The Importance of Standards in Our Lives

Written for Unlimited Priorities and DCLnews Blog.

Ebook Readers

Photo Credit: Cloned Milkmen

Everywhere you look, travel, and shop, our world is driven by standards which have been developed by organizations that are responsible for their sphere of influence. In our homes, the lighting, air-conditioning, heating, plumbing, and appliances are all built to industry standards. Years of professional contributions by engineers, users and manufacturers has made our lives more safe and comfortable.

In the information world, standards are just as important. I take for granted that when I turn on my computer, my system will boot up and take me to the location I have requested or follow my instructions. I access the world wide web and follow a URL to my favorite web site without ever considering all the standards that were developed to make this process work.

So much of my work is facilitated by the standards that have come before me, operating in the background without any effort on my part. So, given that we have all been pampered by our information world, consider the shock to the system when our world is turned upside down by either the lack of standards or lack of agreement on the future direction. Let’s take a look at the e-content world as an example. The shift from print formats to the electronic book, journal or magazine has taken the public by storm. Sales of e-books are skyrocketing, e-readers are hitting the market, and publishers are moving to publish the print and e-book at the same time.

In the scientific, technical, and medical professional education markets, the shift from the printed journal to electronic formats has been rapid and highly successful. In less than five years, the STM market publishers have developed site license agreements for their total journal output, which now represents over 60% of publishers’ revenue. The STM market is now supplying over 85% of their journal content in electronic form. Printed journal subscriptions have radically declined and many publishers are considering giving up print or shifting to print on demand.

The e-book world is following a similar pattern. Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle served as a wake-up call for the entire publishing industry. Amazon stands to generate over $1 billion from e-books sales by the end of their fiscal year. Amazon hit the market with the first e-reader and a large catalog of digital books at a price that was much cheaper than print. Other book retailers such as Barnes & Noble, with their Nook e-book reader, and Borders, which supports a group of e-readers, have joined in the digital revolution with e-book services. In April 2010, Apple hit the market with the release of their iPad with iBookstore and sold over 3,000,000 iPads in three months along with over 5,000,000 e-books downloaded in the same short time period.

The fact that the market has responded so well to the introduction of this new technology should make everyone happy. Publishers, book retailers, and readers all have something to celebrate. Sales of printed books at Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, and Borders stores have been in serious decline for several years. The old brick and mortar retailing outlet stores are losing printed books sales. The e-book is the first bright light in a declining market. Publishers are looking to the mobile market as a possible salvation for book, magazine, and newspaper sales. Mobile internet access now exceeds desktop access. Mobile computing is here to stay and developers are making sure that all their applications work in the mobile environment.

With all of this positive news, why are some still unhappy about where we are going? From my perspective as a user, publishers are not providing the market with the best choices in their e-book products. While we have the ePub standard for books, we also have Mobipocket books, PDFsupport, and a host of DRM software including Amazon’s proprietary DRM (AZW). What I want is a universal e-book format where every book bought at an e-book store could be read on every e-book reader. In simple terms, I want to take any book that I have downloaded to my iPad and share it with my wife, who is reading her books on her Kindle. It is a common practice for members of the same household to share books. Why not build the e-book market on a universal e-book format that offers interoperability between e-readers and e-book stores?

Amazon has developed apps for the iPad and a host of smartphones, so they are making progress in the right direction. Sadly though, e-books bought on the iBookstore with Apple’s Fairplay DRM cannot be read on the Kindle. Perhaps it is not the lack of standards that is at the heart of this issue. We have a range of standards, but the industry lacks the will to cooperate and select one universal standard.

This interoperability problem is perhaps more a political issue than a technical one. Kindle owns Mobipocket and the Kindle AZW file format which is used as their DRM. Both Amazon and Apple have built products on a set of their preferred standards. Each company works with the same group of publishers and offers a software developer kit. In the end, software developers do follow standards to build the various products. So what we have is not a lack of standards; it is more a lack of agreement on which standard to use. In the end the market will shake out and one universal e-book format will prevail, but not before consumers waste significant money.

While we are waiting for this confusion to clear up, the standards organizations are continuing to refine and improve the existing standards in the e-publishing world.

Many developers working on iPad book applications are working with EPUB. The EPUB standard is undergoing a major revision. The EPUB 2.1 working group has identified fourteen main problems that they intend to fix in their next release. High on the list to be implemented are enhanced global language support for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Middle Eastern languages. Support for right-to-left reading is a must if EPUB is to become the universal e-book format. In addition, other functions to be supported included rich media, interactivity, post publication annotation support, and advertising. Interactive digital textbooks and rich media magazines are going to be commonplace, and EPUB 2.1 must support these functions.

At the same time as EPUB 2.1 is undergoing development, other groups are working on HTML5. HTML5 is a standard for structuring and presenting content on the Web and incorporates features like video playback, drag-and-drop, and other features which have been dependent on third-party browser plugins. Many of the iPad applications released are supporting HTML5 features, as many parts of the standard are completed even though the standard has not been finalized. Amazon’s Kindle has also embraced the next generation of web programming, and Amazon has an upcoming release, the Kindle Previewer for HTML 5. Industry sources say that the Previewer offers complex layouts, embedded audio and video, and enhanced user interactivity.

Another related standard that impacts the user interface is CSS3. The Cascading Style Sheets style sheet language is used to describe the look and formatting of a document written in a markup language. CSS can allow the same markup page to be presented in different styles for different rendering methods, such as on screen, in print, in voice, and on Braille-based tactile devices. Developers need to pay attention to CSS for any products that are built for the US government and the college and university market where Section 508 compliance is required.

Amazon is currently being sued by various universities because the Kindle does not support Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act passed by Congress. This Federal law protects people with disabilities and requires all products bought at the Federal level to be compliant. Colleges and universities have a mandate to follow Section 508. Both the e-Readers and mobile devices such as the iPad must support Section 508. Disabled employees and users must have the same public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others. The bottom line is simple and straightforward: all applications sold to colleges and universities as well as the Federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities.

What is clear to me is the unique urgency at this time for our industry to create, endorse and implement standards to take advantage of the advances in technology. The sales of our products and services are dependent on standards. Standards groups are in nearly every aspect of our daily lives. In the publishing world, industry standards for e-readers, our platforms, software tools and even the web are often produced by groups outside of our markets. Publishers and libraries also have standards groups working on their behalf. In the United States, it is ANSI that accredits some 400 organizations as national standards developers. NISO (see links below) is one of the 400 groups working on standards for libraries, publishers and information services provides.

There are two efforts underway which impact our community, and developers should be aware of these efforts. The first is the treatment of supplemental journal article materials.

How do publishers and editors deal with supplemental material in the e-journal world? That is a question that needs answering and a standard resolution. There are questions about readability, usability, preservation and reuse. Authors follow guidelines in the manuscript submission systems of publishers for the primary text of the article.

But in today’s technologically rich research community, the text is often insufficient to describe or facilitate a researcher’s result. There are data sets, background information, methodological details, and additional content that just do not fit into the printed journal. NISO is working for a number of publishers and community leaders to sort out this important problem. We need a recommended practice or best practice guideline for how to handle supplemental materials.

Another problem for the publishers and end users is journal article version control. When you find a scientific article on the web, how do you know which version you are reading? Certainly in medical research the version is a crucial factor. Authors often keep their original submitted manuscript; if Google or some other search engine can locate it on the web, one might find the page proof version, or the published version, corrected version of record, or enhanced version of record. What is important is to have a way to identify which version of an author’s work you are reading so that there is no confusion. This is another area where standards are important, and NISO is working on this problem as well.

Standards are an important part of the quality of our products and services. Standards are evolving as technology changes. Without standards, new markets would be limited and opportunity reduced. Standards are influenced by the corporations that often have the most to gain, but we should try to insure that standards are developed for the common good and not benefit one group. The e-book world sales growth has just begun to gain traction. We still have a number of hurdles to overcome, including interoperability, making sense out of DRMs, and developing rich formats, but we have come a long way in a very short period of time, even with the limitations that we see in the standards field.

We are entering a transformational time as the shift from print to e-formats is impacting all aspects of our society and our educational systems. I can not help but imagine what type of world my grandchildren will find when they begin college. Much of the print format book and journals will have been replaced. One thing is for sure: that the implementation of standards will make this new world possible.

Some related references:

About the Author

Dan Tonkery is president of Content Strategies as well as a contributor to Unlimited Priorities. He has served as founder and president of a number of library services companies and has worked nearly forty years building information products.

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