Today’s devices – computers, mobiles, tablets and TV – demand new skills and new ways of thinking from software developers and designers. Some of these principles also apply to book publishers.

I went to the Adobe Refresh Roadshow today which was showcasing Adobe solutions for publishing to multiple platforms and devices. The presentations were really geared to developers and designers who already use Adobe software, but many publishers and editors are discovering they need some technical knowledge, either in a hands-on capacity or when communicating with their developers and designers.

Richard Galvan’s “State of the Union” keynote address covered several key trends in today’s computers, such as increases in processor power, battery life and bandwidth; new screen sizes; and new input methods. The use of mobile devices such as mobiles and tablets is increasing, and these new devices bring new challenges. Screen sizes are particularly variable, and size in inches is not the same as resolution, so two screens of the same dimensions may have completely different resolutions. Average screen resolutions are as follows: smartphones 240 x 320 up to 960 x 640; tablets 1024 x 768; desktops 1280 x 720;  TVs 1920 x 1080.

Content developers, according to Galvan, need to be mindful of the following:

  • today’s smartphone is equivalent to a desktop computer of 7 years ago
  • choosing which platform to develop for is not only about different operating systems but about different devices*
  • content needs to be optimised so that it doesn’t “suck battery life”
  • “dpi matters”, ie developers should create content for mobile device screens first, as it is easier to upgrade for desktop or tablet than downgrade.

Does any of this sound familiar or relevant to book publishers? Following are my immediate thoughts on the implications of the above four points for the book publishing industry.

Mindsets: smartphones vs desktops

It was particularly interesting to see the high number of developers present who raised their hands when asked if they only develop content for desktops. It seems that the developer community is as stuck in publishing applications for desktops (first) as much as the publishing community is stuck on print books. While both desktops and print books will be around for a long time, and will co-exist with mobile / digital, it seems that, for many, mobile / digital are still afterthoughts.

As in the publishing community, many developers and designers gained experience in a desktop world, and have to do some serious learning and skills upgrading to come to grips with the new languages and hardware available. Publishers and editors need to be aware that the IT developers and designers on whom they rely both for services and advice may not be completely up to date. Publishers who want to go down the “ebook as app” path, in particular, may be impeded by developers who only know how to develop for one platform, language or device (eg Apple’s App Store for the iPhone), or who can develop for multiple platforms (eg Google Android, Windows 7, etc) but don’t take full advantage of, in Galvan’s words, “device-generic features” or aren’t aware of alternative solutions to multiple app development for the same content.

Choosing platforms and devices

Book publishers as well as other types of content publishers now have to choose between a multitude of formats for different devices, even if they aren’t producing stand-alone ebook apps. In other words, the same content is published in many different formats. In some ways, this makes it even more imperative that the actual content – the words on the page (or screen) – is created, edited and stored in a process separate from the modes of production and publication. The content should be written and edited for perpetuity, as it always has been, and stored in a universally accessible format. (This is the promise of XML.) Only then should it be published to device-specific formats. While a print book can also be considered a universally accessible storage format (if you are in the same geophysical location and can read the language in which it’s written), it cannot be adapted to multiple outputs.

Optimise content to save battery life

How popular will ebook apps that “suck battery life” be? I have several ebook apps installed on my iPad, and I noticed very early on that I much prefer reading books on the iBooks and Kindle apps than on the Borders (Kobo) app. The Borders interface provides a much less seamless reading experience (the “downloading chapter” message is both intrusive and unnecessary) and it uses up more battery power than the other apps. Even the store was slow to load and navigate. In theory, browser-based ebooks that access personal libraries in the cloud, such as the Google eBookstore and Readings eBooks (the booki.sh library), should be as fast as the browser and connection enable, and as far as I can tell this is the case.**

Publishers choosing between different ebook distribution platforms should take performance (and usability) into account – particularly if they are only choosing one platform through which to sell their ebooks. Publishers developing multimedia ebooks have an even greater imperative to consider performance.

It is easier to upgrade than downgrade

Publishers developing multimedia ebooks that will take advantage of high-performance multimedia devices should think about developing and testing for the smallest screen size at the lowest resolution (eg a Smartphone) before thinking about how great the ebook will look on HD TV.

Book designers and editors should also think about usability on smaller screens. For example, long-winded chapter titles will either disappear off the screen, be reduced to an unreadable size or flow clumsily over several lines. A concise chapter title will look just as good on small screens, large screens and in print. Begin with a concise version before expanding to a longer version, if absolutely necessary.

Similarly, it is easier to add in multimedia features to a plain text book than to strip out features and have to double-check that the remaining text still makes sense and doesn’t have broken links or strange gaps.

* This was an Adobe roadshow, so naturally the focus was on how Adobe software solves some of these challenges.

** At the time of writing, Google eBookstore is still not available in Australia (frustratingly, not even to download the app to read the free content). I have only bought one book through Readings eBooks (launched only a few weeks ago) and have not had a chance to read it yet.

© Copyright 2011 Linda Kythe Nix. All rights reserved.