Enhanced Opportunites for Publishers via HTML5

Keith FahlgrenBy Keith Fahlgren, Publishing Technology Consultant, Threepress

The launch of the iPad and iBooks and the tremendous stream of one-off demos reimagining publishing have made it extremely difficult to understand what technologies for enriched content are available to publishers today. In particular, I’ve seen a lot of confusion about what HTML5 might actually mean and what specific opportunities it might bring for digital reading.

To try to shed some light on some complicated work, I’ve pieced together a very incomplete introduction to some of the new things that HTML5 and related specifications might bring (remember: they aren’t finished or implemented everywhere).

Seven concrete areas of opportunity:

New semantics
HTML5 adds a bunch of new elements that might help publishers represent their content more clearly.

  • section, article, header, and aside should be very useful wrappers for real-world content.
  • Older web browsers will safely ignore unknown tags, but some ereaders that aren’t based on browsers may exhibit unexpected behavior. Also, typically, semantic tagging alone won’t drive a lot of sales.
HTML5 adds a canvas element, which allows for (really snazzy) complex drawing and animation. Mark Pilgrim’s chapter in Dive into HTML5 offers not only the hairy details but also an example of how embedded HTML5 can change instructional materials (view it in Safari).

  • This might replace some of what we think about when we say ‘Flash’ casually. It might allow for more interactive elements to be included in content.
  • There are no easy-to-use tools that generate canvases — they must be coded by hand (Although it sounds like some basic tools are close).
HTML5 adds a video element, which offers the first standards-based way to embed video in a web page. Similarly, an audio element has been added.

  • Seamlessly embeddable video may offer new ways of assembling and delivering multimedia content.
  • Licensing for the actual encodings of the video content (the way that they’re compressed and stored) is unbelievably messed up and getting worse.
A related set of updates to the Cascading Style Sheets specifications, CSS3, is often discussed alongside HTML5.

  • CSS3 may bring a range of delightful updates for content creators, from better support for font-faces on the web to animations and transitions that may (along with canvas) allow alternatives to Flash for flashy stuff.
  • Licensing solutions for fonts on the web are still in-progress. Authoring tools non-existent; support not complete across browsers.
Updates to a JavaScript API alongside HTML5 allow for users to reveal their physical location.

  • There are probably a lot of opportunities to connect reading, readers, booksellers, and where people actually are.
  • Very little support on desktops or more basic phones.
Offline Applications
A set of specifications related to HTML5 make it possible to create web applications that run without an active internet connection.

  • Offline web applications can offer many of the features that standalone iPhone and Android Apps have and do not have to go through any App Store. They may also be more portable, as they don’t have to have a separate set of software for each platform. [Explicitly: This is the part of HTML5 that allows Ibis Reader to behave just like a normal App on iPhones, iPads, and Android phones.]
  • Offline web applications are typically slower than standalone apps, although this will become less important as faster devices like the iPad become more common. Support on platforms is not uniform; Firefox doesn’t seem interested in supporting the current database specification.
Another related specification that provides way of adding machine-readable annotations to content.

  • One use of microdata might be to embed content licensing and other details inside pages.
  • Yawn. Some of these features have been around in microformats for years and haven’t really taken off, although this could be very important for specialized content with regularly-structured content (cookbooks would be an easy example).

Sadly, HTML5 support (on any of the above) in Internet Explorer (even the unreleased IE9) is woefully incomplete and IE is still the most ubiquitous browser. Look at the number of red Xs in the right-hand columns of this support chart: http://www.findmebyip.com/litmus/

Does the above inspire you to try out some of these new opportunities now that you can pierce some of the HTML5 hype?

Please let us know, as we’re actively seeking publishers and authors interested in innovating and experimenting with actual content to develop short- or long-form examples that take avantage of these new possibilities for enthralling, educating, and entertaining readers.

This post was originally published on the ThreePress blog, and has been reprinted with Mr. Fahlgren’s permission.

Keith Fahlgren is a Publishing Technology Consultant with Threepress. He specializes in helping publishers create effective and engaging digital content and is the co-developer (with Liza Daly) of the first HTML5 ebook platform, Ibis Reader™. His contributions to the digital publishing ecosystem include developing the ePub output for the open-source DocBook-XSL Stylesheets and spearheading the development of OPDS Catalogs, an attempt to make web-accessible ebooks more discoverable as part of the BookServer project. Keith has spoken widely and was formerly at O’Reilly Media, where he helped design and implement many of their digital publishing workflows.


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