May 13, 2016

Leading up to BEA Chicago, digital publishing and web standards set collision course


This past Tuesday, the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) hosted its annual pre-BEA (Book Expo America) conference in sunny Chicago, Illinois. The IDPF is the body responsible for the development of the .epub standard, a cross-platform digital publishing technology that aims to maximize readability across different devices and operating systems. This year’s topic? The end of the IDPF as we know it.

The keynote speaker for the conference was Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and CEO of W3C, a consortium of technologists engaged in research and standards development for the World Wide Web. His subject was the more or less imminent merger of the W3C and the IDPF, a move which would bring standards development for the web, and for digital publishing, under the same umbrella organization.

This merger would ideally allow existing web standards and digital publishing practices to converge towards a single, fully enmeshed multimedia environment, with hyperlinked text, embedded audio-video, and full social media integration baked in from the beginning. From the W3C press release:

“We share an exciting vision for W3C and IDPF to fully align the publishing industry and core Web technology. This will create a rich media environment for digital publishing that opens up new possibilities for readers, authors, and publishers,” said Berners-Lee.

“Think about educational text books. The book content we know today is becoming highly interactive and accessible with links to videos and images from actual historical events and original research data.  This provides greater authenticity and a more engaging learning environment for teachers and students.”

This is not such a surprising development, in many ways. The .epub standard and format is essentially an archived website, including HTML and CSS documents, static assets like pictures or embedded media, and metadata. The software on your e-reader is effectively a specialized web browser, capable of navigating and parsing this archive.

So, one can imagine that an organization devoted to structuring the backbone technologies of the internet would be well equipped to work with an organization dedicated to the standardization of a form of web content. As George Kercher, president of the IDPF, puts it, “the IDPF’s track record of success in developing EPUB standards for the publishing industry will be complemented by W3C’s expertise in Web standards that enable accessible rich media.” Its a no-brainer!

All the same, questions remain. If these people are in charge of developing the world wide web, why are their websites so terrible? And are they going to merge their twitter accounts? Also, you know, how is this actually going to work?

This last issue was raised pretty much immediately at the conference, with particularly pointed questions about wether or not members of the IDPF would have any sort of electoral say in the merger, and whether or not they would retain any organizational autonomy after the fact. Porter Anderson at Publishing Perspectives reports:

[IDPF Executive Director Bill] McCoy, noting that the kind of question [OverDrive president and CEO Steve] Potash was raising was for the membership meeting to come on Wednesday (May 11) here at BEA, promised an “open and transparent” process in terms of membership comment. But when pressed by Publishers Weekly’s Cal Reid, he conceded that the plan involves IDPF being “absorbed.” It will effectively be lost as an entity of its own, its remaining members instead functioning in a “publishing activity group” within W3C.

However, at the end of the day Berners-Lee was adamant that the merger would not amount to a hostile takeover, the process being one of mutually beneficial unification, joining two communities with common goals working with a common medium, and that the decision would ultimately belong to the IDPF.




Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.