The water’s edge

Over the last few years, IDEAlliance has coordinated the work of a set of industry volunteers interested in developing "a new open source standard for packaging and exchanging digital content." For periodicals, this development effort emulates work done to develop and promulgate EPUB, the book-industry standard for interchangeable formats.

The IDEAlliance standard, dubbed OpenEFT, was introduced last month as an alternative to closed formats, particularly .Folio, an Adobe format. Peter Meirs, who played a role in developing OpenEFT, recently explained why the industry standard is important:

Woodwing opened its well-implemented OFIP format to the public, free of charge. It was a noble attempt to standardize interactive publications across the industry.

In the short term, many providers and publishers benefitted from the new “OFIP standard.” This license-free format allowed third-party software companies to build their own tablet solutions, providing more choice to buyers. While the demand for magazines on tablets was still in question, at least the process to produce them was moving forward.

This is where the story turns. Opening OFIP to the public was not the same thing as making it an open source format. Woodwing offered its specification on a license-free basis, but it was not a true open source format under the control of a vendor-independent standards organization. As quickly as it was given, OFIP could be taken away. And that’s exactly what happened.

In October 2011, Adobe and Woodwing announced an alliance that involved, among other things, a “retirement” of the OFIP format. This meant all the niche players who had built solutions around OFIP were no longer able to create products using that format. Instead of using OFIP, Adobe’s DPS solution used a new format called .Folio. Adobe’s terms of service clearly restricts the use of the .Folio format to drive third-party viewers.

We see this a good deal in publishing. Examples include Amazon and Barnes & Noble developing their own eBook formats, Apple shifting the terms of service in its app store and proprietary DRM schemes. Closed standards continue not because platforms have all the power (though they have accrued substantial advantage), but because publishers stop at the water's edge when it comes to understanding the nature and implications of open standards.

Every time a supply-chain partner implements a proprietary solution, it moves a step closer to creating and maintaining platform lock-in. Development efforts are disrupted, new entrants are blocked and the higher barriers to entry give cover to incumbents who innovate less.

On Friday, I echoed Baldur Bjarnason's call for "new modes of reading". Those won't come from a company like Adobe, which is intent on developing and maintaining "standards" that protect its position. The most significant challenge publishers face is the threat to reading. Diminishing our options for innovation only increases the likelihood that we'll fail to address that threat.

An additional note: Meirs posted his "An open plea for OpenEFT" on MediaShepherd, a new web site founded by Noelle Skodzinski and James Sturdivant, who came to the venture from NAPCO's publishing arm. It describes itself as "an innovative company that meets the needs of today’s publishing/media executives and the vendors that serve them." The site has been operating for about a month, not enough time to evaluate its offering. Under the heading of "new entrants", though, it's an information option.


About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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