March marked the one-year anniversary of the formation of the Readium Foundation (Readium.org), an independent nonprofit started with the objective of developing commercial-grade open source publishing technology software. The overall goal of Readium.org is to accelerate adoption of ePub 3, HTML5, and the Open Web Platform by the digital publishing industry to help realize the full potential of open-standards-based interoperability. More specifically, the aim is to raise the bar for ePub 3 support across the industry so that ePub maintains its position as the standard distribution format for e-books and expands its reach to include other types of digital publications.
In its first year, the Readium consortium added 15 organizations to its membership, including Adobe, Google, IBM, Ingram, KERIS (S. Korea Education Ministry), and the New York Public Library. The membership now boasts publishers, retailers, distributors and technology companies from around the world, including organizations based in France, Germany, Norway, U.S., Canada, China, Korea, and Japan. In addition, in February 2014 the first Readium.org board was elected by the membership and the first three projects being developed by members and other contributors are all nearing “1.0” status.
The first project, Readium SDK, is a rendering “engine” enabling native apps to support ePub 3. Readium SDK is available on four platforms—Android, iOS, OS/X, and Windows—and the first product incorporating Readium SDK (by ACCESS Japan) was announced last October. Readium SDK is designed to be DRM-agnostic, and vendors Adobe and Sony have publicized plans to integrate their respective DRM solutions with Readium SDK.
The third project, Readium LCP, is an interoperable vendor-neutral (DRM) technology. LCP stands for “Lightweight Content Protection,” a name that captures the spirit of the initiative to create a low-cost consumer-friendly solution to protect content from unauthorized redistribution. The initial spec for Readium LCP is complete, and initial implementations of Readium LCP client and server technology were demonstrated the 2014 Paris Book Fair. Readium LCP is available for use with Readium SDK, as an alternative and complement to commercial DRM solutions.
These projects are open source software, with active development communities. More information is available on readium.org; the code is available on github.com/readium.
As the executive director of IDPF, I was delighted that we could help launch Readium.org last year. We felt strongly that an independent open-source organization that focused on the needs of commercial adopters would be a good complement to the standards-development focus of IDPF. So far, so good: there’s positive momentum established across all the projects, and a growing critical mass of leadership and contributors.
More to Come
As a newly elected board member of Readium Foundation, now serving as its president, I’m pleased with the progress to date but also feel an urgency to take things to the next level. As I see it, we’ve only just begun to tap the potential for Readium.org to be a game changer for digital publishing industry. It’s fantastic that the key building blocks for high-quality ePub 3 reading software are now available and on track to become widely adopted. That will significantly lower the cost of entry for industry players, for app developers, publishers doing direct distribution, and retailers and libraries. But it’s clear that there’s much more work to be done. ePub 3, HTML5, and the Open Web Platform are moving ahead, including active efforts now underway to develop profiles of ePub specifically focused on e-textbooks and other learning content (EDUPUB) and comics/manga. I believe that Readium.org needs to be opening new fronts to facilitate and promote the advancement of ePub and the Open Web Platform for publishers. One such front is accessibility. ePub 3 was designed to enable fully accessible digital content. But to fully implement all of the accessibility capabilities of ePub 3, across multiple platforms and underlying browser engines, is no easy matter. And, for content to be accessible it must be appropriately structured. In the coming year, Readium.org will be working to showcase accessibility in our Readium SDK and Readium JS software, and we hope to add a new project to perform ePub 3 accessibility testing and potentially editing.
Stepping back, I see the larger ends of the Readium.org initiative as being strategic in nature.
Tactically, it’s simply more efficient for implementers to band together to develop the necessary “bits and bobs” of ePub 3 support, rather than separately implementing proprietary solutions, particularly for functionality that needs to be interoperable. Publishers can’t afford to develop unique files for different proprietary reading systems, so consistent and widely adopted ePub 3 support is a key enabler for an efficient digital publishing supply chain.
Readium.org is not only about lowering industrial costs. It’s also about fully establishing a truly open global ecosystem for next-generation digital content. The bigger ambition for ePub is as the next generation portable-document format for the Open Web Platform, which means it’s not just about e-books any more. One leading indicator was Readium Foundation member IBM’s announcement this February that IBM is adopting ePub as its preferred portable document format, to improve accessibility and mobile device support. The Open Web Platform itself is a positive indicator that a vendor-independent ecosystem can be successful, and the only reasonable foundation on which to base the future of publishing technology. The positive precedents of Apache Web Server, Firefox, and WebKit were significant inspirations for the formation of the Readium effort. But the Web as a whole also affords cautionary lessons: while interoperability has improved and no one vendor controls the browser ecosystem, the “browser wars” are not entirely over: Google and Apple just in the last year decided to “fork” development of WebKit rather than continue to share code between Chrome and Safari browsers. So Readium.org will have to work hard to bridge the differences between the multiple implementations of the Web stack, and seek to avoid “forking” at the ePub layer.
Overall, it’s critical that vendors not end up with “lock in” of readers and content providers. Books, learning materials, and documents as a whole are simply too important to society to suffer one or two commercial companies controlling key content formats and having a chokehold on content distribution. Empowering smaller players as well as giants, via a collaboratively developed open format that’s accessible and global, is key to assuring that many companies get involved in digital distribution. But open standards can only be successful if they are implementable. Thus, Readium.org’s bigger job is to make that so.
By this time next year, I believe that, in no small part due to the collaboration of the contributors to Readium.org, there will be absolutely no question that ePub 3 has become the widely adopted industry-standard publication format.
It is and will remain a delicate balancing act. Readium Foundation was formed to support commercial enterprises, aiming through collaboration to nudge the natural tendency of firms to seek competitive advantage in the positive direction of creating innovative solutions that make life better for consumers and content authors. But the boundary between “commoditized” open source and commercial value-add are never entirely clear-cut. This is going to be a tough juggling job for our board, members, and contributors. But with 40 significant organizations, many of them competitors, already constructively collaborating under Readium.org’s banner, I’m cautiously optimistic that we will be able to strike the right balance to deliver on the promise of an open platform without diminishing the opportunities for innovation on top of the platform. The proof will be in the pudding though, and a year in, Readium SDK, Readium JS, and Readium LCP are still in the oven. So I eagerly solicit your support of Readium.org: contributors are the lifeblood of any open-source activity, and we need your help to bake an open future for the publishing industry!