Are we over-thinking EPUB?

The future of the book is inherently linked to the browser

One common misnomer I have come across is that EPUB3 is ‘a technology’ – something in and of itself. I believe this category mistake is largely a result of the the IDPF’s (the organisation that maintains EPUB3) success in promoting EPUB as a ‘standalone’ technology to the publishing world.

While all content is trending towards CSS and JavaScript, the core technologies of the browser, it seems a little weird to position EPUB as being a collection of things that do something different from what browsers do. The nuance might not be clear so here goes…

EPUB is essentially a collection of standards wrapped up inside a zip file with a few extra bits that ‘bind’ the content together. The extra bits give metadata and information needed for books including a table of contents, etc. Most of the standards wrapped up by this zip file are standards made for, or predominantly made for, browsers. The line is blurry of course. Is HTML 5 a browser technology? No, it is a standard that could be implemented by anything. But lets face it…browsers came into existence to render HTML and kind of became the name for that sort of technology.

Add into the mix CSS, used to style webpages displayed in browsers, and JavaScript, used to program webpages through browsers – browsers became software capable of all kinds of things. At the same time some things became capable of working with these technologies. It is possible, for example, to manipulate HTML using tools that are not browsers. You can, for example, use programming languages for creating and interpreting HTML for all sorts of reasons (like file conversion) without the content ever seeing a browser in its lifetime.

However, when does a tool share so much functionality with a browser that you just call it a browser? When does a duck become a duck?

I believe that any technology that does all that EPUB requires it to do is a browser.

EPUB requires HTML, CSS, bitmap support, MathML support, vector graphic support, JavaScript, etc., etc., etc.

All of this stuff is just common browser stuff. If you need to read an EPUB and display it, the technology you are using is a browser. Its not an ‘ereader software’, or ‘ereader’, its a browser and let’s call it that.

If it has feathers and quacks, it’s a duck.

Why is this mild semantic re-orientation important? Well it’s important because the very foundation of the discussion about what EPUB should be is based on the assumption that EPUB is something of itself. That starts an entirely different discussion than just simply stating that browsers are the things that read EPUBs.

Case in point is an interesting statement from Bill McCoy from the IDPF (I have great respect for both Bill and the IDPF) that the addition of JavaScript to EPUB3 was a controversial decision (see comments here). Extremely interesting. If EPUB was discussed as being something to feed browsers content you would imagine that JavaScript would be the first on the list to be included. Why not? JavaScript is already there on a platter in browsers and in a very mature state – you would be foolish to ignore it and foolish not to include it as a supported content type.

I don’t mean to hold up this apparent controversy as anything other than an indicator of an interesting problem. We are pretending we are dealing with something special – EPUB – and weirdly this is limiting our understanding of what we are actually working with – browsers.

The future of the book is inherently linked to the browser. Discussion of EPUB as a technology somehow ‘separate’ from browsers is not helping us see that very rich and quite unbelievable future, one that is entirely different to what is in front of us now. If we see EPUB as something other than a subset browser functionality we are not seeing the present or the future clearly.

I’m not sure what is holding us back from this way of seeing things. It could be that we somehow consider the browser too mundane to be the future of the book. It could be that the browser is too scary as it gestures strongly in the direction of ‘the web’ and content out ‘in the wild’. It could be that all of this triggers challenges we don’t want to consider – challenges to current business models, the status value of the book, professional pride, roles, and infrastructure. Whatever it is, I am sure it’s there; legacy ideas that prevent us from understanding what is actually going on, from understanding that an EPUB is nothing special.

We could perhaps clarify this by calling EPUB a standard for ‘portable websites’ and stop talking about books altogether. It would be interesting to spend a lunch hour thinking about that simple statement and how it would affect what you do.

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