The new typesetting engine blueprint is right here in front of us
With the onward march towards the Browser Typesetting Engine, not an invention but a combination of technologies with some improvements (much like Gutenberg’s press) it’s interesting to think what that would mean for print production. Although there are various perspectives on how the printing press changed society and they mostly reflect on the mass production of books, and while the first great demonstration involved a book (The Gutenberg Bible), the invention itself was really about automating the printing process. It effected all paper products that were formerly inscribed by hand and it brought in new print product innovations (no not just Hallmark birthday cards but also new ways of assembling and organising information).
The press affected not just the book but print. With browsers able to produce print ready PDF and the technology arriving to output PDF from the browser that directly corresponds with what you see in the browser window we are entering the new phase of print (and book) production. Networked in-browser design. We are not talking here of emulated template-like design but the 1:1 design process you experience with software like Scribus and InDesign.
The evolution of CSS
CSS Regions allow text to flow from one page element to another. That means you can flow text from one box to another box, which is what is leveraged in the BookJS technology I wrote about here. This feature was included in Webkit by the Romanian development team working for Adobe. It appears that Adobe has seen the writing on the wall for Desktop Publishing although they might not be singing that song too loudly considering most of their business comes out of that market. Their primary (public facing) reason for including CSS Regions and other features in Webkit is to support their new product Adobe Edge. Adobe Edge uses, according to the website, Webkit as a ‘design surface’.
A moment of respect please for the Adobe team for contributing these features to Webkit. Also don’t forget in that moment to also reflect quietly on Konquerer (specifically KHTML), the ‘little open source project’ borne out of the Linux Desktop KDE which grew into Webkit. It’s an astonishing success story for Open Source and possibly in the medium term a more significant contribution to our world than Open Source kernels (I’m sure that statement will get a few bites).
”HTML-based design surface’ is about as close to a carefully constructed non-market-cannibalising euphemism as I would care to imagine. Adobe Edge is in-browser design in action produced by one of the world’s leading print technology providers but the role of the browser in this technology is not the biggest noise being made at its release. Edge is ‘all about’ *adaptive design* but in reality it’s about the new role of the browser as a ‘target agnostic’ (paper, device, webpage, whatever – it’s all the same) typesetting engine.
A consortium, not an individual company
However we should not rely on Adobe for these advances. It is about time a real consortium focused on Open Source and Standards started paying for these developments as they are critical to the print and publishing industries and for anyone else wanting to design for devices and/or paper. That’s pretty much everyone.
Gutenberg died relatively poor because someone else took his idea and cornered the market. Imagine if he put all the design documents out there for the printing press and said ‘go to it.’ Knowing what you know now would you get involved and help build the printing press? If the answer is no I deeply respect your honesty. But that’s where we are now with CSS standards like regions, exclusions, and the page-generated content module. The blueprints are there for the new typesetting engine, right there out in the open. The print and publishing industries should take that opportunity and make their next future.
The design of books and paper products enters a networked environment
I mentioned in an earlier post that the movable type of Gutenberg’s time has become realtime, in a very real sense each book is typeset as we read it. Content is dynamically re-flowed for each device depending on display dimensions and individualized settings. Since ebooks are webpages, browsers have come to play a central role in digital ereaders.
What is interesting here is that the browser can also reflow content into fixed page formats like PDF which means that the browser is on its way to becoming the typesetting engine for print. BookJS demonstrates nicely the role of the browser as print typesetting engine.
Replacing the book production ecosystem with webpage production tools
Browser as typesetting machine
The change of the books basic carrier medium from paper to HTML (the stuff webpages are made of) has meant many changes to what we might still call typesetting. Kindle and other e-ink devices actually move ink on a display to form words, sentences and paragraphs. The moveable type of Gutenberg’s time has become realtime, in a very real sense each book is typeset as we read it. Content is dynamically re-flowed for each device depending on display dimensions and individualised settings to aid readability. Moving type in ‘read time’ marks a significant paradigm shift from moveable type systems, including digital moveable type manipulated by Desktop Publishing software, to flowable typesetting. We are leaving behind moveable type for flowable type.
The engine for reflowing a page in realtime is something we have seen before. It is the job of the browser. And, since ebooks are webpages, browsers have come to play a central role in digital ereaders. In the case of the iPad the iBook reader is actually a fully featured browser engine; Webkit, the very same technology behind the Chrome and Safari browsers. Browsers are the typesetting machines for ebooks.
CSS is the set of rules used by the browser to know where to place type, images and other elements on a webpage and style those elements. Typical rules define where an image is placed in relationship to text, what fonts used, the font size, background color of the page, and the maximum width of an image, etc. While designed originally for the exclusive application to webpages the CSS Working Group, responsible for overseeing the development and direction of CSS, anticipated the intersection of the book and the web some time ago. In the latest drafts of the CSS standards new additions are almost entirely focused on typography and page control. As a consequence this area is starting to blossom. In particular, the CSS Generated Content for Paged Media Module specification is astonishing for its reframing of flowable text into a fixed page. Cross reference and footnote controls, not needed on the web, are among many book-like structure controls being addressed by CSS. Table of contents creation, figure annotations, page references, page numbers, margin controls, page size, and more are all included. The definition of these rules precede their adoption in browsers, however they are being included in browser engines, notably Webkit, at a very fast pace.
Ease and efficiencies
The implications for this are enormous and possibly not yet fully realised. At publishing industry conferences and other book-focused forums the attention has largely been on the ebooks effect on distribution, ereaders and the demise of the so-called brick-and-mortar book stores. The biggest effects however are elsewhere, ‘bubbling under’ in the recasting of the browser as a typesetting engine, and with it the slow realisation that the technical ecosystem surrounding book production can be replaced by tools for producing webpages. We are beginning to turn our attention to the tools for making webpages, to make books, and this, it turns out, is much easier than with Desktop Word Processing and Publishing software. Additionally due to recent developments, all of this, as it turns out, can also be used to design print (more on in-browser print production in a future post). Book production once again is becoming faster and cheaper and on its way to achieving another leap of magical efficency.