When on a computer, most of the reading we do on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s information we’re researching, news, or blog articles will be in a web browser. Even email, previously read in the realm of the desktop email client, has moved into the cloud. E-book reading has really come into its own with the development of tablet devices which offer a perfect place to create an immersive, comfortable reading experience.
So far, however, browsers have taken a back seat for reading e-books. Many publishers have been hesitant to put their eggs in the browser basket and have instead plumped for apps. In the early days, that made a lot of sense. Downloadable apps got round two obstacles to creating a great reading experience; flaky web connectivity and the inability of browsers to deliver that touch-optimised feel, which apps can do so nicely.
However, HTML5 has laid down a new marker in browser standards. Not only does it enable offline capability through caching of content, it also lets you create websites that feel like native apps. The browser is certainly becoming a very different beast. So, does this mean publishers should rethink their approach to the browser, and see it as a way to deliver content, not just discover it? To answer that question, I asked three other people working on the frontline of browser-based reading. Here are our thoughts on the opportunities and limitations that HTML5 presents.
Anna Lewis, founder - ValoBox
Integrating books into the fabric of the web, rather than keeping them as separate files to be downloaded, gives you all kinds of options. Think about YouTube for a moment. It empowers others to link directly to video content, or embed it elsewhere to reach large audiences the original creator may not know about. ValoBox aims to do the same for books. We let people embed books they love in the wider web where they will find potential readers - that could be in a reading community, a facebook page or an author’s blog. The great thing about HTML5 is that you can design the reading experience to match the high expectations that a customer has for reading on a touch device, as well as making it compatible with a laptop screen. (If you’re interested in more, here’s a basic explanation of how ePubs and HTML5 relate.)
The trickiest part is payment. In an app store environment, people already have their credit card on file and are used to having to pay for things. Although people are accustomed to paying for books, web content is typically free so there is a need to make that payment barrier extremely low to get over that mentality.
Justo Hidalgo, founder - 24symbols
With the increasing adoption of mobile and portable devices with high resolution screens and almost constant internet connectivity, the option of providing cloud readers for electronic books looked quite compelling to us when building 24symbols. The ability to access any book, anywhere, regardless of which device the reader has at any specific moment requires lots of work and a pinch of ingenuity in terms of details like device synchronization, page caching or security. Being able to use a "framework" that is well known and ubiquitous, like browsers and HTML, is a clear bet for the future. And the way our current users read (more than 70,000 as I write this) seems to validate this approach, with 40% of them reading on the web and 10% already on mobile interfaces with HTML5.
But this does not come without challenges. Working with HTML5 and its related development frameworks is still very frustrating, especially when trying to apply responsive design patterns or using device or browser-specific capabilities such as access to local storage. This is why we keep on developing native apps for iOS or Android, though constantly improving our HTML5 version as technologies evolve.
Our vision of "books as a service" requires a way to flexibly and quickly provide written content in as many devices as possible with the highest quality available. Cloud and browser-based reading is just what we need.
Michael Kowalski, founder - Padify
HTML5 is quickly becoming the standard way to store and exchange digital content. And no wonder, as it’s packed with goodness: it’s accessible, semantic, lightweight, and cross-platform. It can be displayed on any device, and can adapt to different screen sizes. You can wrap it up in EPUB, deliver it through a web-based eReader, or even package it into a hybrid app for the AppStore. Interactivity is added using basic web technology, making it relatively cheap and relatively easy to find developers. All these things combine to make it about as future proof a content format as you can get.
All of this doesn’t make it simple for publishers to adopt. It can be tricky to build a viable workflow that plays nicely with existing production systems, while keeping costs under control. Then there are the whimsical and undocumented ereader implementations to deal with. These are the problems we are trying to address with Padify. As HTML5 increasingly becomes the lingua franca of the publishing ecosystem, publishers who have made the leap will have a huge advantage.
Peter Brantley, director - Internet Archive
It has been 20 years since the first messages were sent across the world wide web, part of a longer history of development in a growing, global digital network permitting increasingly rich communications. It is natural that publishing move from a print-based paradigm to embrace a far greater one built on web-based presentation.
We are laboring to move beyond the written page, learning to express ourselves through tools we have today and are building for tomorrow. The horizons are hard to encompass. Technology rapidly advances in displays, not only in resolution but also erasing constraints in size, placement, and rigidity. Interactions with stories will be through touch, awareness of location and social presence, and myriad other factors yet unknown.
Three years ago, I started an annual conference at the Internet Archive called "Books in Browsers." At its inception, BiB represented an edgy belief that the forefront of publishing technology and design was likely to be centered on the web. Today, BiB is representative of fundamental aspects of a new definition of publishing that ranges comfortably from Wordpress blogs to online content management systems that publish as a matter of course. The web liberates us as authors: now we must learn how to use it.
So, should publishers be putting the browser at the centre of their digital strategy, or focusing on files and apps? We’d love to hear your thoughts.