Digital Editions Dissected

July 9, 2007

For those following developments in ebooks and associated technologies, a good discussion has been taking place at if:book, where Dan Visel posted a review of Adobe’s ebook reader software. Among the usability and functionality issues he raises are concerns about PDF display consistency and quality:

Digital Editions is clearly built around a different PDF rendering engine than the rest of Adobe’s software. (The FAQ explains that this engine was designed to be used on cellphones.) Image quality is noticeably worse than in Acrobat or Preview. Text is poorly aliased, and spacing between characters seems to be off for some fonts at some zoom levels. Graphics are notably grainy, and weird rendering artifacts sometimes show up.

Worse, the software apparently introduces compatibility issues, undermining one of the principal advantages of the format:

[…] one of Adobe’s chief selling points of PDF as a format has been that a PDF will look the same on every machine in every viewer. Not this one. Adobe offers sample PDFs for download at their Digital Editions website […] which are similarly perplexing. Although these appear to be ordinary PDFs (with no restrictions), they don’t behave like regular PDFs. They can’t be opened in any PDF viewer that’s not Digital Editions. Preview shows only blank pages; opening them in the current Adobe Reader takes you to a webpage where you can download Digital Editions; and opening them in an older version of Acrobat brings up a message asking whether I’d like to learn more about documents protected with Adobe DRM. Clicking yes takes me to a pre-Digital Editions Adobe ebooks page. PDFs have become popular because they can be used in a variety of ways across a variety of platforms. This seems like a significant step backwards for Adobe: interoperability is taking a back seat to DRM.

This is a deal-breaker for me, at least for Digital Edition’s current incarnation. If I can’t count on the software to render PDFs properly, or if it introduces compatibility problems with the mainstream Adobe Reader, then it only further fragments the already confusing and poorly-standardized market for ebooks.

On a hopeful note, Adobe’s Bill McCoy responds in the comments, acknowledging some of the issues:

[…] we have a lot of work to do (it is, after all, a 1.0 product). Of course one can’t expect everything in a 3MB download that the much larger Adobe Reader can deliver. But you *can* expect quality levels of images and typography for both PDF & EPUB that are much improved in future versions.

Notably missing from the response, however, was any statement about the interoperability issues among flavors of PDF. As a designer whose livelihood is closely tied to Adobe’s decisions on the format, I’m left feeling uncertain about where the standard is really going.

Read the full review and discussion thread here.

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