Formats on your PC
With the recent popularity of ebook readers started by the Kindle and the Nook, many people believe you have to have an ebook reader or a tablet to read ebooks. This simply isn't true. While the form factor presented by such devices might make reading ebooks more like reading traditional books, you can certainly read ebooks on a computer if you want to. With the right application a typical computer, be it a Windows based PC, a MAC, or a Linux system, should be able to be used to read virtually anything. The only exception would be any DRM protected content where the owner of the DRM methods does not provide a reader for a particular platform.
File types: TXT, RTF, DOC, PDF, HTML, XML, SXW
Word Document Format
Microsoft Word files are quite simply files written and saved in a proprietary format developed by Microsoft. Fortunately, you don't have to have to buy Microsoft Word in order to read these files anymore. Regardless of whether you are using Windows, Linux, or a Macintosh, you can hop over to the Open Office project. You can download and use Open Office free of charge. It is a free Office Package including a free word processor. It works in Linux, Windows, and MacIntosh.
Rich Text Format
RTF is a text format that preserves special formatting and text types such as bold or italic. Word will actually save its files to RTF, but you don't need Word to read RTF files. In Windows, you can view them in Word Pad which comes free with the Windows Operating System. In Linux you can use many free programs to view them including Open Office.
A txt file is just a plain simple text file. ASCII text files can be read by virtually anything. The bad thing about ASCII text is it doesn't allow the use of any special character types or anything. Because of this, if a book has italics or bold fonts or fonts of different styles or sizes, all that information is lost when it is stored as an ASCII text file. For many books though it is a great format for distributing them and you may often find books in this format. All of the books in the Gutenberg project are in this format for example. There is a wealth of material out there in Ascii text format, more than you could ever read.
The great thing about Adobe Acrobat is that it can preserve virtually any document formatting you can imagine so documents distributed in this format will be displayed exactly as they were intended. Another great thing about this format is that the Adobe reader software is free. The bad thing about Adobe is that it is sometimes difficult to convert it to other formats or get it into a format where you can edit the document yourself. There are readers for portable computers now that can read Adobe files, but the adobe files are often larger than their other counterparts. As memory gets cheaper and cheaper allowing portable devices to have relatively large amounts of memory compared to just a few years ago, this is becoming less of an issue.
Hyper Text Markup Language
HTML is the format used to make the pages you see on the internet. The great thing about HTML is that it can be read by any web browser. So it has the advantage of ASCII text that it can be read on virtually any computer, but unlike ASCII text, it has the ability to keep formatted text like Bold and Italics. It can also even have pictures viewable in the document. In fact, this page that you are reading right now is an HTML document. All this is done with special combinations of characters in a text document that are interpreted by the program that displays it. The document itself contains only standard ascii characters and uses these special combinations to represent any non-ascii characters. Also, many of the programs that are used to convert documents for handheld readers can use HTML as their input format. HTML also supports pictures and links to other parts of the document which allows for a lot of flexibility in creating the document.
Extensible Markup Language
XML is a method of using tags to define structured documents. How these tags are interpreted is dependent on the applications that read or write a particular XML file.
Open Office Format
Open Office will let you save your document to almost any format mentioned on this page. They also let you save to their own format ODT. It is based on the XML standard which lets you create highly formatted documents. Since it works on all the major PC platforms, it would be a great way to distribute ebooks. Of course Word doesn't read ODT documents even though Open Office can read Word's files. I have also noticed the documents saved in this format can be much much smaller than a comparable Word document.
If something works well, and you can buy it, why reinvent the wheel? Using that philosophy, Palm purchased the Peanut Press which had an ebook format usable on the Palm platform. Since that time a noble effort was made to ensure that books with this format can be read on most platforms. Even as new devices came to be, such as the iPad, Ipod Touch, and Android devices, software supporting each platform has been released. That is the only reason I post books in this format here at HANDebooks. You can also get popular best sellers from their website in this format. DRM that locks users into a single platform is not going to help things in the future. It is important that someone who has purchased media can take it with them no matter what hardware device they want to use. eReader also provides a free converter to allow you to create your own documents that you can then read using their reader software. The converter program uses its own special file format call PML. Similar to HTML it uses special codes to represent special character types and image locations in the document. The resulting file only contains standard ASCII characters similar to an HTML file. While you could read it on a PC, it is really not intended for that. Its only purpose for existing is to be transformed into an ebook to be read by the Palm/Peanut reader.
A group was formed to create an open standard format for ebooks. EPUB was the result of their efforts. Almost all modern platforms, with the notable exception of the Kindle, can use this format. The Nook uses a DRM form of this format for their books and most libraries who have eBooks available for lending also use this format. Most Gutenberg project books will also be available in this format, as are many of the ebooks you can find online. It has basically become the standard ebook format.