Experimental Lex

Playing with words.

Display Formats in Digital Publishing

This is an offshoot of the series “HTML5 in Digital Publishing”. In the first article, we tried to explain the significance of HTML5 and how it has become an important part of digital publishing and mobile devices. Today, we continue this analysis by addressing the rationale for choosing HTML5 versus other display formats.

In this article, we will focus on “display formats” in digital publishing   A display format defines how the content is rendered for display and viewed by the user. Therefore, a display format is also related to the technologies in the development platform that is used to publish content to the device. For example, the Apple iOS software development kit (SDK) is a development platform that targets a set of devices (iPhone, iPad, etc). With the iOS SDK, you have a choice of rendering content through HTML web views or native app components.

HTML5 as Display Format
The choice of HTML5 as a display format is easy to justify. Most tablet devices have strong support for HTML5 content views and this makes HTML5 a good platform-agnostic strategy. In the rapidly-evolving world of devices, we are seeing consistent and wide-spread support of HTML5, particularly through the WebKit browser engine. When you test complex HTML and CSS across different WebKit browsers, you usually see great consistency.

Images as Display Format
Image-based content display is a reasonable choice for some publishers. This option is especially suitable for photography and art where full-page image galleries are the desired experience. And yet, in a tablet device with a touch-based interface, an image gallery or slideshow can feel very flat and boring. When creating an image-based experience, it is a good idea to look for opportunities to add interactive features such as image pan and zoom, text layers, and visual navigation.

Using images as a display format also opens up the possibility of eliminating complex page layout issues by using images exported from programs like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign. By authoring complex text and image layouts in a graphics/design programs and publishing images instead of text, you can guarantee absolute page fidelity when comparing the comps to the end product. However, the idea of publishing books without text might seem unsavory to some. It seems odd to remove the text from a book or magazine and only display the screenshots.

As you can guess, replacing text content with images would remove the possibility of searching and selecting text content, which is one of the promising features of digital e-readers.

Native as Display Format
We use this abstract term “native” when referring to content that is implemented through the programming language and tools required by the development platform. Among the current development platforms that have native programming languages are: Apple iOS, Android, Adobe Flash/AIR, and Windows Phone 7. “Native” also has the connotation of being expensive and proprietary, which is usually true. Native application programming requires specialized programmers and is often more time-consuming.

To make native app content more plausible as a display format in digital publishing, there are a few approaches you can take:

  1. Use a template-based system for loading data fields into content template(s):

    Native code will perform the task of reading data stored in a database or as structured data like XML and then injecting the data into a template. With native apps, a template is often a big chunk of code that places data on the screen as well as the layout, formatting and effects to apply when rendering the content.

    The drawback here is the same as any template-based publishing system… the content templates can feel too restrictive and the content look-and-feel may look stagnant and boring. The art directors will never go along with it.

  2. Mix-and-match with HTML and images:

    Each development platform has support for web view and image view components and it is possible to create a native app solution that uses both to enrich the experience. Since most HTML5 and image-based solutions still require a native app as the container around the web view components, a mixture of native and other display formats will usually be present at some level.

EPUB and Kindle
Perhaps it’s unfair to lump these two together since they are competing e-book formats. However, as display formats they are similar enough to group together. These e-book formats both use HTML as the core document storage format and both have a standard packaging structure that defines the organization of files within a file structure.

E-books also speak to a narrower audience within the digital publishing universe. Most e-books will only contain chapters and paragraphs of text, presented in a format similar to the paper-based books that they may eventually replace.

EPUB and Kindle formats are both interesting beasts and we can learn much from how they are constructed. We will analyze later them both in a separate set of articles.

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