epub_logoIt’s not often you see two seemingly-unrelated digital technology consortiums come together like chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s cup, but that seems to be what’s in store for the IDPF—the organization responsible for the EPUB standard—and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Publishers Weekly reports that leadership of the two groups are discussing the possibility of unifying the organizations to allow the IDPF to continue developing EPUB and improving web publishing in general as a division of the W3C.

In some ways, it seems like a natural fit for the groups to combine. EPUB is largely based on HTML, after all, and having the development of both standards under one roof could lead to a synergy that’s better for both. We’ve already seen the W3C’s CEO suggest , at an IDPF conference in 2013, that e-books and the open web would probably merge sooner or later. It makes sense that the two groups should themselves merge to make that possible.

One thing that interests me is how the two organizations will hash out their differences over digital rights management. We’ve already seen the IDPF propose a more permissive “lightweight” DRM standard for EPUB that would permit a broader variety of consumer uses for e-books. Meanwhile, the W3C wants to add built-in DRM to the HTML standard where none existed before, to the consternation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It should be interesting to see what comes of this, and whether the nature of e-books and the web will indeed change as a result. Will e-books become even more like web pages, or vice versa? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.


  1. This merger could turn out well. To see why, compare the richeness and complexity of webpages to the bland simplicity of ebooks. The formatting powers of modern HTML need to be brought to epub.

    There are differences that need to be carefully taken into account though:

    1. People scroll to read webpages but page through ebooks. That distinction needs to be taken into account, particularly by designing ereaders and the entire eco-system to intelligently deal with graphics that would otherwise span across pages.

    2. Many webpage adjust intelligently to different browser window sizes and have a different version of their pages for the smaller screens of smartphones. Ereader apps need to do something similar, perhaps creating a way to intelligently adapt an ebook to different-sized screens from a large tablet to a small smartphone. Simply changing the line wrap, which is about all epub does, is not enough.

    3. There’s a wealth of tools for creating webpages fast and efficiently. Those tools need to be adapted for ebooks. No one should have to clutz with HTML and CSS.

    4. This silliness that most readers want to spent their time klutzing with fonts and font sizes needs to end. Most readers want an attractive, easy-to-read book. The tools to do that should be given to the author/publisher not left, willy-nilly, in the hands of readers. And those tools should allow those preparing the book to specify how it looks on various size screens and to specify what a large-font size looks for the vision-impaired.

    To illustrate what that means, consider what happens to a paragraph-long quote in a biography. It needs to be set off in some way. For print and large tablets, insetting the text works well. On a smartphone screen, however, that looks awful. The lines of text are already too short and wrap poorly. Insetting a inset quote makes that worse.

    Those laying out books should be able to specific when something is a set-apart quote. On larger screens that text gets inset. On smaller screens some other way of setting it apart is automatically used, perhaps there’s a thin line to the left or perhaps the background is tinted. What works in a large screen size doesn’t work in a small screen size. Epub needs to take that into account.

    In the early days of HTML, typographers cursed it because the geeks developing it seem to think ugly and exaggerated was good. It took years for HTML to get the tools to display attractively. The same change needs to take place with epub. It not only should allow books to be attractively done and enjoyable to read. It should make it easy to create such books.
    One illustration. Inserting notes into printed text has never been that good. Footnotes clutter up a page. Endnotes are clumsy to use. There’s been an attempt to address that problem with pop-up notes for both Kindles and iBooks.

    But pop-ups are distracting to a reader since they appear over the text. And Apple made matters far worse by creating what must be the most worthless possible pop up. Someone apparently thought that having a huge number for a note, one so huge it takes up most of the pop-up window, along with a lot of whitespace alongside the number was artistic and attractive. It isn’t. It’s ugly and a pain for readers, since it almost invariably means readers have to clumsily scroll down the note to read it. As soon as iBooks came out, book layout professionals were looking for a way to bypass that. (They can’t.) It was that obviously bad. Yet several years have passed and Apple hasn’t fixed that awfulness. And keep in mind the sheer stupidity of that oversized number. Numbers are used in footnotes and endnotes so readers can locate them. They’re not even needed in pop-up windows. They do nothing useful. It’s like putting a buggy whip holder on a car.

    One possibility, not perfect but better in some cases, would adapt the in-line noting ability apps such as InDesign offer to have notes that can be flipped on or off like the pointing arrows on webpages display or hide text. Tap and the note would appear as part of the text on screen. Tap again and it would disappear. That would be perfect for creating a digital version of my Lord of the Rings chronology, Untangling Tolkien. There’s a lot of information I include in small print with each day in the print version, information like the rise and set times of the sun and moon, that doesn’t adapt well to digital. That feature would let users make that information appear and disappear attractively.
    Epub has had the same problem that HTML had in its early years. Geeks, not the most tasteful and artistic group around, drove its development. The result was utter ugliness I remember well. Text was multi-colored and flashing because geeks, reared on flashy video games, thought that was cool. With epub, the result has equally bad although in the opposite direction. Having read little but scifi and fantasy, geeks seem unaware that ebooks need to have the ability to display formatting as complex as a printed book, meaning not just line after line of identical-looking text.

    I own an example, a 8-volume ebook collection of Winston Churchill’s correspondence over his lifetime, starting with notes to mommy he wrote as a kid. That should make for fascinating reading, but I can’t bear to read it. All the text in it looks the same from the details dating the letter, to editorial comments, to the letter itself. I’m left in a frustrating sea of words with no easy way to guide which kind of text I’m reading. The situational awareness is awful.

    Yes, even epub could have handles some of that, although poorly. But the entire epub world is still driven by the ‘gee whiz, I’m reading books on my Palm Pilot’ mindset of long ago. It doesn’t realize that ebooks now need to compete in their appearance with print, that simply putting a book on a digital device and making the text bigger or smaller is no longer enough.

    Those are among the issues that I hope the merged organization will address.

  2. As we contemplate whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing, we should keep in mind that both organizations are consortia of industry stakeholders who normally compete in every other sphere of activity. Thus, what is agreed to is often slow in coming and the lowest common denominator when it comes.
    There are external forces at work that may nudge these sloths along. For the web, there was and still is, the Web Standards Project (see: http://www.webstandards.org). For ePub, there are IDPF members like Apple who deal with unaddressed issues unilaterally. The IDPF really hasn’t addressed footnotes yet so Apple went ahead and used the aside markup to generate popups. More radically, Apple introduced widgets in its proprietary but very ePub like *.ibooks format. Eventually ePub 3 will address this functionality but now they have to deal with the precedent set by Apple. I don’t follow Amazon as closely but they may be also be engaged in the same precedent setting game of fait accompli.

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