Is HTML the solution for digital reading?

On: March 3, 2013
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About Sebastiaan Andeweg


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As you may have noticed, we live in quite an interesting time regarding publishing. As the digital revolution evolves, new publishing forms are coming up. At this point we can not yet say which format we will be using for publishing over ten or twenty years. New publishing formats are rising as well: in search for new standards, every format has a chance of becoming it.

At this moment, ePub is doing a great job in becoming the standard for e-books. Other types of publishing, such as journalism, are more likely to use HTML websites and mobile apps. A Dutch example of a news medium that uses a native app is the television broadcaster NOS. NOS uses an app for both Android and iOS, which provides a list of recent articles, as well as video’s, that are also published on their website. Another example is the Dutch newspaper NRC, who launched the iPad-only app NRC Reader. In this app subscribed users get eight articles a day from the original newspaper, that aren’t published on the NRC website.

But apps are also used for more bookish publications. A few Dutch publishers have experimented with publishing novels as e-books in app-format. Examples of these are Alles ruikt naar chocola by Sidney Volmer and Gelukkig zijn we machteloos by Ivo Victoria, both published for iPad by Anthos. Those apps contain the text of the paper novel, as well as movies of the authors reading the text and other extra’s like music files that where mentioned in the novel and short stories that aren’t in the paper version.

But is it really necessary to create a native app to publish these novels? Not for the novel itself. The given examples are enriched with extra’s to make use of the unique capabilities of the tablet, but those remain extra’s: they don’t belong to the text itself. Publisher Jason Pontin says that native apps are not necessary for publishing text. By running a game or a service like Facebook, one wants to take advantage of the device’s CPU in order to render the service. But in case of text and photo’s, sometimes with a movie, the web browser does a great job. Thus, HTML is the future of publishing, Pontin says among others.

The advantage of HTML is that it’s not tethered to any service, like Amazon’s Kindle-formats. Also, HTML is already a standard: almost all devices can read it. By leaving the pages on a web server, it’s also easy to have your content up to date. An ePub, once downloaded, can not be automatically updated. In some environments, such as Apple’s iBook Store, the reading application takes care of the updates in ePub: when there is a new file, the application will download it right away. Many e-readers, however, have not such an option.

But that last point isn’t really the problem of ePub, it’s the problem of connectivity. A HTML file can also be loaded onto a device that is not connected to the internet. For keeping your HTML files up to date you still need that connection to the server. The only difference is that we’re used to HTML as a format that is downloaded for just one reading session. In a world with always connected devices and everlasting bandwidth, HTML reading could be an option, but unfortunately that’s not the case right now.

Another problem of a server connected reading model, is that the publisher should keep the files of the publication up to date, at all time. An advantage of HTML is that you can style your publications yourself, but the styling has to be kept up to date, so that it matches todays aesthetic and technical standards. A reader reading an old book, will forgive the publisher on style, since he has no options to update it. A HTML page, however, can be updated and so it has to.

The paper book is a very fixed form, as Florian Cramer points out. You can always pick up and read it: the technology to access a paper book will never be outdated, it is just there. In that way, it stands opposite to the web, where every page is created when asked for and therefore changes a lot. Thus HTML, as part of the web, is not really a useful format for preserving texts, as the electronic equivalent of a book. For texts that we want to preserve we should take another format with less maintenance work.

An offline HTML file could also be used for preserving data, but for that purpose, ePub is a more efficient format. The ePub-format contains very clean HTML, in a very basic way that does not require much maintenance. Also, the compression of ePub makes it a better choice for offline storage and reading.

So, let’s use online HTML for reading the e-news and ePub for reading the e-books.

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