The misery of the ePub format

I often assume that most of the people reading my blog have been reading it for a long enough time that they know a few of my quirks, one of which is my “passion” for digital distribution, and in particular my liking of eBooks over printed books. This passion actually stems from the fact I’d like to be able to move out of my current home soonish, and the least “physical” stuff I have to bring with me, the better.

I started buying eBooks back in 2010, when I discovered my Sony Reader PRS-505 (originally only capable of reading Sony’s own format) was updated to be able to read the “standard” ePub format, protected with Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM (ADEPT). One of my first suppliers for books in that format was WHSmith, the British bookstore chain. At the end I bought six books from them: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (which I read already, but wanted a digital copy of, after giving away my hardcopy to a friend of mine), and four books of The Dresden Files.

After a while, I had to look at other suppliers for a very simple reason: WHSmith started requiring me a valid UK post code, which I obviously don’t have. I then moved on to Kobo since they seemed to have a more varied selection, and weren’t tied to the geographical distribution of the UK vendor.

Here I got one of my first disappointments with the ePub “standard”: one of the books I bought from Kobo earlier, Douglas Adams’s The Salmon of Doubt I still haven’t been able to read!

(I really wish Kobo at least replaced the book on their catalogue, since even their applications can’t read it, or otherwise I would like some store credit to get a different book, since that one can’t be read with their own applications.)

Over time, I came to understand that the ePub specifications are just too lax to make it a good format: there are a number of ePub files that are broken simply because the ZIP file is “corrupted” (the names within the records don’t match); a few required me to re-package them to be readable by the Reader; and a few more are huge just because they decide to get their own copy of DejaVu font family in the zip file itself. Of course to fix any of these issues, you also have to take the DRM out of the picture, which is luckily very easy for this format.

Today, Kobo is once again the protagonist of a disappointment, a huge one, in terms of digital distribution; together with WHSmith. But first let’s take a step back to last week.

While in the United States with Luca, I got my hands on a Kindle (the version with keyboard); why? Well, from one side I was starting to be irked by the long list of issues I noted earlier about ePub books, but on the other hand, a few books such as Ian Fleming’s classic Bond novels were not available on Kobo or other ePub suppliers, while they were readily available on Amazon… plus a few of the books I could find on both Kobo and Amazon were slightly cheaper on the latter. I already started reading Fleming’s novels on the iPad through Amazon’s app, but I don’t like reading on a standard LCD.

Coming back home, we passed through London Heathrow; Luca went to look for a book to read on the way home, and we went to the WHBook shop there… and I was surprised to see it was now selling Kobo’s own reader device (the last WHSmith shop I was at, a couple of years ago, was selling Sony exclusively). This sounded strange, considering that WHSmith and Kobo were rivals, for me in particular but in general as well.

I wasn’t that far off, when I smelled something fishy; indeed, tonight I received a mail from WHSmith telling me they joined forces with Kobo, and that they will no longer supply eBooks on their webshop. The format being what it is, if they no longer kept the shop, you’d be found without a way to re-download or eBooks, which is why it is important for a digital distributor to be solid for me.. turns out that WHSmith is not as solid as I supposed. So they suggest you to make an account at Kobo (unless you have one already, like I did) so that they can transfer your books on that account.

Lovely! For me that was very good news, since having the books on my Kobo account means not only being able to access them as ePub (which I had already), but also that I could read them on their apps for Android and iPad, as well as on their own website (very Amazon-y of them). Unfortunately there is a problem: out of the six books I bought at WHSmith, they only let me transfer… two!

Seems like that, even though WHSmith decided to give (or sell) its customers to Kobo, as well as leaving them to provide their ebook offering instead, their partnership does not cover the distribution rights of the books they used to sell. This means that for instance the four Dresden Files novels I bought from WHSmith, that were being edited, even digitally, by the British publisher, are not available to the Canadian store Kobo, who only list the original RoC offerings.

This brings up two whole issues: the first is that unless your supplier is big enough that you can rely on it to exists forever, you shouldn’t trust DRM; luckily for me on the ePub side the DRM is so shallow that I don’t really care for its presence, and on the other hand I foresee Amazon’s DRM to be broken way before they start to crumble. The second issue is that even in the market of digital distribution, which is naturally a worldwide, global market, the regional limitations are making it difficult to have fair offerings; again Amazon seems to sidestep this issue, as it appears to me like there is no book available only on one region in their Kindle offerings: the Italian Kindle store covers all the American books as well.

An year with my Reader

Okay so it’s not a full year in any sense – I bought it way over an year ago, and I found out that it could be used with a modern technology like ePub just past April – but if I have to remember one as such, 2010 has been the year of the Reader for me. And not just for me as it happens.

First of all, thanks to the Reader I was able to read a whole lot more than in the past years; I’m not sure if it’s just novelty that will wear off, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have brought with me so many books to read during travels as I did, mostly because of the small form factor (and the fact that it fits neatly into my usual bag). Anobii statistics reports I read 31 books, ten thousands pages worth of content this year — and this is nothing to say about the sheer variety of them compared to the past.

While I was never limiting my readings to a particular genre, the Reader, with the much cheaper ebooks, allowed me to choose among a wider range of books for my readings. Also the convenience of getting the book right away is not something to ignore; I actually read through Cyber War mostly because I could get it right after hearing about it on Real Time with Bill Maher. Beside that particular book, I went on to read some classics like The Picture of Dorian Gray that I never found the time to look up before, and economics/business books such as Too Big To Fail and Free which actually interested me greatly.

Surprisingly, what I found most difficult to read on the Reader were the reason I originally looked back to the Reader: O’Reilly books. Since they are generated with DocBook, they have one big issue that makes them hard to read on these devices, they split too much. Let’s take for instance Being Geek which I’d like to read next, if I can find a way to do so without irks; on a PDF or print edition, there are page breaks only between “sections”, rather than chapters. Chapters, which are actually often enough just a couple of paragraphs long, are simply printed one after the other continuously; this is quite okay because otherwise, the padding added at the end of each would waste a lot of paper, and would transform a 200ish pages’ book into a 500ish or so. As I said, DocBook ePub generation is imperfect in this regard as it splits the output HTML files (yes it uses HTML internally, let’s move on) on chapter markers, which means that every three paragraphs I have to wait till the Reader fetches the next file to render separately, slowing my reading down enough to make it difficult to continue.

Reading the PDF version of books on the reader is also not the brightest idea; since the screen of the PRS-505 is relatively small, you can’t read a PDF file full-size; while the newest firmware allows to zoom and reflow the text, this becomes also unusable as a way to read O’Reilyl books because the page number marker is not ignored. Even worse when complex diagrams are involved as the Reader is pretty much useless for those — for those technical books, I probably wouldn’t mind a tablet with a bigger screen; I’ve been considering the Archos 101 but I don’t currently have the dough to afford one; and when I’ll have, they’ll probably be sold out already.

Speaking about tablets, once again I think that Apple, even though can’t really be praised for a tremendously good job with the iPad, had a primary role in making 2010 the year of eBooks not only for me but for the whole situation, together with Amazon — the latter finally launched the Kindle in Europe (and once again, it’s not something I’d buy, considering Amazon’s “it’s all ours!” approach). With those two companies driving consumer attention (even though rarely consumers themselves) toward eBooks, I was somewhat curious about the Italian branches of Mediamarkt and Saturn starting to carry eInk devices in-store, especially since I knew there were no real Italian eBook pool to draw from, for the customers buying the devices.

Turns out that while Amazon entered the Italian market, IBS, that has been many times considered the Italian answer to Amazon, and Mediamarkt itself opened eBook stores, carrying Italian content in ePub format (mostly locked with Adobe Digital Editions DRM). I’m happy to note that while backcatalog is still not available, at least they carry both the big take-it-all publisher Mondadori and the lesser Chiarelettere with its vastly politics books — especially nice since the average books from the latter I bought before were both pretty expensive, and quite huge in the pure physical dimension).

At any rate, the bottom line for me is that the Reader now looks like a pretty good buy, more than it ever did at the time. But please, make it possible to skip over wireless, 3g, bluetooth, touchscreen.. the two weeks charge that the PRS-505 both promises and delivers make all of those look like wastes, especially since I only end up loading new stuff on it once every two weeks, which is also the time I end up charging its battery.

Slow readers, fast readers

I’ll be honest, the Reader felt like another cool gadget at first, but right now it really shows how easy it is to bring with me a number of books, without needing bookmarks, and without the physical constrain of book size — might sound very puny, but think about going around with a couple of volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and thank call me back.

Now this added with the ability to buy just-released books that aren’t available in Europe just yet, and the fact that I don’t pay any shipping on them, also meant I started getting hooked more and more to some book series, more than I would have before. Unfortunately, book series are expensive; not excessively expensive by themselves, but when you read through an instalment in less than a week, at the end of the month you’ll feel again the weight of the books on your credit card statement.

So I’m now thinking simply of dividing books in “fast readers” and “slow readers”, and get myself a rule so that I don’t spend a lot of money in fast readers one after the other. The obvious separation between the two would be “stuff I enjoy enthusiastically” and “stuff I really read just for the kicks”… but given I’m no longer in school, I have near to nothing within that set — there has been a few technical books I endured more than enjoyed, before, but that’s part of my job anyway.

It’s not a matter of taste, it’s even less a matter of page count; some books might be short, like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but while they are interesting, they take me the longest time to read through them. Others might look “fatter”, like the Dresden Files series, but they capture me to a point I have difficulty turning away from the book.

But the first rule I have to get myself to respect is “Finish the dead-tree versions first!” — No point in getting new stuff as long as I haven’t finished all the technical books I have here. Well, it’s mostly alright for me given that I try to stay away from technical books during the summer so I can relax; not that it worked out pretty well this summer (no vacation, no break), but what I read was nothing I had before, nor something I had in dead tree form so it didn’t count.

So anyway, I’ll be back for a while to read stuff that makes a difference for what I do daily (packaging and coding), in dead-tree form for the most part. And a note here is worth it. I’m not sure whether the problem is with DocBook itself, but as good as O’Reilly’s content is, the ePub versions of their books tend to be .. difficult to read on the Reader itself; I’ll have to see if converting them with Calibre makes a difference, that would be interesting… but as it is I feel like reading them in PDF form would be probably easier; I just wish there will be some iPad-like tablet running Android sometime soon, that would definitely help — even more because CJKV Information Processing is exclusively available in PDF form, d’oh!

The second best thing about standards: different implementations

The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from.
Andrew S. Tanenbaum

The quote from Tanenbaum is a classic, something that most developers at some point in their career will have to face. But I’d like to expand on that; taking into consideration Open Standards as well. Most Free Software developers (and, argh, advocates!) will agree that Open Standards are a very good thing; make sure that they are fully documented, and let people develop royalty-free implementations, and you got a win.

Or do you? As the title of this post let you know, there is one further problem, with the standards to choose from: their implementation. I’ve already delved into a number of problems related to standards and their implementation; for instance the KWord vs OpenOffice problem, with the two using (at the time they started boasting OpenDocument support) two completely different, non-interoperable methods to define bullet-lists. And again with the inconsistent SVG implementations that cause the same file to appear in vastly different ways, without even an error reported, with multiple software.

And eBooks are nothing different either; let’s leave alone the problem with formatting them (for instance, O’Reilly books are easily readable, but are actually formatting “randomly” for me, compared to others; or The Dragon Reborn which probably underwent an OCR pass, given that Thom sometimes became Torn). I’ve already ranted about DTBook ebooks but this time I’m seriously pissed.

Let me explain again the whole DTBook problem first, because it provides a basic context for the trouble that follows right now. I have a PRS-505 Sony Reader; when I bought it, it only supported PDFs (sort-of) and Sony’s own BBeB/LRF format. Thankfully, Sony updated the firmware to add support for the ePub format, which is supposedly an open standard and should have a number of working implementations, on various operating systems and hardware devices. Apple’s iPad among others is supposed to read ePub files. So what’s the catch?

Well, first of all, since I called in Apple’s iPad, there is the problem of DRM; ePub by itself does not really define a DRM scheme; O’Reilly does not use any DRM in their electronic media (bless them), and Apple does not support DRM-locked ePub files either (and as far as I know they provide no DRM for their files either, but I don’t have a device to test it myself). On the other hand, most online bookstores, and the devices such as the Sony Reader or Kobo’s eReader, support Adobe’s DRM scheme, technically called ADEPT, but marketed as “Adobe Digital Editions”. Of course, as far as I know at least, there is no open source software that can deal with ADEPT-locked files, although there is code out there that allows you to unlock the files once you fetch your personal encryption key out of an enabled system.

Okay, let’s leave DRM out now, and speak about the format itself; ePub files are ZIP files, not tremendously different from an OpenDocument file.. it actually comes with the same META-INF directory and mimetype file. Within that, you have a series of XML files, with the metadata of the book, the Table of Contents, a filename for the cover file, and the list of files with the actual book’s content. A note here: at least The Dragon Reborn seems to be a corrupted ZIP files for both unzip and the inept script, but is read fine by the Reader Library, and by the the Reader itself.

The content files can be of different formats; the most common case is (X)HTML; which as you might expect is the easiest to support, given the wide range of software rendering HTML out there. But a different format, called DTBook, was designed to support text-to-speech reading of audiobooks. Files can easily be called ePub, even though the actual content is in DTBook, and not supported by most devices and software; neither the Reader nor Calibre support that format, and can’t thus read the copy I bought of The Salmon of Doubt (sigh!).

Something even stranger happened when I bought (with a $2 discount, as this time it worked) Sourcery by Terry Pratchett … I started the series a year or two ago, but rather than getting the books, at the time I got the audiobooks version to get some sleep (I’m still doing the same thing, over an year and a half later… whenever I don’t have my iPod on during the night, I wake up feeling worse than when I went to sleep, because of bad nightmares…).. Sourcery is the only one that I haven’t been able to listen in its entirety since I started (well, I also didn’t listen to Mort and rather read it as eBook already). Unfortunately the downloaded ePub, even though not resulting corrupt for what unzip is concerned, cannot be viewed on the Reader, just like the DTBook version it reports a “Page error”, shows no Table of Content, lists a start and end page of 1.

After un-locking the file with inept; I could load it on Calibre and.. it actually reads fine. So the file is a valid ePub book, why on earth would the Reader not read it at all? Not something I can answer without having access to the sources obviously. Luckily, at least this time I can read my book, since Calibre could process it and create a new ePub copy that the Reader actually seem to load and read.

Alas. I really have nothing else I could possibly say.

An open letter to Kobo

Kobo is an interesting website that sells ePub e-books, compatible with Adobe Digital Editions (so, DRM’d), of which I wrote already before — unfortunately a couple of interactions with the website and its features lately have been slightly upsetting. So I’d like to simply express my opinion about it…

Dear Kobo,

Looking for a website that would sell me ePub books I could read on my Sony Reader device, I have to say that yours is the one that is the most appealing; the other decent option for novels and non-fiction (non-technical) books is the British WHSmith, but their website is a bit difficult to grok and feels a bit.. old style.

It also helps the fact that the Dollar is still lower than the Euro, while the Pound is higher again, which means that in general – minus strange cases like the sixth Hitchhiker’s book “And Another Thing” that seems to cost more on your website than from other stores – the price is quite good for me. I’m also pretty happy that I can get books released in America but not yet in Europe, like it happened with Cyber War which I positively enjoyed.

Unfortunately, things started to get strange when I bought “The Salmon of Doubt”… and had been unable to read it on my Reader; it turned out that I had to work around the DRM to be able to find the cause of the problem: the internal format of all the other books I bought is XHTML, while that one uses DTBook. Somehow, both the Sony software and your website allow it to work, but it fails badly both on the Reader and on your own Android application. Which probably means, you also didn’t plan about it. I wonder if your eReader device actually reads those.

The other problem I noticed, was that beside a number of books not available from you, but available on, again, WHSmith, for which I obviously can’t say much (either you have them or you don’t, like any other book store), there is an annoying trouble in getting chapters of book series. For instance I could get Jim Butcher’s Grave Peril from you, but then I had to turn to WHSmith for Summer Knight, Death Masks and Blood Rites, since you don’t have them. Similarly yesterday I noted that while I got Robin Hobb’s “Assassin’s Apprentice”, the second volume (Royal Assassin) is also not available, but the third (Assassin’s Quest) is.

It is an annoyance – especially since I prefer getting books on your site also because they are available on the web to read with my Linux laptop, and on my Android phone, while WHSmith’s books I can only load on the Reader or read with the official applications, minus breaking the DRM again – but a minor one at that.

It goes a bit worse when I received last week a promotional email with a $2 discount, not a lot but since I’m actually quite through The Dragon Reborn (for the second try, the first one I abandoned two years ago in the hospital), I thought it would have been a good chance to find something new to read after that. I tried it a couple of nights ago with a few of the books I bookmarked, but.. for all of them it reported expired or not applicable.

Tonight, you reply me on twitter saying that only a subset of books are available and provide me a list … but once again, trying to apply the code to two books in that list, reports that it is expired or not available. For sure, it wasn’t expired, since the mail said it would expire at “29 June 2010 11:59pm EST” – and at the time it was something like 17 EDT – but at the same time, the mail has no reference to the list I was given nor either any reference to the discount applying to a subset of the books (well, it was understandable anyway).

At the end, I bought the one book, that I didn’t know already, from that list that looked interesting and relevant to my areas of interest; for the curious it was Free by Chris Anderson, without the discount it was still at a decent price. But all of this feels like quite the kerfuffle.

I think that it would be good for both you and your customers if you can actually get these things sorted out properly; as I said I’m very happy to continue being your customer, I don’t even care about promotional codes (after all, $2 is almost nothing), but it doesn’t feel right

Oh and if you happen to be able to… could you please make a Linux application to download Adobe Digital Edition files? Thank-you!

Again on procuring eBooks

I know that most of you who read my blog daily don’t care about my toying with eBooks, and only read it for the technical articles; on the other hand, I feel like I can at least talk a bit about that, given that most of my personal life is uninteresting and thus I rarely write of that at all.

Anyway, you might remember I had some trouble finding where to buy eBooks and at the end I settled with – for non-technical books that is – WHSmith and Kobo as they both sell Adobe Digital Edition ePub books. Finding mainstream non-DRM ePub seems to be impossible; maybe only on Apple’s iBooks store, but it still doesn’t warrant me getting an iPad to try — even though, if you have an iPad or iPhone and can tell me whether that’s the case, I’d be curious. Finding a second-hand old-generation iPhone shouldn’t be too expensive and if that can get me access to mainstream non-DRM’d ePubs it might be worth it.

Anyway, the two sites above actually give me enough access that I don’t miss most of what I usually read; indeed, Kobo actually provided me with a few curious readings that I might as well try. Also, even though the Dollar is rising again, buying the books from Kobo is, for me, slightly cheaper than WHSmith.

Also, the fact that they are no simple eBook store makes them more intriguing; I’m not that enticed by their eReader (given I have already my PRS-505 and I’m not going to drop it any time soon), but the fact that they have applications available for a number of platforms (but not Linux, dang it! If they did, and it supported activation of Adobe DRM’d ePubs, they would be so great I could consider getting the eReader if only to fund them further). Even if I will probably not use those, I can still enjoy the fact that they let me read the books I buy on the web with any browser, on my reader in ePub format (and thus anywhere the ePub format can be read!) and since a few days also on my Milestone thanks to their Android application.

A word about the DRM here; while I’m one of those people who, I said already, prefer to abide to restrictions as long as they are an acceptable tradeoff (for instance the audiobooks DRM on iTunes is acceptable because they do cost a lot less than on unencumbered form). While I can understand the reason why most publishers won’t even consider not using DRM on the files, and I accept that at least this way I can get eBooks at all, I don’t think the tradeoff is useful to the user in this case. Indeed, given the fact that not all devices using ePub supports Adobe Digital Editions, it can be quite harsh to have it applied. add that to the not all ePubs are the same and thus you might have to access the content of the archive to change it into something usable, and you get the picture. Luckily, the ADEPT DRM has been long broken so it’s not difficult to get clean files.

Anyway, as I said, Kobo looks a nice choice to me because of the presence of the additional applications (just to put it into perspective, while I’m not considering buying an iPad, were I to, I could still read the books I bought from Kobo, without going around the DRM, as they have an iPad application); for instance I could easily read The Salmon of Doubt from my browser, even though the ePub version uses the infamous DTBook format above. Unfortunately they don’t have *everything*… not yet at least.

Anyway, last night I didn’t sleep so I could finish reading Assassin’s Apprentice (somebody suggested this to me a few years back; on the other hand I decided to read this because me and some friends were to a fair where also the author was…). Nice book indeed, just a bit “slow” (took me almost a month to read it fully, and it was just 400 pages). Next step, though, I wanted to come back to Dresden’s Files; Butcher’s style is enchanting. Three books out, I was up to read Summer KnightGrave Peril I got from Kobo so I assumed they had the next as well; somehow, they don’t. So at the end I got it from WHSmith; it bears little difference, but it still strikes me as odd.

And in all this, there seems to be no shop for Italian eBooks; sigh. If only ChiareLettere had ePubs available.. their books are quite bulky and I would love to give them away and trading them for digital copies of them. I wonder if I should get more (technical) skills about this kind of publishing and propose to handle that kind of stuff myself. I would also know where to start, maybe.

Cooling down about eBooks excitement

So I have written a few posts regarding eBooks in the past month or so, since I finally went to use my Sony eReader full time. Unfortunately, it failed for me yesterday, on the train back from Milan – where I was with a friend to show off his game – as I wanted to read The Salmon of Doubt which I bought from Kobo at the start of the month.

It failed me with a quite unimpressive “page error” so I thought the file was corrupted on the Memory Stick (or even the Memory Stick started to fail — they are not eternal, and this one has been passed down from a friend of mine to me for PSPs, and is now in the Reader, since digital distribution of PSP games called for something bigger than 1GB). I uploaded it to the Reader anew, and it still failed; I then decided to convert it with Calibre but it also failed (although, at least giving me an idea about what the problem was in the first place!).

The problem, as it turns out, is that the ePub specification is, like ODT, SVG and MP4/ISO Media, a specification that includes so much more than any single implementation will ever support. One issue that lately has been noted by many is that Apple’s iBooks application for the iPad, which supports ePub books, surprisingly does not support DRM’d files (well, at least not those DRM’d with Adobe Digital Editions), but it’s not the only one. In this case, while the Sony Reader supports Adobe Digital Editions files, it does not support DTBook files. And that is what my ePub file is, deep within.

Now, there are tools that supposedly convert one format to the other, yet they don’t seem to do that much of a good result out of it, so I wasn’t able to get it to appear properly just yet. And this also requires me to tinker quite a bit with the raw files I don’t know a thing about.

This starts to make me wary about eBooks… one out of fifteen up to now doesn’t spell trouble, but there are cases where it might not be so good to have them around. Add the fact that there is basically no content I could find in Italian as eBook, and I start to get afraid I can only partly replace dead-tree books for a long time still. Sucks!

Technical eBooks? Scarcer than I’d have said!

Do you remember I went back to using the Reader with proper (ePub) content? It also turned out pretty well when I could get a newly-released book even before it’s released in Europe (and for a much lower price).

A month after resuming this, I have to accept an absurd reality: it’s much easier to find novels than technical books in ePub format! Now it is true that most of the O’Reilly catalogue is available in ePub format (one exception being CJKV Information Processing which, for the complexity of the script, is only available as PDF — and it would still have been pretty expensive, if I couldn’t make it to the 1-day offer the other day of getting any eBook for $10; for that price, even just a PDF is good enough), but they seem to be an exception.

Indeed, Addison Wesley does not seem to have their catalogue available as eBook at all! And they tend to have some very interesting books – some of which I read thanks to the gifts received – if they had them available as eBook, I would probably be buying a few more of them!

Tonight I was also looking at MIT Press since I would like to convert my current shelf to eBooks, for those titles that I’m still interesting to have around, and which are available as eBook obviously; Using OpenMP is one of them — my idea was to know ho much they would cost me as eBook, which is usually a fraction of their original price, and “sell” them for the same price to interested friends. While they do have an eBook store, it doesn’t have their older titles, and it leaves a lot to be desired.

My reason for wanting to convert what I have already is that I’m getting ready to pack and get the hell away from home; nots of things are going on and I’m in the middle of a very nasty family situation. I’ll be looking for my luck elsewhere, most likely in Turin, hopefully later on this year. But before leaving, I’m trying to get rid of some baggage, both psychological and physical; books are something that, while I’d be sad splitting from, I cannot afford to bring with me when I’ll be moving.

Incidentally, I’m in a bit of a pinch with CDs and DVDs as well… I already rip all my CDs and the music DVDs to bring them with me more easily on the iPod — but I don’t want to get rid of the originals; I guess that once I move I might still get some “physical storage space” here, to keep them. I already moved to buying music digitally – through the iTunes store, thankfully they don’t have DRM any more! – but audiobooks are still crippled protected, as they tell you, and metal loses some edges when encoded. Let’s not even get into digitally-distributed movies. And yes, I’m the kind of person who gladly pays for content.

On the other hand, for what concerns fiction and non-fiction books, there are quite a few possible stores, such as -WHSmith- Kobo and Waterstones — the only problem I got with them is that none of them supports a wishlist; I’d love to replace the one I have now on Amazon with one for eBook: they’d be cheaper and I’d have less trouble bringing them around.

Anyway, I’m still baffled by the lack of vast archives of technical eBooks.

Good news for my Readers

Sony Reader PRS-505 v1.1

I’ve been told I’m overly negative and critical about everything, be it Free Software or not… probably it’s true, the problem is that in my line of work, I always have to end up thinking for the worse, and that shows in my general behaviour. I’d rather be proven wrong, that something works fine, rather than be proven wrong that something crashes in flame.

But for once I am happy about something and I’m going to write about it. And going against the current trend, I’m also going to start with a “thanks, Sony!” — although this is not related at all with the PlayStation 3, of course.

Do you remember two years ago I bought a Reader (Sony PRS-505)? I’ve been using it on and off since then, although I ended up using it mostly for smaller things, plain text converter to LRF and similar, rather than full-blown books because of the problems with viewing PDF files.

Well, yesterday I received an advert from O’Reilly, where I bought some of the PDF books I have, and I noticed this line: “PDF, .epub, Kindle-compatible .mobi, and Android .apk” (with a link to a blog post announcement about the support for ePUB in the Reader… as it was, it happened just while I was playing with the Reader for most of my time and it always escaped me… probably because that was the time I ended up in the hospital as well).

The reason why I actually read through this O’Reilly advert (I admit I don’t usually look at that stuff much; I don’t send it to spam, but most of the promotional messages get sent to a different folder/label and it gets cleared out pretty soon), is that I am probably going to buy CJKV Information Processing as soon as I have time to read it (I was actually almost going to buy it right away because I needed it to finish a job, but since the customer might actually be considered “at risk” to me, this is not the case anymore).

Anyway, since I read this particular note I decided to go on to look at the O’Reilly website; after logging in, the “Electronic Media” section wasn’t working properly (I only got a “Data Error” loading), but a mail to O’Reilly (and about two hours) later, I could finally see the books I bought in June 2008, available in many different formats. Not all of them were available in all the formats, but all of them were available in PDF (which I already got) and ePub (which is what the Reader reads). I downloaded them, and went to the next step, getting them on the Reader itself.

The problem here was that… it had been months since I last used the Reader, so its battery was totally drained; it wouldn’t be such a problem… but it doesn’t charge via USB when it’s drained, it needs an external charger. While it has a connection for that, it didn’t come with a charger (and even that would have had limited use to me, given that this model wasn’t sold in Europe so in the best of cases it would have come with an American adapter). But now the connection looked more familiar to me, with a yellow color-code. A quick search later it turns out that Sony did something good: it uses the same charger cable than the PSP (PlayStation Portable)… which I got since last year, it was a Christmas present from my sister.

I actually wondered a bit about the relationship between the Reader and the PSP: not only they have the same charger, but they both use MemoryStick Pro Duo cards (and as I have used the SD card for other things, namely photos, since last time I used the Reader, I have set it up with a Memory Stick this time; I had a 1GB one floating around since I changed the PSP’s to 4GB to store digitally distributed games). On the other hand, Sony seems to have had enough common sense to support SD as well on the Reader.

Charged the Reader up, copied the ePub over with Calibre… it doesn’t find it, because I didn’t update the firmware when it was released. Okay, time to look for the firmware update, which can, obviously, be found on the Sony product page… but only for Windows. Now this is not nice, but it’s all too common… and similarly to Nokia, there is an absurdity: the management software is available for Mac OS X as well, but the firmware updater isn’t. Sigh. This is why I keep Windows virtual machines around.

After the upgrade, and after uploading all the books to the Reader, I was finally able to try it out, and the result is hell sweet! The O’Reilly ePubs look much much nicer than the sample books shipped with the reader itself, very readable even at “small” size. I’m most likely going to get the CJKV book named above from O’Reilly at this point, to read on the Reader (reasoning being that I’m scheduled to go around a lot in the next month, and going around with a 900 pages book on Eastern languages, in English, in Italy, really sells me away too much of a nerd… beside being clumsy).

This is a photo of my Reader displaying a page from the book Time Management for System Administrators that I’ve last been struggling to read with the “previous Reader” (which is actually the same hardware, but it really feels like something new now that I can use ePub). You can see from the photo that it reads actually quite nicely.

Sure, this model is now considered quite obsolete: it has no touchscreen, it’s slow, it has no wireless connection, and all that stuff, but it feels quite solid, and even if it’s two years later, the firmware update really gave it a new spin. And of course, given this version is basically “end-of-lifed”, there is an alternative Free firmware (given that the original firmware is based on Linux, this is not surprising), which seems to bridge some feature-gaps that were missing before.

Now, can somebody point me at some other publishers of ePub material? I don’t expect much to be available in ePub format for what concerns narrative, but maybe there is something out there. For what I can tell searching quickly, WHSmith has an eBook store, and it seems to have quite a few things that I’d be quite interested in (for instance the Wheel of Time series)… there are two problems with that: the books are only available as “Adobe Digital Editions” (so, DRM-locked), and I have no clue whether they sell to Italian customers. I could probably give it a try, the reduced price can be acceptable for some stuff at least. Unless, of course, it can be cleaned up in which case I’d probably give a lot of money to WHSmith…

I killed enough trees…

Pathetic as it is, this Saturday evening was spent, by me at least, cleaning up old and new paper. And that’s the kind of trees I’m talking about.

Indeed, since I now have a self-employed activity I need to have a paper trail of all the invoices sent and received, of all the contracts, of all the shipment bills and so on. While I prefer being paperless for handling, and thus I scan everything I get (invoices, contracts, shipment bills, …) I have to keep the paper trail for my accountant, at least for now. This also means printing the stuff that otherwise I wouldn’t be printing (!) like Apple’s invoices. I was hoping to avoid that, but it turns out that my accountant wants the paper.

Interestingly enough, printing from within Firefox here on Linux is a bit of a problem: it sets itself to use Letter, even though my /etc/papersize is set properly to a4 and LC_PAPER is set to it_IT (which is, obviously, A4). It really baffles me because it starts already to be a nuisance that you have to have libpaper, when the locale settings already would have the support for discerning between different paper sizes, but the fact that Firefox also defaults to Letter (which is basically only used in US for what I know of) without having an option to change (yeah I did so already with about:config, no change) is definitely stupid.

Luckily, most of the references I’ve been using lately are available in PDF, and thanks to the Sony Reader I don’t have to print them out. What I decided to cut lately, as well, is on CDs: most stuff I can get easily on Apple’s iTunes Store(yes I know it’s not available on Linux, but the music is not DRM’d, it’s in a good format, and it’s not overly expensive); too bad that they don’t have a (more expensive even) ALAC store, or I would be buying also my Metal music (AAC does no good to metal).

Games aren’t as easy: I don’t have space on the PS3 already, and I bought just a couple from the Play Station Network store, nor I have space on the PSP, and additionally, downloaded games with an Italian account are twice the price that I can get from Amazon. Sony, if you’re reading, this is the time to fix this issue! Especially with the PSP Go! coming, I don’t think it’s going to sell well among game enthusiasts, and I’m quite sure that those who will get it will probably hate the extra-high prices.

Anyway, since I’m avoiding buying CDs and rather going with the iTunes Store, and I cannot accept direct donations any longer, you can now also consider their gift cards, they are certainly accepted…