Sunday, May 9, 2010

With the ePub standard for eBooks rather firmly in place, the discussion has turned to what happens next. Many are curious about how interactive digital publications (eBook, eText, eMag, ePamphlet, etc.) might be implemented. Will they be implemented as iPhone OS applications that can only be experienced on Apple mobile devices (iPad, iPhone or iPod touch)? Will they be implemented with some future iteration of the ePub standard? Or will they be implemented in some other way?

The fact that the ePub standard really doesn't support interactivity leads some to settle upon applications as the way to go. Concerned with being restricted to Apple mobile devices and the much higher costs of participation of the app model, others have talked-up the possibilities of extending the ePub standard to include greater interactivity. DRM, by the way, can be applied to either of these options but experience has already shown that these protections can be defeated just as easily.

There is a third alternative that isn't getting much attention right now. I'll call it "Hyper Lit" for want of a better label. It's already here and living amongst us. We are not talking about this new alternative yet simply because we don't recognize it as a potential solution to this challenge. HyperLit is hidden in plain sight. That technology is nothing more than HTML 5 poured into new containers.

Take a look at the developer docs for iTunes LP and iTunes Extras at: It's nothing more than HTML, CSS and Javascript in a folder that has been zipped and given a new suffix, either .itlp or .ite. The evidence that anyone can create this kind of interactive experience is here: Note that .itlp and .ite files can be side-loaded into iTunes with drag & drop and that action totally circumvents the iTunes Store. No money changes hands.

Now imagine these containers holding interactive educational content. That package of content might have an identifying suffix such as .itlo (iTunes Learning Object) or .itlm (iTunes Learning Module). Further down the road, we can imagine these new media types being a part of an RSS feed (podcast channel episodes) handled by aggregators such as the iTunes application.

The application model will appeal to those who own or can rent the significant means of production required. It provides great flexibility in arranging interactive experiences and the illusion of protection from piracy. It also adds a measure of exclusivity which helps customers part with their money more easily. We can call this the monetized model for digital interactive reading experiences. Note that apps can be free to the consumer where the costs of production have been paid by some other, possibly eleemosynary, entity.

The ePub-based eBook model will appeal to those who concentrate upon providing a linear experience. Commercial interests will add DRM to "protect" the content from piracy and others will forego that option and rely instead on Creative Commons licensing or similar mechanisms. Depending upon the presence of DRM, we can call this either the monetized model for digital linear reading experiences or the open model for digital linear reading experiences. Since the cost of production using the ePub standard is very low, ePub-based models will be widely used.

The fledgeling HyperLit model will appeal to those who want to provide an open interactive reading experience. HyperLit documents will provide faculty and students with ways and means to talk about complex ideas with text, audio, video and animation, cite online sources and even initiate online dialog amongst the readers of a document. After all, a HyperLit document is basically a locally viewed web site using the file:/// scheme.

Thus, the digital reading experience will likely be available to us in several flavors, the traditional linear experience and new, interactive ways of engaging content. How these new interactive approaches to the reading experience get sorted out will be interesting to watch, especially in educational circles. There are lots of contenders. Not all will survive but it is equally likely that no one option will predominate. The need for open content on the one hand and the need for economic viability on the other are too great.

As for the reading experience itself, there are some interesting views already coming to the fore. Although focused exclusively on the novel, I found these two opinion pieces by Michael Grothaus to be interesting:

Dear John Makinson and Penguin, please don't "reinvent" books.

A tale of two mediums: Despite the iPad, traditional books aren't going anywhere.

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