Aaron Miller of the Book Glutton, has an interesting post on books, file formats and the web at the TeleRead blog. The comments are also worth reading. Aaron makes the point that both Google and Amazon, two of the webs giants, are heavily committed to books and to putting books straight on the web, page by page (people tend to overlook the extent to which Amazon is doing this in all the hoo-ha about the still experimental Kindle).
Aaron has some cogent criticisms of the IDPF and its ePub format (“… the IDPF is peddling a format that search engines can’t index, browsers can’t natively open, and experienced web developers can’t figure out.”) and he smacks Google (“…one of the ugliest interfaces book readers have ever known”) and Amazon (“…despite Amazon’s offering of the Kindle they are still a Web company”) just as hard.
But he misses some key points. It is hardly correct to say that Google’s Book Search has us reading PDFs (PDFs are available from Google but with GBS we are reading JPEGs with the help of a database, PDFs are there purely for the convenience of printers) and he seems to be suggesting that going with the Web means going with texts as HTML. This is just not what Google and Amazon are doing. Google and Amazon get their power and their reach by putting all texts into a database system. This point is perhaps missed in some of the comments. Books are going onto the Web in the cloud, but the literary cloud comprises JPEG droplets not a shower of HTML. Aaron also has a rant against ISBNs and ‘retrofitting’ old problems. But this is to miss the continuing and lasting importance of our print legacy. Google is creating a huge advantage for its Book Search approach by retrofitting the literature of the past. And the ISBN system has its advantages. Google and Amazon know this and they are both very good at resolving ISBNs to their appropriate target.
Pages, books and ISBNs: these are elements of our print legacy that will still be useful when all literature is primarily digital. Who knows: we may still have the concept of recto and verso. And it will not mean flipping the eBook reader.