I should declare an interest here. I run a Web design and build agency. I believe in the Web and I always have done. This might seem like a strange thing to say - like believing in the merits of breathing, eating and sleeping. The benefits of the Web are so self evident, and it has been adopted so widely that you would think that the technology hardly needs advocates.
But apparently this is not the case. This month, WIRED Magazine's UK edition declared that HTML is a "clunky" language. Their US Creative Director Scott Dadich is instead advocating a proprietary format for the iPad version of WIRED magazine, based on Adobe's Flash, Air and PDF technologies, which will apparently enable them "to retain control of the quality of the product in a way we weren't able to do with HTML". This is wrong in so many ways.
It is shocking and ironic for WIRED Magazine to reveal such an ignorance for the Web, and what it represents. HTML is not a "clunky" language*. It is a clean, simple, elegant document format that introduced two key concepts: hypertext and interoperability.
- Hypertext revolutionised the written word with the concept of hyperlinks (otherwise known as "links"), enabling words within a passage of text to link to text on separate pages, within separate documents stored on separate servers in separate geographies.
- Interoperability means that you could read any page on the Web with one piece of software - a Web browser. Gone were the days of not being able to read Mac files on a PC, Word files in Word Perfect, or whatever.
Newspaper and magazine publishers recognised the Web as a disruptive technology that represented both an opportunity and a threat. They could see that writing on the Web was the writing on the wall for print-based publishing. It threatened their advertising sales, and circulation revenue. Plus, the democratising nature of the web meant that editors would be forced to come down from their ivory towers to occupy the same media as amateur bloggers. How ghastly.
So, reluctantly, magazines and newspapers set up their websites, usually in the form of a second rate version of their print publication. The mediocrity of these sites meant that they largely failed to attract an audience and advertisers. Few sites dared to charge subscription fees, and those that did tended to adopt a "freemium" model where much of their content was free, but some content resided behind a paywall. And that was it. They waited, watching their print circulation dwindle, and hoping for a salvation that would never come.
Then, one day, Steve Jobs uttered the word "iPad", and the slumbering publishing industry twitched back to life. Was Steve going to be their knight in shining armour, dashing to their rescue as he had done for the music industry, when he saved them from Napster? The simple answer is "no". While Apple is somewhat interested in selling digital books, they have shown no interest in creating a digital magazine store. But of course, publishers are welcome to create their own iPad Apps if they wish.
Adobe, on the other hand, is in the same boat as the publishing industry. Their business is predicated on propriety locked-in formats such as Flash and Acrobat, which have increasingly become redundant as HTML has gone from strength to strength. With the advent of HTML5, there will soon be no need for Flash, as users increasingly adopt modern HTML5 capable web browsers like Safari and Chrome.
Several publishing companies have demoed their vision for electronic magazines. In every case, they have essentially been the same thing: repurposed print layouts in PDF and Flash, with embedded video, which can only be browsed in a linear way, like an old fashioned magazine. Hardly visionary. Worse still, since Flash publications are locked into a binary, proprietary format, the core principles of the web - linking and interoperability - are broken. I can see why this model is appealing to editors and art directors, since it gives them a kind of control that simply doesn't existing on the Web: precision layouts, undivided reader attention, and user feedback restricted to a few stately "Sir!" epistles on the letters page. Heaven forbid that their pristine PDF pages should be tarnished with messy hyperlinks and user generated content.
True publishing visionaries will embrace the Web - not avoid it.
* albeit, it has been used in clumsy ways in the past, but the days of table-based layouts are now long-gone.