Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
NOTE: The following represents personal opinion, not that of IDPF or W3C.
A self-appointed “Save the IDPF, Save EPUB” committee has recently formed to publicly attack the IDPF/W3C combination plan and announce a campaign of its own with the goal “to keep the IDPF going as a standalone trade organization.” This group sees the combination as a “threat to the long-term health of the ebook industry.”
Their communications contain significant misinformation about IDPF and our plan to combine with W3C (IDPF sets the record straight here). But the concerns they raise about the future of EPUB within W3C underscore EPUB’s critical role in today’s ebook value chain. While IDPF is not a book industry only organization, and EPUB is not just an ebook format, I think it’s useful to examine the question of what the combination will mean specifically for the book industry.
EPUB will be in the mainstream, not a silo
The primary motivation to combine IDPF with W3C now was to ensure that EPUB’s future will be well-integrated with, and in the mainstream of, the overall Open Web Platform (on which EPUB is fundamentally based). The world needs an accessible, mobile-ready portable document format, not one stuck with a paper-replica model. EPUB has successfully delivered on this but has not yet been widely adopted across all parts of publishing. Meanwhile, W3C has been working for more than two years on a concept of “Portable Web Publications” and continues to be supportive of enhancing publishing features throughout the Open Web Platform.
The history of IT shows that the alternative to convergence, when the standards you are built on are evolving to support similar features to your solution, is irrelevance. The mobile industry discovered this with WAP, which was based on HTML. Instead of jumping on HTML5 early, the mobile Internet industry kept pouring resources into promoting a separate WAP profile of HTML. It ended up a dead end and the investments in WAP were a total loss. Many mobile Internet vendors were disrupted by other providers who got on the HTML5 bandwagon earlier.
EPUB has significant adoption today, just as WAP did in the early 2000s. And the EPUB community has already paid the price to rebase EPUB3 onto HTML5 and other modern Web Standards. But the tech industry moves quickly, and EPUB could easily be sidelined and superseded. That won’t happen if we make EPUB itself the center of gravity for the future work on publishing at W3C.
Book publishing will be in the vanguard of the future of publishing
The ultimate future of digital reading and digital content isn’t limited to ebooks that are skeuomorphic digitized equivalents of print editions. If the book publishing industry joins into the mainstream of development in the Open Web Platform, with the format that it instigated, EPUB, taking a front and center role in the future of the Web for publishing, book publishing is likely to grow and thrive through this engagement and leadership.
If, on the other hand, book publishing withdraws back into a narrow specialized-format silo, that will only magnify the risks posed as digital convergence brings together app developers, game developers, video producers, and other content creators, with the book industry on the sidelines. The book industry needs to engage fully in the development of the future of publishing, not stay on the sidelines and watch others figure it out.
We’ll have the same people doing the same work, but with more resources, a bigger megaphone, and better coordination
A standards group is fundamentally not about the legal structure or acronym of an organization, but about the community of people who choose to come together to develop open standards, the organizations that provide resources and adopt the standards, and the work that’s getting done. In the combination of IDPF with W3C, that’s not going to change: the co-chairs of the IDPF EPUB Working Group and the existing W3C Digital Publishing Interest Group are already the same people; IDPF Board members will be the initial members of the W3C Publishing Business Group Steering Committee; and as the initial “Publishing Champion” at W3C I expect to be doing pretty much the same work as I have been doing as the .
The people coming together in community matter, much more than the names attached to their roles. There should soon be a few more people sitting at our metaphorical table, which is exactly what’s needed to ensure that EPUB and other publishing features for the Open Web Platform are widely and consistently adopted across the entire publishing industry.
The biggest difference will be that in W3C the “Publishing Champion” won’t be a sole employee, but part of a 70-employee organization with significant staff resources to draw on, a global presence, and a world-famous brand and director. Our ability to promote EPUB and publishing features for the Web will be significantly higher with this “bully pulpit.”
As well, there are many critical issues for EPUB, such as accessibility, privacy, security and internationalization that are also critical for many other standards. W3C has developed technical expertise and processes for specification review in these and other “horizontal” areas that EPUB development will now be able to more effectively draw on and contribute to.
This is in addition to being part of the same organization that develops HTML5, CSS, SVG, XML, SMIL, and the dozens of other W3C standards upon which EPUB is already inherently based. Our ability to coordinate with these building-block standards, and ensure that they continue to evolve to meet publishing community requirements, will be significantly enhanced by being within W3C rather than external.
EPUB will be free and open for everyone to use
Our community has been lucky that EPUB has been free to use, as IDPF’s patent policy is relatively weak and archaic by modern norms for open standards. The combination will enable future EPUB development to move to W3C’s royalty-free model and provide a stronger guarantee that EPUB, and other Web Platform features that may build on EPUB elements, will be free for everyone to use. This is further elaborated here.
The bottom line: Building a bigger community and a stronger EPUB will propel the book industry forward
I’m honored to have been involved in IDPF for more than a decade in various capacities, and I can see and sympathize with the genuine passion people have for this organization and its work. Our duty, though, is to our mission and community, not the persistence of the organization itself. What our community really needs to most effectively advance that mission is a free and open EPUB that is fully and consistently adopted everywhere, and publishing features front and center in the overall Web Platform.
That’s as true for the book industry as for the broader publishing industry. The combination with W3C is thus a logical next step for our community’s continued growth and success. I’m delighted that the IDPF Board and membership have had the courage to take that step, and that I will have an opportunity to continue to contribute.
W3C’s leadership is fully committed to a bright future for EPUB and for publishing features for the overall Web Platform, and so am I, but we’ll need your continued involvement and support to make it happen. Let’s get to work.
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