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November 17 2011

Why we needed EPUB 3

The following is an excerpt from the TOC report "What is EPUB 3?." Download the full report for free here.


What is EPUB 3?If evolution is the cornerstone of life, that's certainly no less true in the electronic world. If you can't adapt — or fail to adapt in time — you're destined to join the ranks of the Netscape Navigators, OS/2 operating systems, and WordPerfect office suites of the world, as a warning to future technology developers that nothing lasts forever, and never in its original form. In this light, EPUB 3 is more than just bug fixes and tweaks from the last version; it represents a major change in what an ebook can be. It's a whole new beast, you might say.

The ebook market has been going through its own kind of hyper-evolution in the mere four years since EPUB2 was released, and a flurry of new devices and document formats have come and gone in that time. E Ink technology was all the rage in 2007 when Adobe, Amazon, Sony, and others were entering the market, however, and EPUB2 arrived to meet the new needs of these portable reading devices, with improved presentation capabilities, better navigation, support for DAISY accessibility features, and some advances in global language support. But EPUB2, like its predecessor and contemporaries, remained a static format, in that its core only allowed for the reading of basic text and image documents.

EPUB2 was an advance, and for a time it served the needs of the market well. It might even have had a longer run had dedicated E Ink devices remained the predominant choice for reading. But just as readers were abandoning their paper books, tablet computers came storming onto the reading scene, not only adding visual and aural dimensions lacking from E Ink's shades of gray, but also including the appeal of merging many capabilities into a single device — reading, browsing, gaming, and music, to name just a few. Dedicated E Ink readers suddenly didn't seem so cool anymore, nor did bland content that looked just like a printed page.

Although the primary effect of this new progression in the way content is read was to expose the multimedia shortcomings of current formats, ebook content had been under assault for a variety of other reasons, too. The ebook community had been clamoring for the ability to make interactive content, for improved global language support, and for better accessibility features, as well as a whole host of other changes to the status quo.

The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) would have been foolish to sit tight on the EPUB2 specification in the face of its own constituents' needs, so a revision was inevitable. Unlike Amazon's Mobi format for its Kindle devices, which is able to rest on its progressively aging technology because both the content and rendering are tightly controlled by a single company, EPUB requires the IDPF to take a much broader perspective with its development because of its diverse community. But this requirement has also kept the format at the leading edge of ebook technologies throughout its history. While EPUB2 was, to use a common euphemism, good for its time, that time, dominated by the initial thrust of reproducing the static print page in electronic form, has passed.

[Note: Amazon's Kindle Format 8 will reportedly include some amount of HTML5 support.]

EPUB2 didn't suffer only from the lack of new features that HTML5 now offers; not every problem a format faces can be solved by new technology alone. Accessibility is one obvious example in EPUB2. In retrospect, the way that features of the DAISY standard got bolted onto the specification led to aspects never being fully or properly implemented by publishers or developers (the DTBook grammar for content) and others being misunderstood or conflicting with general-purpose needs (the NCX navigation file being used for reduced tables of contents, undermining its use by the target audience). The EPUB 3 revision also presented a chance to revisit issues like these that had appeared or been left open since the previous revision, to see if new and better solutions were now possible.

The EPUB 3 working group began the revision of the specification in the summer of 2010 and had a one-year timeline to overhaul the format, in order to address all these issues and more. The result is that the revision has seen major improvements in virtually all the key functional areas: integrated audio and video support (as we've mentioned), accessibility features are much more tightly entwined in the specification now, global language support mechanisms are more numerous and also more integrated, publication-level metadata allows much richer expressions, and so on down through the original charter.

This isn't to suggest that the EPUB 3 revision got everything perfect. The metadata world is in flux, and many had hoped that a more standards-oriented solution would be forthcoming. Video content support is divided between the H.264 and WebM codecs, leaving the specification without a single video type that all reading system developers could agree to support. The comic and manga communities still are looking for more improvements in supported formats and rendering. In other words, the evolution of EPUB doesn't end with the current revision, and thought is already going into improvements.

That said, if you want an open, community-driven, standards-compliant specification that sits at the forefront of what an ebook can offer, however, there is no other solution but EPUB 3.

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October 20 2011

Note to visualization creators: Add subtitles and narration

I came across a fantastic animated visualization from NASA that shows a spaced-based view of the Earth's fires. Like many visualizations in this genre, the combination of maps, data points and time-based animation proves quite powerful.

Beyond being just plain fascinating, this particular visualization also includes two simple but often neglected features: subtitles and narration.

NASA fire visualization
NASA's animated visualization of the Earth's fires is enhanced by subtitles and simple narration. (Click to see full version.)

It's common for visualization creators to write accompanying posts that detail the development of their visualizations and/or dig further into findings (case in point: NASA's excellent write-up). These sorts of posts are great, but why not go the extra step and embed a degree of context within the animations? That way, the information contained in subtitles and narration will always float along with the core material. This is particularly important with embeddable objects because the flashy animated bits are what gets shared across the web. The contextual elements rarely come along for the ride.

That said, the NASA visualization is far from perfect. Notably, there doesn't appear to be an easy way to embed a version of the video with formal subtitles and narration. A Fast Company version is embeddable, but captions and narration are absent. A YouTube version gets a little closer — it includes the narration and YouTube's experimental captions — but it's not on par with the full version available through NASA's site. What I really want is an embeddable "official" animation with narration and subtitles that I can toggle on or off.

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February 15 2011

Accessibility and HTML5 highlight TOC day 1

Monday's TOC 2011 lineup focused on workshops, including designing iPad apps, the changing landscape of publishing standards, HTML5, metadata, rights, and partnering with offshore vendors. It was hard to choose just a couple highlights from the day.

Meghan MacDonald, project coordinator at BookNet Canada, thought the publishing standards session was particularly interesting:

I loved that we focused on accessibility. That's a point publishers often overlook. There's a huge part of the market that has accessibility issues, whether it's readers who are blind or have hearing impairments, or even readers who are learning English and want translations for titles. You can actually make all your titles accessible to them with proper tagging of the text of your books.

Afternoon buzz about the HTML5 session, hosted by Marcin Wichary, a senior user experience designer at Google, also was good — one attendee was overheard saying that the session was worth the trip from the UK. I had an opportunity to sit down for a few moments with Wichary in this video interview:

Additional TOC coverage is available through O'Reilly's YouTube channel and the free keynote livestream.



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January 05 2011

Accessible publishing is good business

Accessible publishing has historically been a logistical challenge. Getting books printed in Braille or developing alternate formats to make books accessible to readers with disabilities were efforts that often fell to charitable organizations. Budget contraints and the sheer volume of work left a wide gap in the availability of titles.

Ideally, all books would be available in a variety of formats to accommodate the needs of any reader — a scenario that benefits publishers as much as it does readers. In the following interview, Dave Gunn (@AccessGeek), technical manager at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and a speaker at TOC 2011, talks about how far accessible publishing has come and how technological advancements are making accessible publishing easier.


How has accessible publishing evolved?

RNIB, DAISY, ePuBDave Gunn: RNIB's work on accessible publishing standards began with our foundation in 1868 when we were known as the "British and Foreign Society for Improving Embossed Literature for the Blind." Focused primarily on the provision of materials in Braille and other tactile formats, we were involved in leading work on the development of standards and production technologies.

At the end of World War I, many soldiers had lost their sight in action and returned home to a society ill-prepared for their needs. RNIB was involved in pioneering work to record audio versions of books, developing prototype technology called long-play recordings — a recording standard that was eventually adopted by the music industry. The technology at the time was a big leap forward, even if it wasn't that practical, as a single "Talking Book" was typically played back over 10 double-sided 12-inch long-play records.

Standards and technology have moved on significantly, allowing us to offer a much more flexible and practical service to many more people. Over the years, there have also been considerable developments in technology for Braille and large-print production, for both hard-copy and electronic consumption, with electronic Braille displays offering a practical alternative to embossed pages for some users.

However, the current developments in ebook technologies present an opportunity for the most significant change to accessible publishing in decades. In fact, ebooks could benefit all users, irrespective of their preferred reading format.


Dave Gunn will explore the technologies and opportunities of accessible publishing at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (Feb. 14-16, 2011).

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What's the current state of accessibility standards?

DG: The DAISY standard was developed by an international consortium to improve the availability and quality of mainstream publications to people with print disabilities. For the last 14 years, the DAISY standard has provided a common way for disability organizations, like RNIB, to convert print documents and create flexible resources to meet the needs of their client groups.

The vision of the DAISY Consortium, is "a world where people with print disabilities have equal access to information and knowledge, without delay or additional expense." Developments in ebook formats and readers/players mean that this vision has come a big step closer to being realized.

The EPUB format has historically shared technology employed in the DAISY format, and starting this year, DAISY will adopt the EPUB 3.0 specification for delivery of the text-only configuration of DAISY. This is part of a scheduled path of harmonization between DAISY and EPUB formats. It is intended to enable publishers to produce publications that are accessible to people who have historically not had access to text, with little or no additional effort for either the publisher or end user.



The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires governments to provide accessible information. Are there current processes that publishers can adopt so they don't reinvent the wheel?


DG: As each signing country has ratified the UN Convention, they have been implementing solutions based on the accessible formats and standards in use in that country. For example, standards for the coding of Braille varies from country to country, and there are some country-specific differences in implementation of DAISY.

Standards for accessible electronic documents, outside of web accessibility, are still very much in their infancy. In many respects the publishing industry is on — or near — the cutting edge, especially when considering emerging ebook technologies.

How will accessible publishing change in the near term?

DG: The convergence of DAISY and EPUB is just one of many positive steps for accessible publishing. Most of the major ebook formats have at least some mechanisms to support accessibility, and many of the popular reading devices and software have built-in features, such as text size adjustments, color variation, or synthetic speech, all of which provide essential access to people with disabilities. At RNIB we would like to see these features become standard.

Historically, there have been few opportunities for people with print disabilities to access their books of choice, until now. This presents an opportunity for publishers. Many people with print disabilities are hungry for books, having previously received limited access to just a small pool of best-sellers and classics.

The future of accessible publishing no longer needs to rest solely on the shoulders of charitable organizations, nor should it be driven by a moral obligation, corporate social responsibility, or legal drivers. People with disabilities are consumers who just want to be able to buy and read books at the same time as everyone else. For the first time, the technology is available to enable people to pay to read books in a choice of formats — all from a standard ebook. Now it is up to publishing and related industries to take up the opportunity, so they can see the benefits from making ebooks accessible to all.

This interview was edited and condensed.



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September 08 2010

O'Reilly ebook bundles now include DAISY talking book format

For years we've supplied our digital files to Bookshare, a non-profit that provides accessible reading material to the print disabled. For qualifying readers, our books are made available worldwide, and we've really enjoyed working with Jim Fruchterman and the Bookshare team along the way (I'm also on their Advisory Board).

Although the DRM-free EPUB files in our ebook bundles are compatible with many reading systems for print disabled customers, many readers prefer the DAISY format that Bookshare provides, and either don't qualify for access via Bookshare, or would prefer to pay for the ebooks. Through a collaboration with Bookshare, today we've started making DAISY files available within our ebook bundles on oreilly.com for more than 800 titles. If you've already bought an oreilly.com ebook, you can find the DAISY files on your account page at members.oreilly.com or oreilly.com/e on a mobile device.

Our mission at O'Reilly is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators, and making our books available in accessible DAISY format helps us accomplish that mission.

There's more details on the DAISY format from the DAISY Consortium, including a list of software and hardware reading systems.

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