Picture of Håkon Wium LieToday on CNET, Opera’s CTO Håkon Wium Lie (portrait at right) critically looks at both Microsoft’s Office Open XML and the Open Document Format. He describes both as essentially “memory dumps with angle brackets.” Instead, he believes that the better way is to build upon the long-universal standards of XHTML and CSS.

To demonstrate this, he and co-author Bert Bos wrote a book (published by Addison-Wesley Professional) entirely mastered in XHTML and CSS3, using the powerful Prince application for direct conversion of the master to PDF for the print book edition.

An example chapter from their book is available online: one view optimized for online reading, and one view optimized for online printing. Both versions are derived from essentially the same XHTML document as used in the high-quality Prince-generated print version, showing the flexibility of this approach.

(Also look at this beautifully styled online article written by Bert and Håkon.)

The future of e-books?

The ramifications to the future of the digital publication industry (including e-books) are significant. The reason is that this approach begins to merge the two worlds of online reading using web browsers with the traditional world of fixed-page formats primarily intended for print. It is now possible to reach both worlds from the same XML-based source because of the new CSS3 properties.

And before someone brings up the “Tower of eBabel,” this is exactly the road already taken by both IDPF’s Open eBook Publication Structure (OEBPS) and the similar OpenReader Format. Both of these compatible e-book formats take the XHTML+CSS approach advocated by Håkon Lie. The only difference is that both of these formats add a special document (OEBPS “Package” and OpenReader “Binder”) to enable certain useful e-book features (including some important for accessibility) which are otherwise kludgy to enable using the bare-bones XHTML web content approach.

In essence, both OEBPS and OpenReader can be described as “turbocharged XHTML+CSS.” They thus fit into Håkon’s vision.

The last piece just fell into place: the Generalized Container Format

Kangaroo with a joeyThe IDPF OEBPS Container Format (IDPF/OCF) was released last September to define a portable container to conveniently distribute OEBPS Publications as e-books. The recently announced draft Generalized Container Format (GCF) builds upon and generalizes the excellent foundation established by IDPF/OCF. We now have an e-book optimized means to distribute e-books formatted as web content (XHTML+CSS) for use by web browsers. Because GCF is ZIP-based, it will be almost trivial for most web browsers on most platforms to support it.

Certainly, OEBPS and OpenReader enable a superior e-book reading experience compared to ordinary web content, but the release of the first OEBPS/OpenReader capable readers are still a few months off (OSoft’s interactivity-capable dotReader and Adobe’s Digital Editions), while standards-capable web browsers are ubiquitous, on almost every handheld (including cellphone), laptop, and desktop computing device in the world.

This suggests an intriguing step-by-step strategy to topple the Tower of eBabel: start off with bare (X)HTML+CSS contained and distributed in GCF. Then naturally evolve web browsers (in addition to the specialized readers like dotReader) to support the turbocharged OEBPS/OpenReader formats. Current web browsers like Opera and Firefox could support (anytime they want) the OEBPS/OpenReader formats with pretty much the same quality of presentation planned by Adobe’s Digital Editions — they are tantalizingly close!

We live in interesting times.

The author of this article, Jon Noring, is VP of Development for DigitalPulp Publishing.