Seriously, Another Format? You Must Be Kidding

A Brief Discussion of “Life, the Universe, and Everything,”1 with Some Potentially Useful Information on HTML5, ePub3, and CSS3.

“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” That statement, made by Alexander Graham Bell to his research assistant, was the culmination of the first successful experiment in the development of the technology that would ultimately become the telephone, a device that has truly transformed our world.

Of course, the telephone wasn’t even a telephone to begin with. It began its development cycle as the telegraph, a simple wire-based electrical system used for communication of complex messages. Bell’s success with the invention of the telephone came as a direct result of attempts to improve the telegraph. At the time, the telegraph was an established piece of equipment that had been used successfully for more than 30 years. Surely, many thought that it was pointless to make it anything different from what it was. And yet being able to “talk with electricity” has made the world a much smaller place, enabling global communication and spurring the development of many other products and technologies.

Obsolescence, adjustment, and renewal are necessary parts of the development cycle in nearly every part of the world around us. For things to improve, change must be made. That applies to technologies, products, processes, and even people.

So it is for publishing. In the recent past, most content was in print, on shelves, and accessed by way of a card catalog, and finding it was facilitated by a knowledgeable research librarian. Then came bibliographic databases that dramatically shortened the time required to find targeted information. From there, with the help of machinereadable text markup, huge full-text online databases were developed that could deliver content to a researcher directly. And although print persists, online content stores have become the real knowledge repositories of the world—ever-growing and fed by a continuing flood of new content being created by authors worldwide.

Flash forward to the present, and we find publishers grappling with new markup routines, myriad output devices, and innovative file formats that render content in new and infinitely useful ways. For those of us in publishing, this constant state of innovation presents both crisis and opportunity. Organizations that adopted SGML early on found an eventual need to update workflows to accommodate XML and its more advanced markup capabilities. From there, content models have become ever more complex, incorporating 3-D images, reflowable text and graphics, mathematics markup, embedded audio and video files, mashable data feeds, and more.

Recent developments in publishing technologies are HTML5, ePub3, and CSS3. However, as in the relationship between the telephone and the telegraph, these tools are driven by obsolescence and represent the adjustment and renewal of existing content models. Let’s have a look at each of them briefly.

  • ePub3: a free and open e-book standard created by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). Files have the extension .epub. ePub is designed for reflowing of content; that is, an ePub reader device can optimize text for a particular display size. ePub3 is based on the XML serialization of HTML5 (known as XHTML5) and is intended as a convergence format for adoption by publishers and e-reading device manufacturers. ePub3 supersedes previous ePub versions and the Open eBook (OeB) standard. It includes the following enhancements in a long list of improvements over earlier ePub iterations:
  • HTML5: a markup language and core technology for structuring and presenting content online. The core aims of the fifth revision of the HTML standard have been to improve the language while keeping it easily readable by humans and consistently understood by computers. HTML can accommodate the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) for dynamic data interchange and is ideal for crossplatform mobile applications. Many features of HTML5 have been built to run on low-powered devices, such as smartphones and tablets. HTML5 adds new markup features that are designed to include and handle multimedia and graphical content on the Web without the need to resort to proprietary plugins. The expanded markup model is also useful for enriching the semantic content of documents.
    • Supports both reflowable and fixed layout content.
    • Supports equations formatted as MathML.
    • Allows advanced linking within ePub files.
    • Adds annotation capabilities.
    • Adopts a new display navigation standard.
    • Incorporates content triggers for launching embedded audio and video files.
  • CSS3: Cascading style sheets (CSSs) were developed as a means of creating consistent style information for online content. As adoption of HTML increased in the 1990s, variations in Web browsers made consistency of site appearance difficult; programmers found that they had little control over how Web content was displayed to end users. Unlike previous style languages, such as DSSSL and CSS3: Cascading style sheets (CSSs) were developed as a means of creating consistent style information for online content. As adoption of HTML increased in the 1990s, variations in Web browsers made consistency of site appearance difficult; programmers found that they had little control over how Web content was displayed to end users. Unlike previous style languages, such as DSSSL and FOSI, CSSs allow document style to be influenced by multiple style sheets. One style sheet can inherit or “cascade” properties from another, and this permits a mixture of stylistic preferences that can be controlled by both programmers and users. CSS3 supersedes previous iterations while preserving backward compatibility and is divided into specific definitions called modules. As of June 2012, more than 50 CSS modules were published by the CSS Working Group. Only four have been formally adopted:
    • Media Queries: a CSS3 module that allows content rendering to adapt to such conditions as screen resolution (for example, smartphone versus high-definition screen).
    • Namespaces: a CSS3 module that defines the syntax for using namespaces in CSSs. Namespaces are unique names, identified by URI references, that are used in XML documents as element types and attribute names. Namespaces allow XML documents to use elements and attributes that have the same name but different sources.
    • Selectors Level 3: describes the element selectors used in CSSs and some other technologies. Selectors are used to choose elements in an HTML or XML document to attach particular desired style properties to them. Elements can be selected on the basis of their names, attributes, context, and other aspects.
    • Color: specifies the color-related aspects of CSSs, including transparency and the various notations for the value type.

Publishers are beginning to use HTML5 as an extension of XML-based processes with good success. HTML5 builds on the promise that SGML and XML originally made: create once, repurpose many times. Basically, content flows into the production process and is then tagged in a granular fashion to allow various platforms and devices to read and display it properly. When fully realized, an HTML5 production model should be able to accommodate delivery to the printing press, online platforms, and multiple delivery devices.

ePub3 makes a similar assertion. Deliver your content in fully functional ePub3 format (which can be derived downstream of a properly functioning XML–XHTML process), and it will be useful on all eReading devices that comply with the standard.

CSSs allow publishers to control the display of online content in a variety of browser environments closely and allow end users to customize their content-use experience.

All these technologies will continue to mature and offer additional benefits to both publishers and users of content. Keeping up with critical and useful changes to these and other standards will continue to present both a crisis and an opportunity for publishers, so it is important that publishers remain informed on developments and have the right staff (or suppliers) in place to help them to take advantage of crucial changes. Generally, organizations that make good use of developing standards will outperform their competition, and ones that maintain the status quo will fail.

Here are some specific recommendations for staying ahead of the publishing technology curve:

  1. Plan for obsolescence. Instead of being afraid of changes in technology and process, plan for and embrace them. Assume that what you’re doing now may be obsolete soon. Watch for how things can be done better. Question when change is not occurring regularly; this usually indicates that you are falling behind as your process becomes stale in relation to your competition’s.
  2. Know your content. Highly technical content has a different technology need from medical content. There is no need to incorporate technologies that do not serve the purpose of improving content efficiency, content creation cost, ease of content delivery, or the ease of repurposing for multiple output devices or platforms. Make only the changes that offer direct benefits for content creation or usability.
  3. Retain strong technology staff and suppliers. This is crucial. To achieve expert results, you need experts involved in your process. If your journal is not big enough to hire a large, highly qualified technology staff, seek out the best and most informed suppliers in your space and allow them to challenge your technology comfort zone constantly.
  4. Budget both money and time for experimentation. Set aside a portion of your organization’s substance and staff time for incubating new ideas and projects. Try HTML5, ePub3, and CSS3 in a limited way with either your own staff or your suppliers.
  5. Start small. Don’t go “all in” on new technologies right away. Instead, set up a limited parallel workflow for a popular product that incorporates the use of new technologies, and then measure the results. Have all constituents review the outcome and tell you what works and what doesn’t.
  6. Respond to favorable comments quickly. As you experiment, be prepared to make quick decisions when things go well. That is often the difference between success and failure in the use of new technology. By implementing quickly, you get ahead of the competition and become known as a bellwether in your field of content expertise. Think of the most progressive publishing organizations you know. Their ability to respond quickly to successful shifts in the use of technology is probably at the top of the list of reasons why you look on them favorably.
  7. Rinse and repeat. Listen to your staff, suppliers, and customers. Once you have good information on how changes are affecting your business, adjust processes as necessary and be ready to abandon failed initiatives.

After all, the telephone, that wonderfully simple wire-based electrical communication device, has now been in a constant state of development since it was patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. It has seen thousands of iterations. Huge companies that made good use of the technology grew from nothing.

From that first sentence spoken from the researcher to his assistant, the simple telephone has been transfigured into a highly functional communication and information device that can be used in myriad useful (and entertaining) ways. The concept of progression as it comes to technological change applies equally to the current state of the publishing industry, and the crisis and opportunity that it presents would not be possible without obsolescence, adjustment, and renewal.

It’s time to get started, once again.


  1. Adams, Douglas. Life, the Universe, and Everything (The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy). Ballantine Books, NY. Originally published in the United States by Harmony Books, Crown Publishers, Inc, 1982.

Apr-Jun 2013 • Vol. 36 No. 2 new format 1

Apr-Jun 2013 • Vol. 36 No. 2 new format 2

Apr-Jun 2013 • Vol. 36 No. 2 new format 3