Alex Lite (version 2.0)

This posting describes Alex Lite (version 2.0) — a freely available, standards-compliant distribution of electronic texts and ebooks.

Alex LIte browser version
Alex Lite in a browser
Alex Lite webapp
Alex Lite on a mobile

A few years ago I created the first version of Alex Lite. Its primary purpose was to: 1) explore and demonstrate how to transform a particular flavor of XML (TEI) into a number of ebook formats, and 2) distribute the result on a CD-ROM. The process was successful. I learned a lot of about XSLT — the primary tool for doing this sort of work.

Since then two new developments have occurred. First, a “standard” ebook format has emerged — ePub. Based on XHTML, this standard specifies packaging up numerous XML files into a specialized ZIP archive. Software is intended to uncompress the file and display the result. Second, mobile devices have become more prevalent. Think “smart phones” and iPads. These two things have been combined to generate an emerging ebook market. Consequently, I decided to see how easy it would be to transform my TEI files into ePub files, make them available on the Web as well as a CD-ROM, and finally implement a “Webapp” for using the whole thing.

Alex Lite (version 2.0) is the result. There you will find a rudimentary Web browser-based “catalogue” of electronic texts. Browsable by authors and titles (no search), a person can read as many as eigthy classic writings in the forms of HTML, PDF, and ePub files. Using just about any mobile device, a person should be able to use a differnt interface to the collection with all of the functionality of the original. The only difference is the form factor, and thus the graphic design.

The entire Alex Lite distribution is designed to be given away and used as a stand-alone “library”. Download the .zip file. Uncompress it (about 116 MB). Optionally save the result on your Web server. Open the distribution’s index.html file with your browser or mobile. Done. Everything is included. Supporting files. HTML files. ePub files. PDF’s. Since all the files have been run through validators, a CD of Alex Lite should be readable for quite some time. Give away copies to your friends and relatives. Alex Lite makes a great gift.

Computers and their networks are extremely fragile. If they were to break, then access to much of world’s current information would suddently become inaccessible. Creating copies of content, like Alex Lite, are a sort of insurance against this catastrophe. Marking-up content in forms like TEI make it realatively easy to migrate ideas forward. TEI is just the information, not display nor container. Using XSLT it is possible to create different containers and different displays. Having copies of content locally enables a person to control their own destiny. Linking to content only creates maintenance nightmares.

Alex Lite is a fun little hack. Share it with your friends, and use it to evolve your definition of a library.

My first ePub file

I made available my first ePub file today.

screen shot
Screen shot

EPub is the current de facto standard file format for ebook readers. After a bit of reading, the format is not too difficult since all the files are plain-text XML files or images. The various metadata files are ePub-specific XML. The content is XHTML. The graphics can be in any number of formats. The whole lot is compressed into a single file using the zip “standard”, and suffixed with a .epub extension.

Since much of my content has been previously saved as TEI files, the process of converting my content into ePub is straight-forward. Use XPath to extract metadata. Use XSLT to transform the TEI to XHTML. Zip up the whole thing and make it available on the Web. I have found the difficult part to be the images. It is hard to figure out where one’s images are saved and then incorporate them into the ePub file. I will have to be a bit more standard with my image locations in the future and/or I will need to do a bit of a retrospective conversion process. (I probably will go the second route. Crazy.)

Loading my ePub into Firefox’s EPUBReader worked just fine. The whole thing rendered pretty well in Stanza too. More importantly, it validated against a Java-based tool called epubcheck. Whew!

While I cogitate how to convert my content, you can download my first ePub file as well as the beginnings of my ePub creation script.


P.S. I think the Apple iPad is going to have a significant impact on digital reading in the very near future. I’m preparing.