Bill McCoy (Adobe) and Mike Culver (Amazon) visit Nature

Last Friday we had the pleasure of welcoming Bill McCoy, General Manager of e-Publishing Business at Adobe Systems, to speak about their next-generation digital publishing technologies.

A while back, we were also lucky enough to play host to Mike Culver, Web Services Evangelist at Amazon. I was travelling so much after Mike came to see us that I never got around to posting my notes, so I’m adding them below.

It was very eye-opening to hear from two organisations that are doing so much to reinvent the way that publishers (and others) can operate online.

Bill McCoy, General Manager, e-Publishing Business, Adobe Systems

eBooks have seen false dawns, but digital publishing is now finally reaching a tipping point:

  • Demand increasing: Over 1,000 libraries in the US are lending e-books. Take-up has exceeded expectations. Not necessarily in direct competition with paper books. Pragmatic Programmers (a tech publisher) make 30% of their turnover (and 80% of international sales) from e-books. In the future, consumers will expect content to be available in digital formats.
  • Supply increasing: Every single major trade and textbook publisher (at least in the US) is committed to providing their content in digital form.
  • Digital distribution alternatives multiplying. In particular, hardware is getting better.


  • Print is still the vast majority of the revenue for most publishers.
  • The web is good place to market and distribute, but in many cases the browser is not a good place to read the content. E.g., O’Reilly Safari finds that most users download content as PDFs. People want the ‘downloading’ experience rather than the ‘browsing’ experience.
  • Consumers and publishers still suffer from format confusion, client software and DRM hassles. For example, PDFs are good for preserving the print layout, but don’t work well on small screens.

There’s not going to be an ‘iPod for e-books’:

  • Technology constraints require compromise. This makes it more like the digital camera market.
  • Digital reading is gaining adoption in multiple contexts.
  • Text-based content is marketed and distributed in a wide variety of forms via a wide variety of channels. As a result, there will be no ‘iTunes for books’.

Audience question: When will e-paper come of age?

E-ink is competing with cheaper LCD technology, which is also getting better all the time. So it may never hit the mass market. But e-ink is already best if you want long battery life and high resolution/contrast. Most reading right now takes place on generic devices, not specialised readers.

Q: How does e-book library lending work?

Two ways: Online viewing (not very successful) and downloadable content (strong take-up). Typically DRM-protected at publishers’ insistence. Some publishers are against the whole idea of e-book lending, even with DRM. E.g., in the US Random House and Simon & Schuster (two of the big five) don’t support it.

Standards are essential to a successful ecosystem:

  • PDF: paginated final-form content. Now controlled by an ISO-track standardisation group. Therefore an open standard.
  • IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum) developing a similar standard, ‘EPUB’, for ‘liquid’ content. Based on XHTML, CSS, SVG, OpenType — the EPUB file is just a zip file containing these different components.

Adobe ePublishing Solution:

  • Adobe Digital Editions, a new application that supports both of the above standards. Focused on reading, not authoring, so it’s a light download (3MB). It incorporates Flash too — the first fusion of Adobe and Macromedia technology.
  • Authoring tool: InDesign CS3.
  • Hosted content-protection service: ADEPT (coming next month).
  • Broad approach: Cross-platform support, mass-market mobile and dedicated devices.

Demo of ADE: Starts on the ‘library’ screen. It looks nothing like Adobe Reader. Allows you to sort, group and search content. Allows highly composed, image-driven content and two-page layout. Simple panning and zooming of PDF content. Also allows personal annotations. (Shared annotations coming.) Also allows reflowing text to fit screen size using new ‘liquid’ EPUB file format. Showed creation of EPUB e-book file from InDesign file. You can also transform to other XML formats.

(A Q&A session followed in which I didn’t take notes.)

Mike Culver, Web Services Evangelist, Amazon


What is Amazon?

  • Online retail business (over 64 million active customer accounts)
  • Merchant business (sell on as a merchant)
  • Technology business (100s of 1000s of Amazon Associates, >1.1m active seller accounts, >2220k developers use Amazon Web Services)

Mike comes from the technology business.

Web startups have a hard time scaling when they suddenly take off — e.g., YouTube. (He shows some interesting Alexa stats that show Photobucket outpacing Flickr in terms of reach.) Amazon Web Services (AWS) changes all the fixed costs (e.g., CPUs, disks) into variable costs.

Most systems need computing power, storage and messaging (between systems). AWS packages these into different products:

Ecommerce (ECS)

Exposes Amazon’s product data plus a shopping cart. Now in 4th major release. Surprised by high demand, and this made Amazon look more closely at Web Services. For example, is driven by Amazon. There are many vendors that are better at serving niches than Amazon is. This service is free. In fact, there’s commission on referral sales. See also Couchville, which uses the ECS service to provide information about movies (and allows people to buy DVDs).

Storage (S3)

Data storage in Amazon data centres. Data ‘objects’ are automatically duplicated across multiple locations. Supports both SOAP and REST. Can keep data private or make it public. By default, each object is 5GB but they can be chunked to store larger files, and there’s no upper limit on total storage. Now over 5 billion objects stored.

Charges: $0.10 per GB to upload, $0.15 per GB/month, tiered download charges.

Mike then demos an interactive desktop tool that allows him to manage files on S3. He also shows how each of these objects (e.g., pictures) can be made available on the web if they are made public — each one has it’s own URL at With the right DNS changes, you can also make this work with your own domain, even though it’s actually served by Amazon.

The Second Life client application is now downloaded from S3 because they have a lot of users and upgrade it often, so they needed a scalable solution.

Computing (EC2)

This allows similar upscaling (and downscaling) of computing capacity. It provides Linux servers with complete root access. Amazon is responsible for uptime but not backups.

EC2 can take jobs from SQS. He shows an example of an anonymous company whose software automatically monitors the queue length and fires up more servers when the queue gets too long (and vice versa).

$0.10 per ‘wall-clock hour’ (i.e., about $72 a month) per server instance. Each virtual machine looks like a 1.7GB RAM, 160GB disk server.

Mechanical Turk

The “MTurk” allows you to request people to do things — usually small tasks for micropayments — via a Web Services interface.

For example, a UK company called Geospatial uses it to have people annotate images of roads. Also, price comparison sites use the MTurk to check that two products on offer at two different sites really are the same. In both cases, these are very hard programming challenges.

The MTurk also includes an eBay-like reputation system to make sure that ’employers’ behave honestly. You can pay whatever you like for work, but as in any free market, if you pay too little then your tasks will never get done. He also shows the Sheep Market example. The owner got MTurk users to draw sheep for $0.02 each. Then he sells plates of 20 for $20. A more serious example is Casting Words, which does podcast transcriptions by farming the work out via the MTurk.


How many MTurk workers are there? Don’t know.

How do you stop MTurk being used to generate spam? It’s against the terms of use, so Amazon will stop you. Another example is click fraud.

Does Amazon use the MTurk? Yes, they use it for a variety of uses. One is UnSpun, which gives information such as “Best Irish Pubs in the Seattle Area”.

Scientific uses of the MTurk? Scientific translation.

Competitors? No one is doing quite the same thing. For example, other storage options provide higher-level interfaces, not developer-level interfaces.

Ethical implications of the MTurk? Amazon takes 10% – that’s the business model. You need an Amazon account to receive payment, which would eliminate developing country participants who might otherwise be exploited.

Investors have been skeptical about Amazon’s move into infrastructure services? Yes, at first, but more recently they’ve been supportive.


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