Thoughts on the IDPF and W3C Combination

Prior to the IDPF vote on the combination with W3C, I wrote up my thoughts on why I supported the combination to share with interested colleagues.  The members ultimately voted in favor of it, but since then there has been a fair amount of ongoing conversation in the ebook industry about the merits and potential downsides of the combination. As such, I decided to share my own prior thoughts on the topic publicly to add my own *personal* perspective to the conversation.

Now, I certainly do not claim to have superior insights into the ebook publishing and retail industry as our company is after all, a tech firm only, and I’m still somewhat new to the industry (just 10 years). But FWIW, here were my thoughts for those that are interested:
Why it seems like a good idea:
1.  The merger enables the book industry to have more direct self-interested influence on web standards as a whole through focused participation and engagement with W3C – standards that are, and will continue to be the foundation of EPUB, and that will also drive, shape, and largely power the future of nearly all digital content, marketing, eCommerce, distribution and back office infrastructures used by the book industry.
2.  Beyond influence on the standards themselves, increased engagement with W3C and co-contributors will result in increased knowledge and expertise of digital technologies within the industry, along with building relationships between people in the book industry and people in other industries that are critical to its success (e.g. social media, retail, marketing, advertising, software, hardware, and others)
3.  Increased engagement and alignment with EPUB by the W3C will facilitate increased adoption of EPUB in other industries, which will lead to more tools, services and vendors ultimately becoming available to the industry, as well as driving down the related technology costs through economies of scale.
4.  This increased scale and adoption helps offset the power of the tech giants to leverage proprietary technology to exert control over the industry and increase their competitive advantages, a risk that will increase dramatically under the current trend of market consolidation. Stronger open standards, with broader adoption and a diverse ecosystem facilitate a more level playing field, which is critically important to the financial growth of every company trying to thrive in this age of global tech titans.
5.  It is clear that W3C will pursue specifications related to digital publishing and digital publications irrespective of the merger. As such, if separate, competing and/or overlapping standards will emerge. This will create technical fragmentation in the industry, and lead to increased costs on many fronts, including  the costs of participation and membership fees in two different organizations – an inefficient use of resources and duplication of efforts.
6.  There are important business and trade topics that can and should be addressed by the collective industry to grow the market and reduce costs. Many of these topics are out of scope of the IDPF mission, are not international in nature, or rightfully encompass both digital and print.  There are organizations such as BISG and other industry bodies that can be appropriate venues for these topics. The merger will create increased clarity around the appropriate venue for such business and trade topics and provide an opening for such organizations to step up to those plates.

What I’m afraid of if the combination does not happen:
1.  IDPF membership, participation, and funding have recently declined greatly for a variety of external reasons, and this ongoing trend creates an increasing risk that the organization will, as an seperate body, be unable to make meaningful and sufficient forward progress on behalf of the book industry moving forward.
2.  Most of the individuals and companies that are very active in IDPF working group activities appear to strongly favor the merger, and are committed to engagement with W3C whether or not the merger occurs. Thus, If the merger is rejected, there are strong risks that participation in and support of IDPF by these important active members will erode.
3.  Given these factors, there is a substantial risk that the IDPF will find that it can no longer adequately fulfill its mission in the relatively near future, and therefore the EPUB standard will either become deprecated, or taken on by a different organization, under terms that are far less helpful to the book industry than what can be obtained now.
4.  Ebook standards now and into the future require the use of modern browsers to be displayed. It is no longer technically nor financially feasible to build alternative rendering technologies, as was common practice in the past. The book industry alone, via the IDPF, simply does not have sufficient leverage and engagement with the major browser vendors and operating system makers to facilitate implementation of the features that are now, and will be in the future, critical to the marketplace success and competitiveness of ebooks against other media types.
5.  Accessibility is increasingly important in ebooks both due to emerging marketplace requirements and govt regulation. Accessibility related standards and technical considerations therefore clearly must be a core component of all ebook standards efforts from now into the future, and must be developed in tandem and in close collaboration with A11Y specifications. The W3C will be the nexus of A11Y efforts and expertise in this rapidly developing arena. IMHO the IDPF will not be able to sufficiently achieve this as a separate entity. Even if possible, it would likely result in time to market delays, giving powerful momentum to alternative W3C standards or proprietary solutions.  The nature of regulation is that it places hard deadlines on deployment of compliant technologies, often having nationwide scope. This presents very significant risks that EPUB could be supplanted completely by competing and potentially proprietary technologies that get to market faster. This risk is particularly acute due to IDPF’s extremely limited resources (a single employee) and the small number of current volunteer working group contributors.
I myself have reservations and don’t begrudge those that have more. Just sharing my own personal perspective on why I supported the combination.
Happy Reading,