I'm dividing the field up into two categories (and at least two posts): Those that require their own proprietary file format, and those that will display any non-protected ePub. Some of the latter will also display either their own or other people's proprietary formats, but the thing I'm interested in is that they display the industry standard ePub format. For some reason (probably because it is readily available from Project Gutenberg as a free eBook and has great illustrations) for the past ten years Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been used as a sample for showing eBook layout. So since it is available in nearly every reading format, I've chosen it as the sample to show.
Category 1: Proprietary formats
Google Books, scanned format
Google has launched a project to scan all the books that exist in the world. This has been met with some controversy, but I'm not going to engage in it. I simply want to point your attention to the 1898 edition on the site as a reference point. I am also not going to pay attention to the text, epub, or pdf versions stored by Google. This is a great picture of what the printed book actually looks like. You can scroll through the pages and read the book just as if it was the paper book on your computer screen. Google has converted the images to searchable text, so if you want to find a specific reference you can. The only downside to this version of the book is that it doesn't have a pretty, page-turning interface (you scroll infinitely down the screen) and the type is a bit fuzzy since it is a scanned bit-map. Further, if your screen is not large, you can't see the whole page and you have to scroll to see it all or change the magnification to make it fit, which might make the type too small to read. But it is a picture of the book as The MacMillan Company printed it in 1898. There is a lot that could be said about this book (you should definitely read the preface!) but I will leave this as a reference point for now.
If The MacMillan Company had been setting the type for this edition in Adobe InDesign as many books are set today, we would expect that the PDF would look exactly like the paper version that was printed from it. In fact, the type would be much clearer than the scanned version as you can see in this facscimile that I created of just this page. I did not tinker with the typesetting, so you can see that InDesign added some appropriate hyphens and that the PDF is actually typographically superior to the scan. But in 1898 the publishers were working with bits of lead and tin spacers, not with computer algorithms for justifying the type. While PDF preserves the exact look and feel of the printed version, it encounters much the same problems as the scanned version. The type is much cleaner, but the page size and layout are static, so you must either reduce the size to fit on the screen or scroll through the page. Adobe Reader has three features that allow you to manipulate the image for better reading. First, if viewed in single page mode, you can turn the pages without the feeling that you are scrolling endlessly. Second, you can actually rotate the reader on your screen so that on a laptop computer you can hold it sideways and have a viewing experience that is more booklike. Third, you can choose to "Reflow" the text on your screen if it is smaller, and it will fit the text to the width of your screen. I does, of course drop the page formatting. Finally, most eBooks can be read aloud in PDF. The voicing is a little mechanical, but it is a great boon for visually impaired readers.
Still around after nearly ten years, the Microsoft Reader offers one of the better reading experiences available. It's proprietary format (.LIT) has had its ups and downs over this time period, not the least of which was the decision by DRM provider Overdrive to stop supporting the DRM on books at Fictionwise. I lost the license to several books I had purchased. Microsoft Reader has 60,000 volumes in its library and adds a few each week. It is adaptive to page size and re-lays-out to match your screen size. It is also available on Ultramobile PCs and Windows Mobile devices. The clear-type rendering with ability to change type-size to match your personal preferences help to make the reading experience a good one. It has text to speech capability and annotations. If it had a million volumes in its library it would still be a top pick.
Amazon has chosen to use a proprietary format for its Kindle device and that goes for the PC screen version as well. Follow the link above if you want to download this because you can search on the Amazon site for a long time without finding it. You'll also have to search through about 50 editions of Alice before you find one that compares to the versions shown on all the other devices. And it's not a free one. This is the only one that I found that had a reasonable rendition of the illustrations by John Tenniel in the book, but is not the MacMillan 1898 version. I was, however, beginning to despair at what was available on Kindle after I'd downloaded all the free versions and bought two paid versions. The Kindle for PC application has a couple of nice features, including the ability to resize the window to any size and have the text reflow and the images scale. You can manually set the type-size and you can set the line length so that you aren't bouncing across the entire width of your computer screen to read the text. There is no text to speech.
I really can't say too much about the Rocket eBook reader from NuvoMedia, which was acquired by Gemstar in 2000. The device is one of the pioneering eBook readers of the industry and is still being sold by eBookwise and as of 2007 is supported by eBook Technologies, Inc. The PC screen reader will allow you to download and view non-protected material from the sites, but it has no ability to view protected content that is assigned specifically to the device. You can downloade the PC eRocket Reader from eBookMall.
Those are the proprietary formats that I'm going to look at today. Yes, Mobipocket, Sony, and Barnes & Noble all have proprietary formats, but you can also read standard ePub files on them, so I'll include them in my next installment.