The Pepper Pad is a quirky-looking gizmo with an eight-inch screen surrounded by the left and right sides of a split keyboard. Pepper's tablet computer is splash-resistant and easy to use. It lets you surf the Web, see videos and hear thousands of Internet radio stations. For the money—$850 list or about $500 discounted—the Pepper should be able to display any e-book you want. Alas, the device won't handle the Fairfax County Public Library's digital editions of Mike Wallace's Between You and Me, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink or Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. The Pepper Pad, it turns out, cannot yet cope with anything in Adobe Reader—the only text format in which the library system, the largest in Virginia, offers those particular books. Although Pepper has been out for many months, it can read copy-protected books solely in Mobipocket format, at least for now.

Welcome to the Tower of e-Babel. The Tower is the bane of publishers, online retailers, librarians and book-lovers. In the past few decades, at least 20 clashing e-book formats have popped up, including the infamous Microsoft Reader, limited to Windows, the Gates-blessed operating system, and no format has performed strongly enough to crush the others. Big tech companies so far have not agreed on a genuine standard that would allow e-books to be as easy to enjoy as CDs or VHS video tapes. The big companies' unkept promises go back at least as far as 1998, when Microsoft and others said they would avoid a VHS/Beta—style war. Unsurprisingly, the agreement ended up a joke among the e-book cognoscenti.

Most publishers remained ignorant of the nuances of e-book formats, so they couldn't deal effectively with the high-tech warlords—from companies like Adobe and eBook Technologies Inc.—who now dominate the technical side of International Digital Publishing Forum, the main e-book trade group.

The forum has unintentionally stymied the popularity of e-books by failing to adopt consumer-friendly standards. U.S. e-book sales are a fraction of the tens of billions spent annually on paper books. In fact, they are probably well under the $48 million that Forbes says Tom Clancy alone earned from various media in 2001. Along with the related issue of cumbersome anti-piracy protection and the limits of today's gadgetry, e-Babel is a big reason for this pathetic figure.

So how can we achieve genuine e-book standards? First, the publishing forum should focus on trade-association matters and get out of the e-book standards business. Over the years, the forum essentially ignored the techies' hard work toward a true universal consumer format, so many of the best experts drifted away. The forum is now hyping a new "container format" to house various electronic formats used in e-books. But the container alone won't guarantee true e-book compatibility. It doesn't convert the e-Babel inside to a standard format or even require that the wholebook be in such a format.

The forum should farm out standards efforts to a credible mainstream standards group, like one popularly known as OASIS, where Fortune 500 techies and others can offer a much wider and deeper range of technical skills. As a starting point, standards setters could consider the OpenReader format, which is now in draft form. (I cofounded the standards-minded OpenReader Consortium.) With the right software features in place, the OpenReader standard will allow forums, blogs and annotations to be visible within books, including even copy-protected titles, making them competitive with the Web. OSoft's dotReader program will soon read OpenReader files.

Finally, standards setters should fully address copy-protection by either agreeing on a common system or finding ways for different companies' anti-pirate systems to get along. Of course, no protection system will be a panacea. Pirates scanned paper versions of the newest Harry Potter book and posted them globally within a day.

Perhaps most importantly, publishers should give techies a realistic deadline by which to make legal e-books as easy to use as CDs. The longer the Tower of e-Babel stands, the costlier in lost sales for publishers and writers.

Author Information
David H. Rothman cofounded the OpenReader Consortium and runs the blog TeleRead (, on e-book and library issues.