Feature: Will The Future of Digital Publishing be HTML5, EPUB3 or Apps? Part 2

crystal ball

The future of digital publishing in the years to come is filled with uncertainty. The entire industry has failed to unilaterally embrace a standard format and we are currently seeing fragmentation. HTML5, EPUB3, and dedicated apps are currently the preferred platforms to include a myriad of multimedia aspects such as audio, video, and interactive content.

Interactive features and cross-platform accessibility are two of the most important factors in the future of publishing. Users want to be able to view their books without having to use Adobe Digital Editions to manually transfer them over to their e-readers, tablets, or smartphones. Some companies like TOR, Pottermore, and LULU are making the conventional EPUB2 format more accessible by offering their ebooks without digital encryption, making them easy to transfer. Unfortunately, this is the exception and not the normal way companies tend to distribute their content.

Many people may ask the question, why should ebooks be interactive at all? The standard novel may not benefit from this directly, but kids books, cookbooks, and magazines do. Rolling Stone Magazine recently introduced a new App for iOS that allows you to listen to music and then make purchases for the artists’ albums and individual tracks via iTunes. Kids books often have the ability to play animations and have an author read the book to you. Barnes and Noble has an interesting feature in its line of Nook tablets that allow parents or grandparents to record themselves reading the book, instead of relying on the stock voice actor. Cookbooks will show you the entire process of cooking a recipe, which helps you gauge how it should look and offers guidance along the way.

During the coming weeks, we are speaking to the publishing industry’s leading innovators to weigh in on the future of digital in relation to ebooks. What will be the definitive standard in 2014 and the coming years: EPUB3, HTML5, or dedicated reading apps? Today we talk to Babur Habib – CTO of KNO, Michel Kripalani – President of Oceanhouse Media, Kathy Masnik – Director of Project Management at Ebrary, Allen Lau – CEO of Wattpad, Sol Rosenberg – VP Business Development at Copia, Rita Towes of Read an eBook Week, Evan Ratliff – CEO of Atavist and Chris Anderton – CTO of Bilbary. You can read our first installment of the series HERE.


HTML5 is the emerging internet standard that is slowly seeing wider adoption within the publishing industry. It has a number of enticing multimedia factors that allow for embedding music and video without needing third party plugins like Silverlight or Adobe Flash.

The most exciting aspect of HTML5 is that it is compatible with most internet browsers found on tablets, smartphones, and computers. It does not require an app and you can read a book anywhere at anytime. HTML5 has solutions for offline reading, so you don’t need to be constantly connected to the internet.

Amazon and Kobo both run dedicated Cloud Reading Apps that allow you to buy and read books. They have very advanced features that you would find on the Amazon Kindle Fire or Kobo Arc, in terms of the overall reading experience. You can make the fonts larger, change the margins, access the table of contents, or look at word up in the dictionary. Overdrive recently introduced its own HTML5 enhancements to its website and we saw books being read on fridges, cars, and even the Nintendo Wii U. You could say some major companies are investing in HTML5 as a content delivery platform for EPUB2 and EPUB3 ebooks.

Q: HTML5 tends to be more flexible in being accessible in most internet browsers. Do you think this will be a format that is going to be more widely adopted in the future?

Allen Lau the CEO of Wattpad weighed in on the issue and said “At Wattpad we use HTML5 as our default container because the value isn’t in developing a ‘book specific’ content format, but rather in ensuring that readers and writers can always access their books and get the full experience of our product. HTML5 is the most ubiquitous platform available right now. Technology platforms trend towards open, commodity-like solutions, with the value being delivered and created at the interaction or user interface layer. You’ve seen it in operating systems and hardware, as well as in things like audio and video formats on the web. Apple, SONY and Microsoft each developed their own proprietary standards for distributing content, and eventually everyone’s moved to a shared set of standards for the majority of content.
The customer doesn’t care about the format that’s used to transmit or store the content, they want to be able to choose the type of reading experience they want, and have their content “just work” on any device. HTML5, and all web technologies in general, are a fundamental part of the Wattpad experience – for discovering, reading, and most importantly sharing content.”

Kathy Masnik, ebrary director of product management told us, “We are already seeing a shift in the market toward using HTML5 to implement sophisticated ebook products. That said, the HTML5 technology is still not robust enough to support some of the functionality we need to support in our ebook product, such as downloading a protected copy of the ebook for offline use. The HTML5 offline cache functionality may not yet be robust enough to support this use case. The app based technology can still provide more consistent functional support than HTML5 based technology for our needs.”

CTO of KNO Babur Habib replied, “HTML5 holds a lot of promise for the future of building ebooks. However, it is still not there in terms of performance for mobile platforms. Native development is superior especially for sophisticated applications like learning platforms, and e-textbooks. Mobile platforms need to put in a lot more effort into enhancing browser technology so that apps can be built with web technologies.”

Chris Anderton CTO of Bilbary told us that “HTML5 will be more widely adopted – i expect we will see an increasing number of ebook related projects using this set of web technologies. We have already created a HTML5 based EPUB reader, and there are other projects such as Readium that are building tools in this space. It is also worth pointing out that, as usual, the flexibility of HTML5 comes at a cost – not all devices have an identical implementation, and performance will vary.”

Finally Michel Kripalani the President of OceanHouse Media explained “All of these formats are still lacking relative to the features that we can put into digital books delivered as apps. For example, we have a ‘record and share’ feature which is very deep, very intricate and very powerful for children, educators, families in the military, etc. The user can record their voice while reading a digital book and then share the custom audio file via email with anyone, anywhere in the world. With a single tap, the person receiving the file has the ability to seamlessly integrate the recorded audio file back into their personal version of the app. These types of robust features will most likely never be available with HTML5 or EPUB3. The bottom line is that we prefer to push the boundaries of dedicated apps and believe they provide the best user experience and customer value.”

Piracy Concerns with HTML5

Many companies are turning to HTML5 as a way to deliver content, the one problem is offline storage and localized content. The BBC, Microsoft, and Google have all petitioned the WTC to implement DRM to protect content. The BBC may not have the rights for a worldwide audience and currently that is what is happening.

Q: What are the piracy concerns you have with HTML5 as a way to deliver ebooks?

Rita Toews, the organizer of Read an eBook week, disagreed and said piracy isn’t even a problem. “I know that sounds a bit flippant, however books are meant to be loaned, traded and shared. Used book stores have been in existence for years. It wasn’t until ebooks came along and the major publishers saw them as a threat that a lot of effort was put into DRM, etc. Books aren’t music or videos.”

Chris Anderton the Chief Architect and CTO of Bilbary mentioned “I don’t have any piracy concerns due to HTML5 per se. The main point is that content platforms think smart about how to protect content within a HTML5 based service. It takes just a few minutes on Google to see how to easily remove the DRM from a ‘protected’ file – i think with a HTML5 (or native app) based solution it is actually easier to protect the content. While this protection may be through obfuscation or fragmentation rather then sophisticated encryption, the net result will make it harder for people to copy a whole book in one go. The other advantage is that unlike traditional DRM, with the HTML5 (or native app) approach then content providers can be much more agile about reacting to threats or breaches – we don’t need to wait for a large corporation to put a fix on their roadmap – we can master our own destiny and dance directly with any would-be pirates ourselves!”

Babur of KNO said, “One of the biggest issues with HTML5 is the lack of content protection. Publisher content is not like news or weather. It is reused multiple times and for long durations. That’s why any platform that delivers the actual content in HTML5 should be carefully evaluated. You may be able to obfuscate parameters like copy/paste limits etc., but only superficially. Browser technologies have to take this into account if ebooks are going to be widely adopted in HTML5”

Kathy from ebrary explained his company’s position, “DRM is a high priority for our market. We can provide sufficient protection for online reading of PDF-based ebooks using HTML5. The protection is not sufficient once we enable the ability to download that ebook to their HTML5 cache for offline use. Additionally, we have not found that HTML5 includes sufficient protection methods for EPUB format ebooks.”

Allen from Wattpad mentioned, “We don’t see HTML5 as being inherently better or worse for piracy issues. Any Digital Rights Management technology applied to content hasn’t been able to last long when put up against the Internet. What has worked is providing better ways for users to obtain content legitimately, and to be able to move that content between devices and avoid vendor lock in.”

Evan Ratliff CEO of Atavist said, “Personally, for our own publishing, I’m not particularly concerned about it. Some of our software users are, so we’re looking into various ways to secure their content. But unless you are a huge publisher pushing hundreds of thousands of copies of big name authors, I feel like your thinking should be: If we’re getting enough attention around our content for people to try and pirate it, we’re doing pretty well. Pirates are gonna pirate, it’s a losing game to spend a lot of time worrying about that instead of making great stuff.”

Jeanny Mullen from Zinio said, “Without any DRM support, HTML5 will continue to foster a good bit of piracy related activities. It will be interesting to watch how this topic is managed as companies like BBC attempt to find ways to have their cake and eat it too with DRM supported HTML5.

Amy Ross of Vitrium finally explained, “There are no perfect systems to prevent piracy, because the stronger the protection, the harder the product is to use. The challenge is to find the sweet spot where piracy prevention makes circumventing security a challenge, without interfering too much with the user experience. Today, piracy prevention systems built on HTML5 can get closer to this sweet spot than alternative solutions.”

The Barriers of EPUB3

EPUB3 is an emerging native ebook format that allows for tremendous flexibility. It can be integrated into e-readers, HTML5 Reading Platforms, and dedicated apps on Android and iOS.

Currently, Apple iBooks does the best job with EPUB3 creation with the iBooks author program. It allows for super flexible books to give you tons of media enhancements with Google Earth, Video, Audio, and links to external websites. All of this is accessed via the iBooks app, but is only limited to Apple products and not available via Blackberry, Android, or PC’s.

There is a ton of synergy between HTML5, CSS, and EPUB3. HTML5 has been adopted as the XHTML format to render text and MathML can render complex math and symbols. You could say that EPUB3 is an amalgamation of the best aspects of interactive web content and the traditional form of publishing.

There are tons of barriers facing the wider adoption of EPUB3 right now. Major publishers have not committed to producing content in this fashion. Hachette has been the only large publisher to really say it will begin a massive effort to produce a number of big name titles in 2013. Major ebook reading apps all have the ability to display EPUB3, but what good is it if publishers aren’t adopting it to release new material?

Q: There is a lot of talk about HTML5, EPUB3 and KF8 as future formats that allow for multimedia based books, what are the potential barriers stopping wider adoption?

Kath from ebrary said, “We believe that providing ebooks in EPUB3 to the research market is the direction of the future. That said, the DRM issues are a significant barrier that is stopping aggressive adoption of this standard in ebrary’s market. Our publisher providers require us to adhere to strict access limits that we are still working on supporting with the EPUB3 format. Many of our publishers are already providing EPUB2 content that we are able to ingest into our own systems. The barrier for us is primarily in displaying ebook content in a protected fashion.”

Babur from Kno mentioned, “We believe that EPUB3 is the way to go. It is an open format, which supports fixed layout as well as multimedia. This means that textbooks with sophisticated layouts can be published in EPUB3.” But what about the barriers between Kindle Format 8, or EPUB3? He provided a clarification. “EPUB3 and KF8 are formats/specifications for ebooks while HTML5 is a technology that can be used to build books in EPUB3/KF8 format. KF8 is a proprietary format, which is not a good way forward for wider adoption. An open format, such as EPUB3, holds the most promise.”

Michel from OceanHouse Media told us, “All of these formats are still lacking relative to the features that we can put into digital books delivered as apps. For example, we have a ‘record and share’ feature which is very deep, very intricate, and very powerful for children, educators, families in the military, etc. The user can record their voice while reading a digital book and then share the custom audio file via email with anyone, anywhere in the world. With a single tap, the person receiving the file has the ability to seamlessly integrate the recorded audio file back into their personal version of the app. These types of robust features will most likely never be available with HTML5 or EPUB3. The bottom line is that we prefer to push the boundaries of dedicated apps and believe they provide the best user experience and customer value.”

Allen from Wattpad had some great points. “The barriers to adoption are that, for the most part, readers don’t seem to want deep multimedia integration in their reading activity. You can see this in the market failure of interactive books, which haven’t really expanded beyond the children’s book genre. There needs to be a behavioral shift in how readers think of the very act of reading for the desire to be there. In many cases this is EPUB and MOBI/KF catching up to where HTML5 already is. The EPUB and MOBI formats were built primarily for text and print, and for devices that weren’t capable of being graphically intensive. As technology moves forward, and e-ink devices decline in popularity (being replaced either by LCD screens or e-ink/LCD hybrids) those formats needed to catch up to the times. Device fragmentation (different screen sizes, capabilities) is another issue here. The cost of production is high as custom development and testing is required across different platforms.”

Chris from Bilbary explained “KF8 is a curious format – the last time i checked it wasn’t compatible with all of Amazon’s own devices (even for just text) – but i’d need to double check that to know if it is still true. In edition, some say it is like EPUB3, others say it is EPUB3 with some additions and changes, packaged and combined with Amazon proprietary DRM. KF8, i think, will stay confined to Kindle devices – i don’t know of any advantages that it offers over EPUB3. I expect there will be some traditionalists that find it hard to move off PDF – this has always been important for those wanting complete control over layout – i am not sure how quick they will be to embrace the fixed layout elements of EPUB3. I also believe there will be a gradual transition overall to EPUB3 – though not all books will make full use of the feature set offered. This migration will probably be partially defined by the makers of publishing tools – the more they support the format, the more people will start producing content in it. Using HTML5 alone makes less sense – EPUB3 provides a framework and encapsulation for the creating of ebooks – so i would rather see consolidation around it rather than many disparate approaches.”

Sol Rosenberg the VP of Copia summed up, “The barriers are coming down quickly. First barriers were tools. Second barriers are the widespread adoption of epub 3 reader/viewer apps. All that will be history by the end of this year.”

Dedicated e-Reading Apps

Tablet computers are being forecast to overtake sales of PC’s by the 4th quarter of 2013. It is being estimated that over 145 million units will be shipped, which adds to the hundreds of millions currently in circulation. Many companies have devoted a significant amount of resources to developing a fleet of reading and ebook apps that will give users unique experiences.

Digital magazines, newspapers, and cookbooks often are responsible for many of the apps found on iBooks, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble’s ecosystem. If you have an iPad and download Rolling Stone, it acts as a dedicated app. Same if you download USA Today from Amazon, it is in essence an app.

Being able to bundle your content in the form of an app is very beneficial because you can customize the look and feel. You can include muiltimedia and customizable features. If you are a company producing lots of books, you can basically just mirror the same template and just interject new content.

One of the main problems is the fragmentation of the app experience. The New York Times looks very different than the Wall Street Journal, there is no consistency.

Many other companies make reading apps and sell books directly within them. You also have companies like Wattpad, Moon+, Aldiko, and others that hinge their bets on creating an expansive reading solution and allow people to import their own books onto their devices.

Q. What are your views on maintaining dedicated apps for iOS and Android as a method to view ebooks?

Babur from Kno explained, “We believe it is necessary to build native apps for each platform for the optimal consumer experience. Each platform has specific navigation and user experience paradigms that need to be followed. At Kno, we aim to make sure the technology seamlessly integrates with the user’s experience and the student is more engaged in the content rather than navigating the technology.”

Allen from Wattpad talked about his company’s position, “A big part of our mission at Wattpad is to build a ubiquitous reading experience. 80% of the time spent on Wattpad is already happening through our iOS and Android apps on both phones and tablets. So for us, developing for the iOS and Android is our main priority. It works with our vision for delivering a new reading experience that eliminates the distance between readers and writers.
We’re not trying to replicate the experience of print, we’re pretty different from most companies in the publishing ecosystem who are experimenting with things like dedicated book apps. At Wattpad we have a very different view of content, which is that the container format isn’t as important as the ability to share and connect with audiences through a new form of mobile-first reading entertainment.”

Kathy from ebrary mentioned, “Ebrary plans to continue maintaining dedicated apps for iOS and Android in the near future. In addition, we will be focused on implementing a web-based mobile-friendly design for our ebook, search, and bookshelf experience. Based on our current usage statistics, we find that most of our mobile users are using apps to access our ebook content rather than the mobile browser. Based on these statistics, we would like to provide all avenues for a customer to be able to easily discover and use ebook content, including both apps and web-based mobile experiences. As the market trends shift, we will also shift to meet the needs of our customers.
Additionally, the library and academic markets have uniquely stringent DRM requirements for some of our ebook publications. By using mobile apps, we are able to implement stricter protections on the ebook content (device based authentication) than we can implement using a browser based experience. This means we are able to provide less restricted access through the apps than the mobile browsers at this time.”

Chris from Bilbary elaborated “I expect there will be a place for dedicated apps for the foreseeable future – most publishers still require ‘traditional’ ebook DRM – namely that provided by Adobe Content Server – so the only way to display this content is with a native app developed using the Adobe RMSDK. This is not an ideal scenario and something that we hope we will see change – especially as there are question marks around support for EPUB3. DRM is not the only consideration – there are a number of other benefits to native apps that are currently well suited to ebook readers. For example, access to device specific features such as notifications or local storage to allow viewing content and reading whilst not connected to the internet. In some ways on the app stores are also an advantage – it provides an additional channel for discoverability.

Michel from Ocean House Media finalized, “From our perspective, we believe that the highest quality, most interactive children’s books can be built only as apps. So, we’re 100% committed to building apps for iOS and Android using our dedicated omBook (Oceanhouse Media digital book) technology foundation.”

Q: Do you see the infrastructure and internal resources spent on developing a fleet of apps as worth it?

Allen from Wattpad said, “Smartphone adoption across the globe is skyrocketing. Many people are being exposed to Wattpad first, and in many cases only, through our mobile experience. I can only speak for Wattpad, but for us it is absolutely worth it for us to invest in developing the mobile (app and web) experience.”

Kathy from ebrary told us, “Yes, the current level of investment is appropriate. Our customers have long requested mobile applications to read our ebook content. Our goal is to satisfy the customer needs and provide content access where our end users are most comfortable. Additionally, the level of investment required to support app development is not very high. It is appropriate given the rise in customer satisfaction levels that an app brings.”

Babur from KNO verified, “We do. Having said that, we have optimized the stack is such a way that we can leverage a significant portion of the stack across the apps. This includes both C/C++ libraries as well as features built with web technologies such as HTLM5.”

Michel from Ocean House has a ton invested in dedicated apps, “We do see the value of committing the internal resources required for developing children’s digital book apps. This is especially true now that we have over 120 apps available on a common framework.”

Chris from Bilbary finalized “While they should not be the only way of allowing users to interact with our service or to read our books, we will continue to invest time in ensuring our customers have the right tools to access our content. While our long term hope would be to have one ‘mobile app’ across all platforms, in the medium term i expect we will still have to maintain a number of different codebases – even if elements of them converge to create ‘hybrid’ apps – namely native apps containing HTML5 functionality, alongside a pure HTML5 access mechanism. There are a number of features that, at the moment, would be hard to provide in the pure HTML5 solution.

Q: What is the Future of Digital Publishing?

Michel from Ocean House mentioned, “We have been publishing digital children’s books as apps for the last three and a half years. We have seen fast, widespread growth and we expect the trend to continue as tablets and smartphones become more ubiquitous not only in the U.S. but also around the world.”

“This is an exciting time for digital publishing. A book is no longer a static piece that gets updated every 3 to 5 years. It is now a dynamic, living/breathing repository of information. When the first black president of United States takes the oath of office, publishers can update the book in real time and not have to wait for years to do so. At Kno, we have built tools for publishers to do just that!” said Babur.

Rita from Read an eBook Week informed us, “The future of digital publishing is ‘onward and upward.’ Nothing will stop it from growing exponentially. Even traditionally published authors want to be digitally published, something Warren Adler saw years ago when he acquired his complete list of books and short stories and published them in digital form. His contention is that he books will never go out of print. Publishing digitally has become much easier with the proliferation of programs designed to simplify the process. Diaries, family histories, how-to books, children’s books created by grandparents to gift to their grandchildren – these are all possible now with digital publishing. The public is taking advantage of the new media and they are loving the result.
Interactive e-books are not far in the future. It’s easy to imagine the old classics redone with interactive features. There are millions of traditional books that will have a new life once digitalized. Never again will a book be lost to readers because it is out of print.”

Allen from Wattpad was riveting with his comments “We’re always looking at ways to eliminate the distance that has traditionally separated readers and writers. Wattpad fundamentally changes the way people share and interact through stories. We see a future where readers are discovering, recommending and sharing stories as easily as they would a song or video. On Wattpad, content will be streamed to readers like episodes based on past likes and who they follow. This means readers are interacting with writers and other fans from all over the world as the consume the media together. So, the emotional, social hook that’s unique to our platform is getting to know the person who creates your favourite story.
We look forward to the millions of new connections that will be fostered on Wattpad along with the billions of new stories that will be written and shared by people all over the world in the coming years.”

Kathy from ebrary talked about what her company is doing with the future of publishing. “At this point in time, ebrary is in investigation for how to support both ingestion of EPUB3 content and display of this format. Our research is focused on how we can develop DRM protections that work with EPUB3. We hope to be able to support this format in the next 2 years. Additionally, Ebrary is just starting redesign of our Patron and Librarian products to a next generation product that incorporates EBL. We are still choosing our implementation technologies and we are strongly considering using HTML5 for our interface implementation.”

Wrap up

We hope you all enjoyed our second installment on the future of digital publishing and the potential barriers preventing more wide screen adoption. It is one thing to hear a singular mortal go on a rant about what the future may hold, but its another thing to hear about it directly from the movers and shakers of the publishing world, all with a vested interest in its continued success. I want to thank everyone who talked with me over the last few weeks contributing to this story, you are truly all stalwart heroes. Our final installment should be up late next week!

Michael Kozlowski (5223 Posts)

Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about electronic readers and technology for the last four years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the Huffington Post, CNET and more. Michael frequently travels to international events such as IFA, Computex, CES, Book Expo and a myriad of others. If you have any questions about any of his articles, please send an email to michael@goodereader.com

  • http://twitter.com/PhilipThrift Philo

    Seems like some publishers begin with an output-format-independent file (XML) and produce one or more output formats (EPUB2, EPUB3, HTML5 app, iOS app, …) from that file. They can’t control the changing device market.

  • epaper flip

    Ha ha… I was
    just surfing around and took a look at these reviews. I can’t believe there’s
    still this much fascination. Thanks for writing about this.

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