How to Navigate the Confusing E-Book Landscape

The increasing popularity of electronic books means readers must not only navigate through hundreds of thousands of books for the one they seek, they must figure out if the e-book they want will work on the device they use. A Cybook Opus e-book reader is pictured here.
The increasing popularity of electronic books means readers must not only navigate through hundreds of thousands of books for the one they seek, they must figure out if the e-book they want will work on the device they use. A Cybook Opus e-book reader is pictured here.

Say one thing about books in print: While there's a dizzying amount of choice, there's basically one format for pages: Paper. But the increasing popularity of electronic books means readers must not only navigate through hundreds of thousands of books online for the one they want, they must figure out whether it can be read on their favorite digital device.

In an ideal world, you could buy a digital book by a favorite author and then be able to read it on your Kindle (AMZN), your iPad (AAPL), your Nook (BKS), your BlackBerry (RIMM), your laptop or any other gadget of choice. You'd be able to transfer it between computer and smartphone and access the e-book anytime, anywhere and in any country.

ePUB Theory and Reality

The International Digital Publishing Forum, in fact, has pushed for a single standard that the group developed, known as ePUB, and that in theory fits all the hoped-for criteria for an open format available for use by anyone.

Much to the consternation of e-book aficionados, however, the reality is as far from the ideal as Pluto is from Earth. Well over 50 different e-book formats are available, and the proliferation of new devices over the last few months has only added to the pile. Granted, only a handful of these formats are in regular use, but the upshot is that an e-book buyer has to know what formats are available for their new purchase and whether their device will be able to read it.

Then the buyer has to worry whether that file is encrypted with what's called Digital Rights Management, or DRM -- the term for copy-protecting digital files such as MP3 for music -- or can be shared easily (and is thus DRM-free.)

For now, with the help of the MobileRead e-book website, I'll stick to the biggest players in the e-book market and explain what files they can and cannot read.

From Kindle to iPad

The Kindle is generally a closed, proprietary device. Kindle books use what's called the AZW format, whose acronym probably takes into account what's made the Kindle -- especially its most recent version, the Kindle 2 -- so very popular: The Whispernet service, which allows users to download e-books from Amazon's website directly onto the Kindle without incurring any wireless or cellular charges, even though it's administered by Sprint (S).

AZW files won't work on other devices, but the Kindle can read other types of files, such as a Microsoft Word document, a JPEG image or a PDF file, as long as you convert them through Amazon's website and pay 15 cents per megabyte (99 cents if you're using the international version of the Kindle, which is now available in over 100 countries). You can also share e-books in another way: Amazon allows users to register multiple Kindles (up to six per account), and all the e-books on each of these devices can be read by everyone registered.

The iPad, of course, is a multipurpose device, not an e-reader, but Apple made some waves when it announced that the device -- through the downloadable application iBooks -- would use the open ePUB format. Except for a catch that mirrored what the company does with iTunes: The ePUB files, just as MP3 music files, come wrapped with a specific type of DRM called FairPlay. As a result, the files can't just be downloaded by anyone to any device. Apple makes you go through an authentication process to prove that you really own your iPad and are downloading e-books legally. If Apple's servers detect a problem, the files can't be read.

Nook, Sony, Kobo

The Nook also enables e-book buyers to download files in the supposedly open ePUB format. But Barnes & Noble also wraps those files in its own particular DRM by making it a requirement to download the files through its own software. Barnes & Noble's form of DRM, however, is of a more social bent than the Kindle's or the iPad's. Nook e-books can be shared directly between the e-reader and devices such as the iPad, iPhone, BlackBerry, PCs or Macs. If you want to get a Nook e-book onto your Kindle, that requires some more complicated machinations.

Sony (SNE), the de facto granddaddy of the current generation of e-readers, offers a plethora of devices in a variety of sizes, but all of them share the same pros and cons with respect to e-book file formats. You can read the DRM-free formats, such as ePUB, and also transfer computer document files like Microsoft Word and the more open RTF (rich text format) standard, and share them with other Sony Reader owners. You can also access DRM-wrapped versions of ePUB files as well. But transferring these files to competing devices is more cumbersome and complicated.

Let's move to the newest player on the block, the Kobo e-reader. It was just released in Canada and will be available in Borders (BGP) stores June 17. This e-reader, too, handles ePUB (DRM and DRM-free versions) as well as PDF files. But because its type of DRM differs from the Nook's, you can't transfer those files easily. And forget about trying to download Kindle books to the Kobo, even though both devices start with the letter K.

Smart Phones Read Books

Now, what about smartphones? Unlike dedicated e-readers, the iPhone, the BlackBerry and their ilk require you to download software in order to read e-books. The Kindle, the Nook and Kobo have all created software for smartphones (as well as for all of Apple's devices) where not only can you download new e-books to read, but the ones you may have already bought are also available on these companies' servers. In effect, though the e-books themselves are proprietary, you're still able to read them on multiple devices as long as Amazon, B&N et al recognize them as yours.

Into the mix comes Google (GOOG). As DailyFinance reported last week, the company is set to unveil its own e-book program, Google Editions. The files are in the ePUB format, and they can be sold by any retailer that chooses to set up a storefront. The difference is that the e-books will be available "in the cloud" -- on Google's servers and not downloaded to your device -- ideally suited for reading on the Web.

This appears to be Google's way of getting around copy-protection issues and the possibility of piracy, while also setting up a much larger debate about Google's wider intentions with respect to its Book Search and the settlement of a lawsuit against Google for scanning copyrighted books into a database, whose ultimate judgment remains up in the air.

Perhaps one day, ePUB or some other single standard will rule the day. Until then, device makers must be on guard that the constant confusion and lack of consistency may precipitate a crash akin to the Great Video Game Crash of 1983. The e-book market may be a lot more mature than it was a decade ago, but it still has a long way to go before it fully grows up.