Read, reference, and comment--an online format that does it all

by Andy Oram

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Anyone who does serious publishing or design, or just wants to get
information online in a well-structured and attractive way, knows how
limited online formats are. Finally we have a framework for doing
things right, and for adding new features in a standard and open
manner as they come along.

OpenReader™ is an initiative led by digital publication expert
Jon Noring, who challenged publishers and manufacturers to adopt open
standards last year in a well-circulated
which I commented on in a

OpenReader is just starting out, but Noring and his partners have a
solid foundation (thanks to sticking closely to XML and related
technologies) and have piqued the interest of some hardware vendors
and potential users. Potentially, with OpenReader, a publisher could:

  • Put out a book, magazine or newspaper in electronic format that is
    rendered exactly like the printed page, preserving all the expensive
    and attractive design elements.

  • Let the user switch to some other layout more appropriate to the
    device or user's needs, through the press of a button that adjusts the

  • Put up a document that is formatted in some existing style, such as
    PDF, the DocBOOK XML used in many computer publications, the DITA
    format proposed by IBM for online help, TEI, and plain old XHTML.

Users, in turn could have a field day. Features currently considered
for OpenReader include:

  • Simple one-click changes to trivial layout matters such as font and
    margin size, along with an advanced settings window for customizing
    the CSS.

  • Bookmarks implemented as XPath/XPointer links from parts of one
    document to parts of another, and the potential to create pathways
    through multiple documents.

  • Sharing bookmarks and pathways over instant messaging, RSS, or other
    low-barrier communications.

  • Plug in converters such as text-to-speech.

Noring has authored all three versions of OEBPS, the ebook industry
specification, and is presently the acting vice chair in the OeBF
PubStruct Working Group. He writes, "I view OpenReader as the
next-generation digital publishing system, addressing the need for a
universal open distribution standard and the needs of a wider range of
types of digital publications. It embraces what's been learned, and
new standards developed, since OEBPS was first authored in 1999."

I think Noring and co. pretty much have their hands on the magic formula that will
equally please readers, publishers, and hardware manufacturers.

  • Readers should be pleased because they can tug and refashion the
    material to fit their needs with links, can share links with friends,
    and--above all--can feel assured that they will continue to have
    access to content whatever happens to their current hardware

  • Publishers should be pleased because they can offer the carefully
    branded look they've worked so hard to achieve, are not locked in to
    proprietary formats that come laden with expensive costs and
    ultimately, disappear, and can develop formats and format converters
    at relatively low costs because of standards.

  • Hardware manufacturers should be pleased because they no longer have
    to develop their own rendering software, and because they can expect a
    huge amount of content to become available for their devices.

That's a tough proposition, and it's no wonder that it's taken so
long. The ebooks movement is almost universally regarded as a failure,
because of the myriad of incompatible, low-quality, proprietary
formats in existence. It's time for a whole different approach such as
this one, based on a careful technical foundation and a welcoming
approach to stakeholders.

Do we need an open standard for electronic books?