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E-books, why so old-fashioned? Here's a Web wakeup call

Groups that advance Web and e-book technology want to join forces. That could make e-books livelier, richer and easier to read online.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
2 min read
​Web publishing technology, such as this visual explanation of computer programming by Mike Bostock, could make e-books more interactive.
Enlarge Image
​Web publishing technology, such as this visual explanation of computer programming by Mike Bostock, could make e-books more interactive.

Web publishing technology, such as this visual explanation of computer programming by Mike Bostock, could make e-books more interactive.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

For all the supposed disruption that e-books brought to the publishing industry, the digital versions look still look an awful lot like the paper ones you could have bought a century ago.

Nighttime orange text to avoid sleep disturbance is nice, but digital text on a tablet is basically the same as ink text on paper. Comic books and graphic novels go a bit farther. Still, most e-books fall far short of the creativity shown in paper with the "="" finger="" puppet="" book"="">"Little Lamb" finger puppet book or "="" pop-up="" book"="">Maurice Sendak's "Mommy?" pop-up book.

E-books could become much more dynamic and interactive, though. That's because two groups -- the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) -- are trying to join forces. The first advances and standardizes the technology underpinning the Web; the second the Epub format used to package e-books. In a statement Tuesday, Web creator and W3C leader Tim Berners-Lee said the planned merger would "create a rich media environment for digital publishing."

The current Epub 3.0 standard already uses Web technologies, but e-books remain a separate domain from the Web. The new Portable Web Publications effort would erase the distinction. That would make it easier to publish a single Web document that's conveniently separated into multiple chapters, lets you flip from page to page, and better handles math formulas in textbooks.

But the more exciting opportunities would be encouraging authors to draw on the Web's power: enlivening books with video, audio and photos; enriching them with links to outside sources like footnotes on steroids; and even adding running software like the dynamic illustrations in Mike Bostock's guide to visualizing various computer algorithms.

When you're flipping pages as fast as possible through the latest thriller or bodice-ripper, you may not want more than pages of text. That's fine. But so many books, especially for kids, education and non-fiction, could benefit from broader technical horizons.

And ideally, a Web-based e-book would have a better shelf life, so to speak, than an app version of a book like "A New Kind of Science," not updated since 2014, or "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," not updated since 2015 and not even available for Android phones or tablets. After all, the Web has a good reputation for longevity and reaches just about any computing device.