Saturday, January 30, 2010

Back in town

Finals… finally… over!

I have a couple of papers due in a few days, so I’m still working, but after that I’ll have about three weeks of vacation time. The first few days I’ll spend soaking my brain in warm water and sleeping, but after that, I plan to spend most of my time working on Sigil.

In other news, I’ve decided to shift Sigil’s long-term development focus.

Way back when I started thinking about creating an eBook editor (more than a year ago), I primarily wanted to make an epub editor. The format badly needed one, since no such editor existed at the time. But I also wanted to replace Book Designer for most of the formats it exports. If you’re not familiar with BD, believe me, you don’t want to be. Let’s just leave it at “it’s horrible”. BD development is also completely dead (and has been for many years), and the application isn’t open source so no one can pick up where the original developers left off. The beauty of closed-source apps…

So the plan was this: make an eBook editor with an emphasis on epub, and then slowly add export support for all the other formats. A general-purpose eBook editor.

Back then I recognized several major formats I wanted to support, those that had more than a niche market: LRF (AKA BBeB), MOBI and LIT[1]. But the scene has changed a lot since then…

LRF

First off, LRF is dead. It was proprietary to Sony’s reading devices, and Sony just switched their store over to epub. All of their Readers that support LRF support epub, too[2]. LRF’s are not being sold anymore. Some people are still clinging to the format for personal use though; mostly because all epub books are displayed left-justified on PRS-505’s. Newer Sony Readers don’t have this limitation, but there it is. It still doesn’t change the fact that the format is dead. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is.

I can’t say I’m sad it’s gone. There’s basically zero information on the format itself: what the OSS community knows about it, it knows mostly through reverse engineering. That’s not a happy place to be.

Anyway, it’s not on Sigil’s roadmap anymore. Even Kovid has stopped fixing bugs in Calibre’s LRF output plug-in.

LIT

This is the format for Microsoft Reader. It’s pretty much dead too. Even the website I linked got this shiny new look just a couple of months ago, until then it looked like something out of the ‘90s. I guess Microsoft thinks that eBooks are cool now and wants back in. They are, but the gravy train has left. LIT is only popular on PocketPC and Windows Mobile, and now epub is chewing that away. LIT is basically OEBPS 1.0, a somewhat direct precursor to epub.

MS abandoned LIT a long time ago, and now it’s too late to play catch up.

MOBI

I’ve never actually used MOBI. I hear it’s very popular with cell phones and similar devices. But ever since Amazon bought Mobipocket SA, the format seems to be on the way out. Amazon uses a custom version (AZW) for the Kindle’s, and you can’t read Kindle books on anything but a Kindle or an Amazon-sanctioned reading application. That’s not much of an open format. They also seem to be going with something called “Topaz”[3].

The main problem for MOBI is that Mobipocket SA doesn’t allow device makers to support both MOBI DRM and some other eBook DRM on their electronic readers. And the manufacturers are seeing the writing on the wall and switching to Adobe’s Reader Mobile SDK which supports epub and PDF DRM. More money in that.

So MOBI is not in great shape, long-term. But it’s still popular enough that I’m keeping it in mind.

Conclusion

Seeing as how the other three major formats are either dead or dying—mostly thanks to epub—and the new player in town is solidifying his position quite nicely, it may be prudent to focus just on that. Sigil will from now on focus on bringing the best epub editing experience. It also means I won’t be spreading myself too thin.

Do understand that I’m only talking about MOBI, LIT and LRF exporting. Sigil will certainly one day be able to import files of those types (and others). That hasn’t changed one bit. Also, HTML and RTF export are not in jeopardy: those are very general-purpose and quite useful, so exporters for those will be written.

The current importers and exporters will be rewritten to use a plug-in architecture, so anyone who still wishes to develop export plug-ins for the above three formats will be able to do so with ease[4]. All I’m saying is that I’m personally not going to develop them. Not any time soon, at least. They’re off the roadmap.

Sidenote

Google Analytics reports a 500% traffic spike on Sigil’s project page starting last Wednesday and peaking on Thursday. Seems a lot of people suddenly felt the urge to search for “epub editor”… I wonder what could have caused that…

I personally like the device and seeing as how the iBookstore will be selling epub books, it can only mean good things for the format. I plan on getting one of these when they become available. Hopefully this will also push Adobe to improve Adobe Digital Editions, which has more than a few rendering quirks. But honestly the biggest complaint I have against it is its utterly abysmal Unicode coverage with the default fonts. I’m pretty sure the iPad won’t have these problems: the videos clearly show user-selectable fonts, and the ones we can see preloaded[5] are known to have good coverage.

Hurrah for competition.

Footnotes

[1] I’m not counting PDF since that’s not an eBook format, or RTF and HTML which are more general-purpose and have to be supported.

[2] The PRS-500 users can send their Readers for a free firmware upgrade for epub support, the PRS-505’s already has this upgrade and the others read it natively.

[3] Which I hear is actually Amazon’s proprietary implementation of epub. Go figure.

[4] And drop them in Sigil without violating the GPL if they choose not to provide the source code. I’m trying to lend a hand to the publishers that currently use Sigil.

[5] Like Times New Roman.

Friday, January 8, 2010

C'est la vie

I haven’t been able to work on Sigil the last week, and I won’t be able to work on it for the next three weeks, either. University-related obligations are currently squeezing the life out of me and I can barely find time to sleep, let alone work on Sigil.

But the good news is that after this three week stint I’ll have loads of free time. More than enough to whip 0.2.0 into shape. I’ll just have to persevere until then.