewed in Article Mode. Instead of needing to send it wirelessly, they could just save the HTML to the documents folder as a .txt file (assuming they cannot 'cook' an .azw file on the fly). Kindle renders such HTML with basic formatting.

UPDATE (20Feb2010): 'Send To Kindle' is also under development as an extension for Safari and Firefox, with plans to support images and deal better with 'formatted text.' At this point I'm using Later On Kindle only to send PDFs.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Making the most of Kindle's PDF features

Kindle 3 improves on the PDF support of previous Kindle models by adding the ability to open password-protected PDFs, annotation, highlighting, dictionary lookup, and the ability to adjust the ‘contrast’ level to improve visibility of photos and readability of text. However, Kindle PDF viewing on a 6” screen is always going to involve compromise, and how useable and sufficient it is depends on large part on the characteristics of the PDF in question, and how well your eyes can handle small text.
PDF is a print-oriented format. It is designed to provide a high level of verisimilitude and device-independence when it comes to printing and display on computer screens. As part of its design, each page has information that defines the size of the ‘page’ when it is printed out at ‘100%’. Printer drivers and viewing systems may scale the page up or down to fit a given piece of paper or screen size, but the scaling factor is entirely dependent on the relative size of the page and screen. Ideally, a screen used for display is at least as large as the page size, so that it can be displayed at the size the designer intended.
Since many PDFs that we find for download are formatted for Letter/A4-sized paper, or perhaps reproduce a physical book that is 9”x7”, the only way to display a full page is to scale the image down. For some eyes, that makes the text too small to read comfortably. Displaying a page in landscape mode allows the scaling factor to be less severe, but displays only about 40% of the page at a time, and will still be less than 100% of the original size in general. 
Of course PDF page size may be very large (A5/E size for example). These are just too large to be viewed on a Kindle due to memory and performance requirements.

Increase the Contrast Level
I have found that small type often becomes more readable if you bump the contrast level to the ‘darker’ setting. This setting is saved on a per-document basis, so when opening a PDF for the first time, try this out to see if it helps.
'default' Contrast
'darker' Contrast

Cropping helps a bit
Kindle auto-crops margin whitespace in fit-to-page (portrait) and fit-to-width (landscape) zoom modes, partially remediating the size mismatch. But many PDF documents have headers and footers that display a chapter or section title, and page numbers, thus allowing fit-to-page zoom to make the text slightly larger. Given that this information is quite often redundant, distracting, or unnecessary (Kindle displays the PDF page labels in the reading progress bar), better use of Kindle’s limited screen ‘real estate’ can be achieved by cropping the margins, headers and footers. This can achieve another reduction in the size mismatch; in some cases quite significantly. It will also improve the efficiency of the other zoom modes (100%, 150%, 200%, 300%) since these don’t crop whitespace. Sometimes even a relatively small improvement can be significant.
Finally, cropping can be a useful preliminary for conversion to a reflowable format such as .mobi or .epub, when the conversion program does not otherwise filter these out of the resulting text stream. (I will cover the perils of PDF file conversion in a future article.)
Before cropping

After cropping

Before cropping

After cropping

PDF cropping tools
There are a number of free and commercial tools that can crop PDFs to improve the small-screen reading experience:
  • Briss (search forums for ‘briss’) - Java/cross platform application. Can create multiple crops on the same page (e.g. to deal with 2-column PDFs)
  • PDF Scissors - uses ‘Java web start’ technology and internet connection, and requires Java run-time
  • OS X Preview app  (comes with Mac OS X)
  • Adobe Acrobat (powerful, but expensive unless you already need it for some other purpose)
Note that some PDFs are designed with asymmetric margin space, corresponding to a ‘binding edge.’ Thus the margins may be different for ‘left’ and ‘right’ hand pages. For purposes of Kindle display it is usually not necessary to establish different cropping boundaries for left and right pages, just use boundaries that trim as much whitespace as you can without clipping off anything on either side. Kindle will trim the rest of the white space as it displays each page in fit-to-screen or fit-to-width zoom modes.

PDF improvements Amazon should consider
Most ereaders provide at least a basic level of PDF viewing support, and Kindle’s is by no means the best in its class. Some of the features I’d like to see Amazon copy to bring it to parity are:
  • PDF reflow - PDF Reflow attempts to detect a text stream on each page and allows the user to select a larger text size to make it more readable. However, whether a given PDF file lends itself to reflow is very much a case-by-case question. Ideally, the PDF reading order of the text elements is properly delineated, and accessibility tagging applied (these steps are also critical for successful conversion to a reflowable format). Since it is very difficult (if not impractical) to automate tagging, tagging must be done manually, and the vast majority of PDFs are created without it. Still, it is ‘worth a try’ because it does work adequately in many cases, and most other readers support it.
  • PDF link support - PDF links provide a convenient way to jump to the location of Table of Contents entries, to referenced footnotes, endnotes, or web sites. Kindle does not support this functionality, which is a critical navigation tool for technical documents of many kinds. Lacking this feature, many PDFs are far more difficult to navigate than they would otherwise be. 
  • PDF compatible annotations - annotations made to PDF files can only be interpreted by Kindle devices. Since annotated PDF files are often important or convenient for participating in workflows, it would be better if annotations were stored in the PDF file’s annotation layer, instead of in a proprietary sidecar file. The contents of a PDF’s annotation layer is displayed on Kindle, however there is no way to view - much less edit - the text inside a ‘sticky note’ or one attached to a highlight. Again, it would be useful to at least be able to view these on Kindle (for example, by clicking on them with the 5way controller).
  • 4-panel zoom mode. Many academic and technical papers use a 2-column format. On a small screen like Kindle’s, these would be best viewed by dividing the page into quadrants with a little overlap between top and bottom quadrants, and displaying them in the order upper-left, lower-left, upper-right, lower-right. Sony Reader has this mode.
  • finer-grained control over zoom level. The preset zoom levels are often not ‘just right’ for the material being viewed. It would be nice to be able to adjust zoom level in finer increments, e.g 10% or even 1%.