Graceful eBook Degradation

New approaches and tools are required to develop and present the highest fidelity content across devices

Remember the old days when print was the only format a publisher had to worry about? Now the minimum output requirements include PDF, mobi and EPUB. But what about the devices used to read those formats? You’ve got to consider eInk displays, mobile phones, tablets and computers.

We’re in the very early innings of the ebook game and our focus is mostly still on quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions. That means the ebook pretty much renders the same way as the print book. Reading devices offer so much horsepower and presentation capabilities yet the vast majority of our content is nothing more than the printed page on a screen. Why?

One of the challenges in producing richer content has to do with certain device limitations. eInk devices like the Kindle and Nook don’t support video or animation, for example, and these are still some of the most popular reading platforms in use. Another example is simple web browsing. Yes, it can be done (painfully so) on some eInk devices but I long for the day when every ebook reading device/app lets you access the web from within the book page and doesn’t require you to launch a separate app.

When you publish an ebook which level of fidelity do you aim for? The richer tablet or the simpler eInk display? In order to keep things simple we’re mostly going with a least common denominator approach: If it renders on the eInk display it will also work on a tablet. The same content simply works across devices but what we really ought to be shooting for is a graceful degradation model where the content adjusts itself to optimize its presentation on each device.

Think about how challenging that is. As I mentioned in a meeting recently, it’s like trying to create a totally immersive, 3D movie and have the same product gracefully degrade for playback on an AM radio station.

I don’t think this is a short-term problem either. eInk might go away at some point but there will always be an assortment of devices with different capabilities that will need to be considered. We’ll always want to take advantage of all the capabilities of the most sophisticated devices while also offering a terrific user experience on the less capable ones.

It’s pretty clear that today’s content creation tools aren’t ready for this challenge. Our authoring and development techniques will also need to change. After all, if a video is well integrated but that video must be removed for certain devices how is the surrounding content altered? We can’t rely on empty boxes and references to elements that no longer exist. Logic will have to be built into the product to dynamically adjust the content based on the device it’s being consumed on.

What do you think? Will publishers acknowledge this opportunity and start looking beyond those quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions? Will new tools and content authoring/development techniques emerge to address this need?

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