What VHS and PDF teach us about the e-book format

On: March 1, 2013
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About Tomas Blansjaar


Portable Document Format (PDF) is one of the most well known computer formats in the world. It can be used to read electronic books. PDF is also very interesting because it’s developed into the standard document file. I will compare this with the establishment of VHS as the standard to play video’s. It might give some clues on the future of the e-book (format).

PDF grew out the Camelot system. This was launched in 1991 by Adobe. Co-founder John Warnock stated: ‘Our vision for Camelot is to provide a collection of utilities, applications, and system software so that a corporation can effectively capture documents from any application, send electronic versions of these documents anywhere, and view and print these documents on any machines.’ (Warnock)From the start the company’s aim was to make the file universally applicable.

In 2008 PDF became property of the International Organization of Standardization (ISO), and an open standard. (‘PDF format becomes ISO standard’) ISO is a federation of 140 national bodies whose goal is to set vendor-neutral technical standards. (Galloway, ‘Protocol versus Institutionalization’, 190) PDF is now ‘the defacto standard for electronic document exchange’. (Castiglione, 1813)

John Galloway showed us how protocols and standards form the web and thereby our experiences. He looks outside the web when addressing why JVC´s VHS and not Sony´s Betamax became the standard video format. ‘JVC deliberately sacrificed larger profit margins by keeping prices low and licensing to competitors. This is was in order to grow their market share. The rationale was that establishing a standard was the most important thing, and as they approached that goal, it would create a positive feedback loop that would further beat out the competition.’(Galloway, 189 ) VHS´s victory supports his claim that the protocol on the internet is made in the same way: ‘giving out your technology broadly […] often wins out over proprietary behavior.’

For almost thirty years, researchers have developed electronic document representations. (Liesaputran, 589) For longer than ten years a variety of e-book formats appeared. The ‘electronic document standard’ PDF can also be used as an e-book format. Another frequently used e-book format is EPUB. The largest difference between EPUB and PDF is that PDF provides the same content layout on any device. Therefore PDF gives a better representation of a page that has been printed. Especially, if read on a PC. But since smartphones and tablets have become widely used, PDF’s key feature: fixed pages, has become its greatest flaw. EPUB does a better job adapting the size of the text to the device which the reader is using. In the future both will repair their flaws, and probably will become more alike.

What do the examples of VHS and PDF (for reading documents) tell us about the future e-book reader? If a standard will emerge for reading digital books it has to be embraced by different parties, as was the case with VHS. The creation of such a standard cannot be imposed, not even by the International Digital Publishing Forum. Proven success in the marketplace pre-exists the establishment of a standard, as was the case witch PDF’s emergence as a standard for document reading.

In this comparison of video, document and e-book format an extra distinction is useful.
E-books now, seem more similar to video players in the 1980’s, than with PDF in the 1990’s. The distribution of the e-books and videos is connected to hardware.
The films we wanted to watch were stored in a tape and had to be played in a video recorder.
A lot of e-books now are sold directly via an e-reader, for which the Kindle by Amazon is most successful. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble is making its format Nooktools available to two other devices. (Barnes & Noble Nook) Sony is following a similar strategy. The competitors are more or less following JVC’s strategy, whereas Kindle seems to follow Sony’s Betamax example . Maybe Amazon’s propriety behavior will prove to be as unwise a strategy, as it was for Sony in the 1980’s.

For PDF, EPUB or another format to become the standard e-reading format, it has to be widely spread.This we learn from Galaways about protocolization, and from the emergence of VHS as the video format and of PDF as the standard the document file.

List of sources
Aniello Castiglione, Alfredo De Santis, Claudio Soriente ‘Security and privacy issues in the Portable Document Format’, in: The Journal of Systems and Software 83, 2010, pp. 1813–1822

Veronica Liesaputran, Ian H.Witten, ‘Realistic electronicbooks’, in: Int. Journal of Human-Computer Studies 70, 2012, pp. 588–610.

John Galloway, ‘Protocol versus Institutionalization’, in Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (eds) New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, London: Routledge, 2006, pp. 187-198.

John Warnock, The Camelot Project, 1991.

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