New models, new formats
Recently I have been experimenting a bit with reading newspapers on my mobile phone (a G1 android device), or maybe I should say “reading news on my mobile”. I looked at two Dutch newspapers that adopt two completely different approaches.
“NRC Handelsblad” publishes it’s daily print newspaper as a daily “e-paper” in PDF, Mobi and ePub format, to be downloaded every day to the platform of your choice. In order to read the e-paper you need a physical device plus software (mobile phone, PC, e-reader, etc.) that can handle one of the available formats. On my G1 I use the Aldiko e-reader app for android with the ePub format. The e-paper is treated as an e-book file, with touch screen operation for browsing tables of content, paging through chapters or articles, zooming, etc. Access to the e-paper files is on a subscription basis.
“Het Parool” on the other hand offers a free app to be downloaded from the Android Market that serves as a front end to all recent articles available from their news server on the web. There is no need for a daily download of a file in a specific format that has to be supported by the physical platform of your choice. There is also an iPhone app. The app and access to the news articles are free of charge.
Besides the difference in access (free vs paid), the most important contrast between these two mobile newspapers is the form in which the printed news is transformed to the digital and mobile environment. “NRC Handelsblad” takes the physical form the newspaper has had since it’s origin in the 17the century, dictated by physical, logistical and economical conditions, and transforms this 1 to 1 to the digital world: the e-paper still is one big monolithic bundle of articles that can’t be retrieved individually, completely ignoring the fact that the centuries old limitations don’t apply anymore. It is basically exactly the same as most manifestations of e-books.
“Het Parool” does completely the opposite. It treats individual news articles as units of content in their own right, “stories” as I call them in my post “Is an e-book a book?“. And this is how it should be in the digital mobile world. This is similar to the way that e-journals offer direct access to individual articles already.
Readers should be able to apply their own selection of “stories” to read in a specific, virtual, on the fly bundle, using the front end of their choice.
However, the “Parool” app functions as a predefined filter: it presents the reader with the most recent (24 hour max) articles from it’s own source of news. Of course this is fine as long as the readers choose to use the “Parool” app, but they may also choose to read news stories from different sources. This could be achieved with a different mobile, PC or web application that gathers content from a variety of sources.
Another drawback of the ‘Parool” implementation is that it does not offer a “save” option. There is no way to read old articles, other than to go to the official newspaper website, either through mobile browsing or by using a PC web browser. The “NRC Handelsblad” implementation on the other hand does offer this option, because it is based on a download model to begin with.
This brings me to the matter of mobile web browsing. Reading and navigating a web page designed for the PC screen on a mobile device is annoying at least, not to mention the time it takes to load complete web pages into the mobile browser. Common practice is to create a simplified version of full fledged web pages for mobile use only. Of course this means doubling the website maintenance effort.
An alternative could be the adoption of HTML 5 and CSS 3, as was stated at a Top Tech Trends Panel session at ALA Midwinter 2010, where a university library official said: “2010 is the year that the app dies“, because “developers can leverage a single well-designed service to serve both browser-based and mobile users“. But this view completely misses the point: “Apps are not about technology, they are about a business model” as Owen Stephens pointed out. This business model implies the separation of content and presentation in a much broader sense then that of database back end – website front end only. This was an innovative concept until a couple of years ago.
As I briefly described above, we need units of content being accessible by all kinds of platforms and applications through universal APIs. This model not only applies to reading texts, but also to finding these texts. Especially libraries should be aware of that.
Although the ALA Top Trends Panel stated that libraries’ focus should be on content rather than hardware, they did not touch upon the changing concept of what books are in the e-book era, as again Owen Stephens pointed out. New models and formats will have all kinds of consequences for the way we handle information. For instance: pages. A PDF file, which is a 1 to 1 translation of the print unit to a digital unit, as I explained, still has fixed pages and page numbers. An ePub file however has a flexible format that allows “pages” to be automatically adapted to the size of the device’s screen (thanks to @rsnijders and @Wowter for discussing this). There are no fixed pages or page numbers anymore. HTML pages containing full articles don’t have page numbers either, by the way. This will change the way we refer to texts online, without page numbers, which is one of the subject of the Telstar project, again with Owen Stephens involved (watch that guy).
The flexible page is another reason to have a critical look at MARC. There is no use anymore for tags like 300,a “Extent (Number of physical pages, etc.)”, 773,g (“Vol. 2, no. 2 (Feb. 1976), p. 195-230“).
The inevitable conclusion of all this is that all innovative developments on the end user interface presentation front end need to be supported by corresponding developments on the content back end, and vice versa.