Seems like just yesterday I was super excited about the future of Fixed Layout EPUB. Looking back, though, it was more than three years ago, so in that sense, the future is now.
Truth be told, I’m still excited about it—the interactive features and the user experience is terrific—but when I wrote my original article in 2014, I expected things to get better over time and unfortunately, they haven’t. In fact, in one very important way, they’ve gotten worse.
What’s got me down?
If you know anything about EPUB (and if you’re still reading I’ll go out on a limb and assume you do), you know that the quality of the user experience, especially when it comes to fixed layout, is highly dependent upon the reader application. Back in 2014 when Adobe first added interactive Fixed Layout capabilities to InDesign, my go-to EPUB reader on Windows was Readium and on Mac and iOS, iBooks was the best choice. Android to the best of my knowledge has never been overly friendly for Fixed Layout EPUB. The bonus for iBooks was it was pre-installed on every Mac, iPad and iPhone.
iBooks on iOS and MacOS are still terrific. They render everything beautifully and honor all of the animations that are supported in InDesign. Readium on the other hand has gone straight to hell. It doesn’t work at all, anymore. Why? Ask the developers because I don’t know. But, that really shouldn’t matter. You see, Adobe has its own reader for EPUBs – Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). It’s available on all platforms. Since Adobe is creating the output and developing the reader, everything should be fine, right? Well, yeah…it should be.
Bad news; it’s not.
To be perfectly blunt, Fixed Layout EPUB pretty much sucks on Windows and Android—not because of something inherently wrong with the format (though, there are purists that will tell you it’s an abomination) but because there’s no reliable reader application for it. While I don’t normally put a tremendous amount of weight into user reviews, it’s really hard to ignore the number of one-star Google Play reviews for ADE. On Windows, it’s not much better. Let’s take a quick look at what I’m referring to.
The screenshot on the left is from iBooks on iOS; MacOS is identical. The one on the right is from Adobe Digital Editions on Windows.
To call that kind of output unacceptable is an understatement. This creates a huge hole in the Windows and Android markets.
Developers, including, and especially, Adobe have had years to get this right and we’re still stuck with sub-standard EPUB readers on Windows and Android. Microsoft touted Edge as not only a great browser (it’s not, but that’s a story for a different day) but an EPUB reader as well. While it’s pretty good for reflowable EPUB, for fixed layout it’s so bad that my test files didn’t render anything worthy of a screenshot. I even tweeted about it a while back and got a response which has left me at least a bit hopeful that somebody is listening.
Well, since you asked…Nice job so far of supporting EPUB in Edge. Any chance that might advance to support fixed layout epub? https://t.co/HReAATFegi
— Bob Levine (@idguy) January 31, 2018
If you’re interested, click on that tweet to read the entire conversation. Of course, listening and acting are two different things and while I’d love to see Microsoft get this right (because a pre-installed reader would be huge), my real disappointment lies with Adobe Digital Editions. It’s so close to being where it needs to be. It handles interactivity fine, but text rendering is hit or miss at best. Some text is fine, other text looks like that screenshot I posted above. (And yes, I’m using OpenType fonts) I understand that it takes time to develop an application like this, but we’ve gone way past version one and I haven’t seen much in the way of improvement over the last couple of years.
So, what does the future hold?
I’d love to tell you that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but I can’t. I just know that my enthusiasm for widespread acceptance of this format is waning. Until there’s a reliable way to view these things on all platforms (think PDF), it will remain a niche format.
Before I wrap up, I don’t want anyone thinking that is a complete condemnation of Fixed Layout EPUB. The potential is still there. If you can control the output devices, it’s fabulous. I’ve done some work on sales materials and trade show kiosks where iPads were the only hardware used and everyone was happy with the results using iBooks. It’s capable of things that previously could only be done with DPS-type apps and the cost is negligible.
Finally, if anyone does know of a reliable Windows and/or Android reader for Fixed Layout EPUB, please let me know. I’ll be happy to spread the word.