Generations of college students have lugged expensive textbooks around campus. But a few years from now, students could shuck that burden as web technology radically changes what exactly a book is.
Imagine a chemistry book with a pop-up periodic table of the elements for instant reference, a sucrose molecule that rotates under your fingertip to show its 3D structure, a video demonstration of titration procedures, a chat box to message the professor and a built-in quiz that directs you to any subjects you didn't understand. Oh, and it'll be updated continuously so it won't go out of date as soon as element 118 gets named oganesson.
Sound far-fetched? This e-book future is possible thanks to the World Wide Web Consortium's absorption of the International Digital Publishing Forum, keepers of the Epub standard for e-books. On Wednesday, the W3C and IDPF announced their merger plans are complete.
The merger means that e-books are going to get a lot smarter thanks to a deeper embrace of web technology. While it's simple for web browsers to show video and offer a quiz, it's well beyond what you'll see in e-books that you read on your Amazon Kindle. Expect that to change in coming years as e-books play a bigger role on your laptop or tablet.
"It's a painful and exciting transition for the publishing industry," said Patrick Johnston of publisher John Wiley & Sons. His title is director of platform architecture -- a job description you might expect to see at Google -- which reflects the fact that authors and publishers now face the same tech issues as people writing phone apps.
Specific efforts include work to define "web publications" that are better at packaging text and other material into a self-contained booklike entity rather than the web's more typically sprawling construction. There's also an effort to improve formatting matters like layout, typography and hyphenation and to chart the future of Epub.
Kids these days
Books printed on paper will remain important, but e-books are where much of the next generation will learn, said Rick Johnson, co-founder of education e-book seller VitalSource, now part of publisher Ingram Content. VitalSource sells 18 million digital titles to 4 million people at 7,000 campuses.
"When you talk about people in college or pre-college or who are learning on the job or as a part of their job, they need web technologies," Johnson said. "That's how they're learning now. I can't imagine training somebody on a job or in a school without being able to show them video, without being able to quiz them and show them results."
Eighty-seven percent of college students said they think interactive textbooks will help them learn better, according to a 2016 Wakefield Research survey of 500 students found.
The current Epub 3 standard is based on web technologies like HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) for content and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) for formatting, said Jeff Jaffe, chief executive of W3C. But while web transformed publishing the same way Gutenberg's press did in the 1400s, it's not a great match for for books.
"A book is the opposite of a web page," which typically has a scattered design that relies on links to other sites, Jaffe said. With a book, "an author has thought deeply about a topic, curated everything you want to know about it, and packaged into a single publication."
Jaffe wants that approach to be a more natural fit for the web. And as the web gets more booklike, books will get more weblike.
Paper books are great for linear reading -- start to finish, page by page. But e-books could have us hopping from one section to another or expanding and contracting subjects depending on what we're interested in.
Books for bots
The e-book package could contain much more than what a human reads. Wiley's Johnston is passionate about adding extra data to e-books designed for computer readers. That could be as basic as search terms to help you find the right related book on Google or Amazon, or it could be as sophisticated as the underlying data accompanying a scientific paper.
That kind of addition becomes more compelling when you consider that artificial intelligence experts hope for medical breakthroughs from computers that can spot trends from reading and digesting thousands of academic papers -- far more than a human could make sense of.
The convergence of the web and books will inevitably make the notion of a book more nebulous.
"Like with any transition, people get concerned or afraid," Johnson said. "But as people understand what's going on and embrace new opportunities, it's going to provide a renaissance and resurgence in the marketplace."
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