E-Book Standards Edge Forward

June 17, 1999

Victor Votsch

The Seybold Report on Internet Publishing
Vol. 3, No. 10

Two vendor-neutral standards are under development for e-books. The first, Open E-Book (OEB), is a file format for the books, independent of any specific reading device. The initial draft is expected later this month. The second, Electronic Book Exchange (EBX), is a specification covering e-book distribution and copyright protection. Its first draft is expected later this year.

OEB 1.0

The last working draft of the Open E-Book 1.0 (OEB 1.0) specification was presented for review at the OEB Standards Forum ( meeting in New York City May 24. After a review by interested parties, a final draft will be published by June 28. Companies that participated in the authoring process will then have two weeks for voting.

The OEB 1.0 spec attempts to create a set of markup tools that could be applied universally to a wide range of books. The markup for the book itself consists of HTML 3.2 tags (with the addition of the "span" tag), with CSS 1.0 style sheets, all specified in an XML document type definition. Associated with the book are XML-encoded metadata that make use of the Dublin Core taxonomy. It's important to note that because OEB uses a subset of HTML, Web pages (as well as typeset ones) built with tables, frames or forms are not going to automatically translate to OBE 1.0, at least not without significant compromises. In many cases, the authoring group has tried to solve some of the problems by relying on CSS to handle some of these elements.

Initially, three levels of conformance were proposed in the specification in an attempt to take into account different levels of functionality in documents and reading systems. This included a minimal implementation that did not require documents to be well-formed XML. After feedback following the meeting, the authoring group reduced conformance to only two levels, basic and extended, both requiring well-formed XML documents. Basic OEB documents must conform to the OEB 1.0 DTD. Extended OEB documents can use an arbitrary DTD but must provide CSS constructs for all elements not in the OEB specification.

After OBE 1.0 is completed, work will start on version 2.0, which will be strictly XML-compliant and reflect a rigorous separation of content and presentation format.

Though it addresses only part of the complete e-book picture, the OEM group has done a commendable job. If successful, the single format could help alleviate the data-conversion bottleneck that currently hampers the mass production of e-book titles.

EBX: The Commerce Component

In parallel with OEB, a second group of about 40 companies (some of which are also represented in OEB) is developing a standard method of copyrighting digital books that are distributed over the Internet. The intent is for EBX to support both PDF and Open E-Book formats.

The EBX working group has gone through five versions of the spec since October. It is tackling rights management issues pertinent to real world situations, such as lending libraries and the resale or passing along of titles by individuals, and nailing them down to the protocol level. Many of the changes implemented reflect the thinking of the OEB Forum, and there is strong reliance on other standards, such as the DOI and HTTP, in the model.

One of the biggest challenges the EBX group faces is the public perception that it is controlled by Glassbook, the vendor that started the initiative. In that regard, it is like ICE, which suffered from the perception that it was run by Vignette. To its credit, Glassbook is trying to combat that perception: it recently made the spec freely available for review ( and continues to court the OEB forum in the hopes of combining efforts.