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Inventive Labs: Web Problem Solvers

My long, good-natured article about EPUB 2.1, part 3 of 3 [24062010]

Lurking solicitously on the periphery of this entire discussion is the Apple iOS App Store. The great surviving print institutions have been loudly prophesying their salvation in it. You can understand how EPUB advocates might find that risible.

I don’t think many people actually have grand delusions that EPUB will be an open standard for portable mobile applications, even just for ‘interactive print’ applications (which is an unstable distinction in any case). But it does seem that EPUB finds itself curiously in competition with the iOS SDK, and some parts of the Working Group charter suggest that EPUB’s spoiling for a fight.

It would be a spectacularly bad idea if cudgels were taken up. This fight is for HTML5, not EPUB, and HTML5 already has a fairly sane packaging format. EPUB should eventually incorporate HTML5, just because it offers greater longevity than XHTML 1.1, but it should return to the idea of packaging actual books, first and foremost. There’s a real need for an ebook specification, compact and laser-focused, and I don’t believe we have anything like that yet.

A dire warning

So my dire warning pertains to the expansive view of EPUB, the view that sees EPUB as the vehicle for the digital future of everything that once rolled off a printing press. To do that drags the whole industry of publishing into an area where they lack expertise, and gives them shoddy tools.

What must happen is that certain sectors of publishing — including some newspapers, magazines, travel guide publishers, technical publishers and so on — must realise that they’re no longer firmly in the publishing game. Today they are software houses, with vital and precious content wings. If they keep making applications-as-books, they’ll just get trampled by real applications (web or closed).

The rest of the publishing industry is engaged in a robust tussle over a finite resource: people’s sustained attention. Books once presided over the entire supply, but (for some time now) the supply is being eroded from several angles: less leisure time, informational databases, movies and television, mainstream gaming, of course the Internet.

For these publishers, the ones that are not software houses in chrysalis, it’s absurd to compete by trying to become their competitors. If you show an interactive novel to a nine year old, she will tell you it’s a pretty crappy computer game. No-one, really, I promise you, is going to prefer a Vook to Youtube. The only sensible thing for these publishers to do is to carry the strength of their convictions and acknowledge the weight of their expertise: which is in the field of picking, refining and publishing books.

These publishers need a specification that makes the reading of ebooks — things for which their very best form is a book — as pleasurable as it can be. In order for that spec to be useful to them and their reading audience, it must declare some things out of scope.

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