It strikes me that the term “e-book” can be a little vague and misleading, confusing even. There are so many things that go into the concept of e-book, that I started working up a matrix, just for my own edification. Then I thought I might as well go all 2.0 and post it on Flickr and blog about it.
My matrix has 5 concepts embedded in it: e-book formats, reader software, e-book devices, platforms, stores and respositories. I depict them here as intersecting spaces to suggest that these terms overlap and interact with one another at a fundamental level. The overlap is not meant to suggest any particular quantitative measure. Although I thought, initially, it would depict something about the number of titles, for example, but I have no data to support such a depiction. In truth, a three-dimensional model would probably be more accurate.
Formats: these are what e-books are made of, the file structure of the documents themselves. Formats proliferate apace! There is little in the way of standards here, but the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) has made some inroads in getting their epub format widely accepted. The most common formats are probably PDF, plain text, Microsoft LIT, Mobipocket. Sony’s BBeb and Amazon’s Kindle format (a particular proprietary mode of Mobipocket) promise to become more and more prevalent.
Reader Software: Some formats can be read and used by a variety of devices, platforms, and software. Some are restricted to the software designed for that particular format. This generates the usual confusion among users about “file” versus “application.” Initially, reader software was designed to be used on desktop and laptop computers, but the growth in mobile device use has caused many reader software packages to offer desktop and palmtop versions. Microsoft Reader and Mobipocket are big (but not the only) players in this market.
Platforms: in this case, I use the term platform to refer to e-book vendors who sell products that are typically used in conjunction a specific web site, NetLibrary, for example. These platforms are usually licensed to academic or public libraries and access is mediated by IP address or password. Libraries can purchase or license collections of titles, or, in some cases, may make title-by-title selections. The user reads the e-book on the computer screen, within the platform itself. I did include OverDrive here, a platform used by several public libraries. It does offer downloadable e-books.
Devices: the beauty of the “book” technology is its portability. E-books have been playing catch up with that concept since their invention. Who wants to sit and read a book chained to a computer screen, even a laptop? With the advent of smaller computing devices like PDAs and even cell phones, the e-book can wander far and wide. In most cases, however, we are still talking about viewing on a backlit computer screen, which has its own share of problems, eye fatigue being the foremost of these. Ergo, the advent of E Ink‘s “electronic paper display,” which uses a new way to display text and graphics without backlighting. This technology is used in second generation reader devices like the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle.
Stores and Repositories: There are many places on the web to find e-books. My matrix only begins to scratch the surface. Some of these bookstores offer a variety of formats (Diesel eBooks, Fictionwise). Some are dedicated to a particular format (Mobipocket). Some are free (Bartleby, Project Gutenberg, Virginia). Some are commercial (Amazon, Powell’s, Sony).
This matrix is just a beginning to understanding the nature of e-books. I think a more extensive publication might be in order. Any items that are not linked here are readily found with a web search. Apologies if I left out any favorites.