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Is EPUB the future of rich media?

The EPUB file format is definitely taking off like a rocket for ebooks and text-based “packaged” web content (such as RSS feeds).  But what about rich media?  Well, the format certainly can contain content that includes video, sound, animation, games, apps, etc.   And, Adobe Digital Editions will render that kind of content (if it is Flash-based) and Adobe Content Server 4 can apply copy protection to it (if you need that because you are a library, etc).   Ah, but what about mobile you might ask…

Yes, today the best thing one can say about EPUB is that you certainly can (and should) provide alternative content for the mobile devices that don’t support rich media.  For example, if you have a travel book with a video tour of a hotel on a given page, you could have a photo appear in that page instead when read on a low functionality device.  This is allowed for in the EPUB spec.  Surely though, it would be better if all mobile devices supported rich media in EPUBs, or at least more of them…

It seems that very soon, this situation will change.  Adobe has announced that it is working hard on Flash Player 10 for iPhone, has demoed it running on an Android phone, and Flash Light is already on millions of handsets.  And does anyone doubt that a touchscreen tablet netbook with a low power consumption screen could become the ebook device of choice?  ePaper devices, like the Sony Reader, lack the hardware necessary to render some rich media today, but I imagine that will also change quickly. I do note that the Sony Reader Digital Book already has a headphone jack.

That said, I think that it is important to step back and consider that for many years we may have digital displays in the market that don’t support rich media - or at least not fully.  Like disposable ePaper publications perhaps?  If not explicitly disposable, there certainly will be viable niches for low-cost, low-functionality devices/surfaces IMHO.  Does this mean we can’t ever use rich media in “packaged mixed media content”?  Of course not.  The challenges there are on the marketing side (and the distribution model is a huge component of the new digital marketplace).  We already have differing user experiences, for example with B&W ePaper screens versus color LCD (and some mobile apps don’t even support images).  Should no ebooks ever have color photos?  Keep in mind that not all MP3 players, or even ipods show video, or run apps. That does not seem to be slowing Apple down too much.

But what would you do with rich media in an EPUB?  Well, beyond the independent game developers, filmmakers, musicians, etc. who might actually make a buck leveraging a mainstream packaged content format, there are tons of ways to complement existing book content.  Here are just a few examples that appeal to me personally:

Travel Guides with: video tours of destinations, self guided audio walking tours, destination slideshows, interactive maps, hotel finder app, etc. (even cooler when the ebook has access to the device’s GPS data).

Cookbooks with how-to videos with some recipes - or a similar concept in any DIY book.

The Audio Book version included in the EPUB with a nifty player that remembers your spot.

Children’s book with animated flourishes and soundtrack music.

Marketing Content: meet the author video, movie previews, cross marketing (e.g. cover flow like browser of other similar books with one click purchasing) or a TV-like book review “show.”

Social Applications: shared annotations, send or post a quotation, interact with the author - either canned like in DVDs or live events, reader feedback to publisher, etc.

There are also some really interesting things you could do that go completely beyond linear content.  Consider a book that “customizes” itself to the reader - such as a travel book that you “tell” that you are a family of 4 with gramma along in a wheelchair, and it automatically “features” destinations, hotels, and activities that you might be interested in as you go through it.  Sound like science fiction?  It is not far off.  Check out the demo we did for Adobe’s new Text layout Framework for Flash Player 10.  Once you have full programmatic control over text in real time, it opens some amazing doors.  In my opinion, there’s not much of a “richer” media than dynamic text.

UPDATE: We put together a crude demo of a rich-media EPUB file and posted it here


Micah Bowers is the UX director at Seattle-based interactive agency Bluefire Productions.

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