Friday, December 24, 2010

The Prospects for EPUB Version 3

As we know, the EPUB standard is being revised to version 3. It's on a fast track (approval expected Q3 2011) and the 14 point charter is ambitious. In addition to danger, change also presents opportunity.

Apple is among those who have an interest in shaping that change and they have been overtly busy with the for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch as well as the iBookstore that supports that app. Apple has also been busy in the background. Among the many things that Apple is doing that are just out of view for most of the general public is what I believe can only be characterized as a concerted effort to influence the evolution of version three of the EPUB standard.

Although Apple claims to follow the EPUB standard, they have recently introduced features supported in the iBooks app that do not conform to the current standard. Conforming EPUB files play just fine in iBooks but these new, super, EPUBs do things in iBooks that haven't been possible before, especially on mobile devices.

Using the HTML 5 [video] and [audio] tag was the first, simple but dramatic move. This has been followed by other features that require rather sophisticated Javascript coding such as the recent implementation of "fully illustrated books" in iBooks 1.2 that open graphic and tabular information in a new window that overrides the conventional ePub "flowed" text format in favor of full-screen display, even in landscape mode.

Deconstructing these super ePub files reveals important insights into both the iBooks app and Apple's EPUB strategy. Standard ePub files are but Zip archives containing text and image files. Those contained files evidence a striking similarity with the code of the web. Thus, eReaders are akin to web browsers, albeit very specialized ones. Apple has simply added Javascript and new HTML 5 constructs to the CSS, XHTML and so on found in conventional ePub files and interpreted by conventional eReaders. Rather than web-like, Apple's ePub files are web files, period. Similarly, the iBooks app is more of a modern HTML 5 web browser than an ePub eBook reader.

It has been
pointed out that Apple isn't currently sharing how-to information on these techniques with medium to small publishers and self-publishers. I suspect that there's more that's not being shared. It may well be that Apple isn't yet sharing the tools to easily implement these features except with the chosen few. Why do I think that? Here is why:

Apple developers have access to tools and documentation that others do not. One of the tools recently released to Apple developers is the iAd Producer application. It looks like this:

What iAd Producer does is provide one with a drag and drop UI to assemble an interactive, animated display, an iAd. This iAd is actually an HTML 5 mini-web site. That is, a folder containing HTML, CSS, images, media and Javascript that any modern web browser will display properly because it is standards-based. This tool is only available to Apple developers.

Might there be a similar tool that is only available to the larger publishers? I don't know for sure but confirmation of the existence of such a tool would be unsurprising to me. It would be trivial. I think, to adapt what we see as iAd developer to an application that could be called iBook Developer. Nowadays, web and mobile technology are all converging toward HTML 5.

So, why is Apple out in front on this? Alan Kay, former Apple Fellow, said it this way in 1971: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." By putting out living examples of EPUB that human readers respond positively to, Apple is inventing the future. It is, thereby, also influencing the development of this key standard. Those who are working on the standard simply cannot ignore these events.

Apple is engaged in a very smart campaign that will benefit all those who create and read digital books as well as benefit Apple. Yet another example of "doing well by doing good."

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