Last week, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos said the e-tailer had reached "a tipping point" with its Kindle e-book platform: with a price now below $200 for the Kindle reader, sales have tripled, Bezos said, and Kindle e-books now outsell hardcover editions on Amazon. Indeed, Bezos's pronouncement is the latest in what is shaping up to be a year of tipping points for the e-book, from the launch of the iPad to the imminent launch of Google Editions. And we can expect a lot more e-book tipping points to come, says California entrepreneur Jared Friedman, chief technology officer of "social publisher" Scribd, thanks to a technology tipping point: HTML5, the long overdue update of the Web's lingua franca, HTML.
In a series of speeches in May, from the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco to the Disrupt Conference in New York, Friedman has touted upstart Scribd's bold decision to dump years of Flash development and to convert its entire site to HTML5. "You have to understand that it'd been about 10 years since HTML was last updated," Friedman tells PW. "There's actually another whole story about why HTML was stagnant for so many years and why only recently we have been able to change it, but that's for another article. With Web 2.0 and social networking, let's just say the Web was really ready for a makeover."
A makeover, Friedman insists, that will have a great impact on the future of publishing. "Until recently," he notes, books, magazines, newspapers, and other published content "never quite fit in" on the Web, and "formats are a big reason why." With HTML5, however, format problems are no longer an obstacle—today's powerful browsers can now embrace book pages as Web pages, a key development for digital reading and publishing, and a significant upgrade from the first wave of image-based digital reading solutions. "If you look at the industry giants that are behind HTML5—Apple, Google, Mozilla, Microsoft," Friedman adds, "the weight of those players suggests that we're at a don't-look-back point."
PW caught up with Friedman to talk about HTML5, the future of publishing, and Scribd.
Why are you convinced HTML5 will unlock the potential of the e-book and digital reading?
Simply put, because the new features in HTML5 mean that e-books and digital reading can now enjoy all the advantages of the Web. So far, digital reading formats have forced readers to choose between an impoverished Web experience or a frustrating patchwork of proprietary formats and applications tied to specific devices. But with HTML5, we can now display written works digitally in a way that is enjoyable to read, that retains the distinctive appearance of a work's original design, and that takes advantage of everything the Web and our mobile devices can offer us.
With HTML5, book pages can literally become Web pages as opposed to images encased in a locked-down, artificial frame inside a browser, preserving complex designs unique to documents, books, or magazines, from fonts to images, vector graphics, rotated text, precise positioning. Maybe most importantly, HTML5 e-books are universally accessible. That means publishers get access to the largest audience possible, because HTML is an open standard, supported anywhere. If you convert your content to HTML5, almost any device can read it.
After a decade of hyped predictions, the Kindle finally scratched the surface of the e-book's consumer potential. With HTML5, do you think e-books might finally live up to the hype?
It would be overstating my case to say that the whole reason e-books didn't really work well until now is because of formats. Formats are part of the story, but there are a lot of other pieces as well, such as the development of mobile devices and e-readers, and the greater willingness of publishers to license frontlist content for sale online, which, until the Kindle store, really wasn't the case. With the Kindle, we finally got a mobile device with mainstream adoption that could display written content well and a partner that publishers were used to working with. That was a big breakthrough for e-books. There are a lot of other details that have made the Kindle successful, too, like its built-in payment system, which enabled one-click purchasing without having to be hooked up to a computer—it works over the cellphone network—so now you can not only read books on the go, but buy them, too. Amazon did a lot of things that were very smart.
This is the May 27th PW Show Daily as a Scribd HTML5 document.
But is it fair to say that technology and formatting have held back e-books and digital reading so far?
Absolutely, formatting is a very, very important part of the e-book ecosystem. With early e-books, content was usually delivered via a PDF that you'd read on a computer or on some cellphones—and there were a lot of problems with that. For one, the DRM system around PDFs was poorly integrated into those early devices, which made digital reading very clumsy and frustrating for users. But really, PDF is just not the right format to read long-form content, because the content does not reflow. When you're reading on a mobile device, the ability to reflow text is critical. With Kindle, Amazon finally got that right—the text reflows.
So, if PDF was e-book 1.0 technology, I think of the Kindle, with its reflowing content, as e-book 1.5. Now, with HTML5 and tablets like the iPad, we are finally entering e-book 2.0, because with HTML5 and the next wave of devices, publishers can finally render all their content, from novels to glossy magazines, in the way they really should be rendered. And by making content available through ordinary Web browsers, we eliminate the artificial distinction between Web pages and pages of long-form written content. That means readers online can have access to the same social functionality they've come to expect everywhere else on the Web, like sharing what they're reading with friends on Scribd, Facebook, or Twitter, or other interactive features. There is convenience, too. If readers find something and start reading it on their laptop or desktop, they can continue reading on their mobile phone during their commute home.
At Scribd, you have pretty much bet the company on HTML5, investing a lot of work and money to convert all the content on the site to HTML5, literally billions of pages, as well as creating an HTML5 reader. What convinced you this was the way to go?
We first started thinking about the HTML5 switch around November 2009, maybe a little earlier. At the time, very few people outside of those who make browsers had really heard of it—we certainly weren't jumping on a bandwagon or anything. When we started working on our HTML5 reader, we didn't even know if it was possible, but it was such a compelling idea that it was worth trying.
Of course, Apple and Adobe have since put HTML 5 in the news with a very public battle over mobile app development and whether that future should include Flash. But we made our decision to switch to HTML5 long before that debate went public, because we wanted to help usher in a new era of publishing and reading, where documents, books, presentations, can enjoy the same experience as blogs and news sites do today, with the same social interaction, and the same universal accessibility. But when we first began looking at the options available for displaying written materials, like Flash, PDF, or other image-based viewers, honestly, we weren't happy with any of those solutions. So when Firefox and Chrome announced they were going to roll out support for HTML5, for us, that was the shotgun blast that kicked off the race.
You mention the Steve Jobs vs. Adobe skirmish over Flash. So let me ask, briefly, is Flash going away?
No, Flash is not going away. Flash is a very powerful tool for many, many uses across the Web. If you're building a game or an audio mixing application, for example, Flash is undeniably the best tool kit. For publishing, though, Flash is just unnecessary. Flash was never designed for reading long-form text, and it shows. The latest browsers, however, are built for reading, and having Flash in the middle really does hamper the experience.
The improved user experience with HTML5 is exciting stuff, but it doesn't address a major concern for publishers: how they make money on the Web. Will HTML5 mean better or new revenue or promotional opportunities?
HTML5 is related to monetization, but not directly related, because HTML5 doesn't define any new way to sell content. But it does enable more people to use content they've purchased on any platform—and that will make consumers much more likely to purchase digital content. For publishers who advertise, HTML5 will have an even bigger impact, because there is a deep monetization ecosystem that has developed around Web content, with many players, from ad networks and ad exchanges, to yield optimizers. As soon as you convert your content to HTML5, you get access to that ecosystem. For newspapers, magazines, and others who rely on advertising, that's critical. Can book publishers also take advantage? They absolutely can. Earlier in publishing history, publishers used to run ads in printed books. It's possible that with HTML5, publishers can look to include unobtrusive, relevant interactive ads around e-book content, like serializations, for example. Perhaps we'll see a resurgence and transformation of an ad-based model in digital book publishing. It's early, but I think examining that option makes sense for some content.
One industry observer, Kevin Reichard, writing at Tomorrow's Book.com, scoffed at your recent pitch to publishers to work with Scribd, complaining there were already too many layers between publishers and consumers. How do you respond to that?
I think Kevin misunderstood my argument. He reacted by saying that publishers shouldn't need a middleman between them and their customers, and I agree, they don't. That wasn't my argument. The argument I was trying to make is that it is easier for publishers to distribute their content with HTML5 and HTML-derived formats like EPub. Yes, Scribd is one way publishers can turn their content into HTML5, but HTML5 is an open standard, and anyone can use it.
Here's what Scribd offers publishers: First, we'll take content in any format and turn it into HTML5 markup that will read well on any device with a Web browser. Second, we offer a platform that enables content to reach a huge audience with an integrated social experience. The Scribd community numbers more than 50 million registered users. Each day, we get more than 1.5 million Web searches on Scribd.com, and through our own internal Scribd search—we get over a million per day—we serve users who are looking for content just on the Scribd site, and, there are more than 250,000 of what we call "readcasts," which is essentially a broadcast of what people are reading to their friends and followers on Scribd, Facebook, and Twitter. And the Scribd community recommends what they "like" to read to their friends on Facebook nearly 40,000 times each day.
I think some publishers and authors still aren't exactly sure how to use Scribd, or what you can offer them. Can you briefly put Scribd's business in context with the choices out there for digital reading?
We were very inspired by YouTube. When we were starting our company, and this is before YouTube was bought by Google, we asked ourselves: if YouTube is for video, and Flickr is for photos, what other type of content should be easily sharable on the Web? The answer was written material. Even though the Web was initially based on written material, long-form written material was just not easily shared on the Web. So we created Scribd as a place for people to share what they are reading, writing, and publishing, just as people use YouTube to share videos. Authors and publishers can use Scribd to engage their readers, get direct feedback from subscribers, or promote their latest works. They can also sell their works in the Scribd store, set their own price, and retain 80% of the sales. Scribd also helps works to be found via search and, more importantly, through social recommendations both on our site, as well as on other sites, like Facebook or Twitter, or through embeds or syndication on news sites, blogs, and other Web sites.
YouTube that probably scares some publishers as much it excites them because as great as it is for promotion and distribution, it's also seen by some, like Viacom, as an engine for infringement. How do you answer those fears at Scribd?
With some of the best, if not the best, copyright management practices in the industry. We have developed our own copyright management system, and we continually make investments and improvements to the system, like the addition of optical character recognition technology. All books and other written works sold in the Scribd store are automatically added to the CMS and given a digital "fingerprint" to help prevent against unauthorized uploads.
Do you think HTML5 holds broader implications for the book itself, as a medium? Do you see authors or publishers moving beyond staid print editions toward something more multimedia, or at least more fluid?
That's a good question. I think the idea of turning written content into a more full-featured multimedia experience, which just a few years ago was widely regarded as a bastardization of written content, is now regarded as an interesting if still experimental development. Are we seeing this activity on Scribd? Yes, absolutely. Again, you've hit on a key benefit of HTML5—that content isn't walled off in such a way that users can't take advantage of the tools and functionality we now expect from Web content. For example, we've always wanted to offer people the ability to embed video in their content, which is critical for things like presentations, and we tried for ages to allow people to embed video in their Flash documents, but it was a difficult engineering challenge, even for us, and we're an engineering company! With HTML5, embedding video is now as simple as copying and pasting an embed code. The technology makes basic things like edits much easier, too. Once a traditional book is done, you just can't easily do edits or updates. In the digital age, that's just silly. It is virtually costless to update an electronic file. I don't really know how the book will change, but I'm pretty convinced that in the future, books will not be locked down, and authors will be able to, among other things, update, enhance and edit versions of their books at will.
HTML5 And the Future of Publishing
As an open platform, HTML 5 means that there's no technology barrier between you and your readers, no need to download an app; it all works in your browser. Here is why this is important:
Social engagement: A better reading experience means more engaged readers that are more likely to recommend your content to their friends. Take, for example, publisher Chelsea Green, whose backlist book Marijuana Is Better was read more than 100,000 times and downloaded over 11,000 times in two days. At Random House, 52 Ways to Die in a Cave, a simple one-page promotion for its upcoming book Blind Descent, became a social media hit. If your content is not available in a natural, Web-based format, you're missing out on the free promotional value the Web brings.
Mobile distribution: Every mobile phone, tablet, e-reader, and PC with a browser now supports enough HTML 5 for us to display almost any content. When you convert your content to HTML, you gain access to the entire mobile market without having to write a separate app for each platform.
Monetization: For publishers open to experimenting with new revenue models, HTML5 opens up a slew of new opportunities. New advertising formats enable branded ads inside pages that can be targeted based on genre. Having your content on the Web also enables you to take full advantage of the deep monetization ecosystem that exists on the Web, rather than having to build your own.
Multimedia: There are dozens of Web sites and services designed to turn a book into a mobile app, a video or audiobook. HTML5 means new, simpler ways to make content more engaging with the addition of multimedia. Video, audio, games, animation, and other forms of media added to once-static pages enriches the reading experience and creates new forms of entertainment.