The age of ePub

Yesterday I wrote about my fun day writing something which was terribly boring – a user documentation manual. As I wrote it led me to ponder the nature of user documentation in general. Specifically, what format it should take when it’s shared with the users.

For years the go to choice has been “Portable Document Format,” or PDF. This really is an ideal “read only” format for sharing final documents with a mass audience. It can be read anywhere, the standard to create the file is open and can be implemented by anyone with the knowhow so there’s no vendor lock-in, and the way you format a document looks the same for everyone. When a document is shared in an editable format, like a Microsoft Word file, many variables have an impact on what the document looks like. Fonts, in particular, might be different from system to system – this creates the classic shared document phrase, “Well it looks ok on my computer.” 1 PDF solved a problem, and solved it brilliantly.

Then we all got smart phones.

If you’ve ever tried to read a PDF on a smartphone, even the super-sized models currently on market, you have learned a new definition of the word “frustration.” PDF’s, after all, are designed to either be printed or viewed on a large screen. Reading one on a smart phone strains the eyes and requires much horizontal scrolling to read content. Tablets are much better for PDF’s but even then the format doesn’t feel “native” on a touch screen.

In a mobile screen world, a new way to share completed documents back and forth is needed – something which can overcome the differences between systems and be easily read no matter the size of the screen. It should also be based on an open standard so, like PDF, we won’t be chained to one vendor to make use of it.

This basically the definition of an eBook. Specifically, an ePub.

ePub is an open standard for eBooks used by Barnes and Nobel, Sony, Apple, and others to create electronic versions of published works for their stores. Creating ePub’s, however, can be done by anyone with the right software on just about any platform. Here’s a few examples:

While I uses Scrivener quite a bit, I’ve got to say Creative Book Builder is a fantastic eBook creator and a mind-blowing price 2.

The brilliant thing about a basic ePub is that is doesn’t bother with style at all, instead, the document is all about structure 3. Margins, font faces, indents, line spacing, and image placement are (mostly 4) irrelevant in a ePub. Instead, all the ePub wants to know is, “How does each block of content relate to the others in the book?” This means that authors don’t need to be concerned with how a page is laid out in their document, because the very concept of a page doesn’t exist.

The way the content of an ePub looks is mostly up to the user. They pick the font-face, determine margins and line-spacing, and choose the color scheme 5. Best of all? The flow of the book is automatically configured for the device one which it’s being viewed.

Given the nature of eBook readers ePubs have many advantages over PDF’s. Images can be tapped and enlarged with pinch-zoom – prefect for a images in a howto. They can be easily annotated with comments or highlights, searched for particular phrases, and synced between the same reading app on different devices. This makes an ePub idea for a user who is reading documentation and wants to come back to a previous highlighted point.

Still, much like a PDF, an ePub isn’t a universally perfect solution. The screen size of mobile devices makes displaying tabulated data extremely difficult. While annotating and ePub is even easier than a PDF, and is more easily searched, it’s not easy to export an annotated file to share with others. This is something at which PDF excels. The absence of a the page concept makes it more difficult to make sure text appears on the same screen as the text which refers to it – making the content more difficult for the reader.

Even with these drawbacks, however, I’m convinced. ePub, or some other open 6 eBook standard, is the way we will be sharing completed projects out to the “masses” in the near future. The advantages are just too wonderful too be ignored.

  1. Don’t get me started on Microsoft Publisher files, people who send these out as advertisements really hurt my brain. 
  2. The Android version does, however, lack some of the features found in iOS. 
  3. Yes, power users can do some styling if they want. 
  4. Again, power users. 
  5. All within the confines of whatever app they are using, that is. 
  6. Sorry, Amazon, I wish you guys would get on board. 
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