Electronic publishing

The converging technologies have changed the face of publishing far beyond the role of information services in providing a more accessible distribution channel. Various technologies have enabled almost all material currently being published in any media to be represented in digital electronic form at some point of its production process. The very existence of these digital representations reinforces the potential for electronic publishing, encouraging the development of a rich set of tools for manipulating those representations as well as opening up the traditional roles of author, designer, publisher, etc. for redefinition.

Although computer-based prepress systems preceded it by more than a decade, it was the desktop publishing revolution of the late 1980s that set the scene for fully electronic publishing. The use of increasingly commonplace personal computers, especially Apple’s Macintosh, put publication content into forms which could be readily adapted for various purposes. The introduction of drawing and layout tools, a wide choice of typefaces and typestyles, image scanners and image manipulation software gradually brought a new design literacy to significant sections of the computing and computer-user communities. With a large pool of would-be authors cum publishers starting to produce aesthetically acceptable laser-printed pages, the ground was prepared for wider appreciation of the more complex issues of colour, motion, sound and interaction—the facilities for which subsequent generations of personal computer technology have rapidly added to the desktop.

While Ted Nelson had talked about “hyper-media” two decades earlier, it took until the early 1990s for issues of document and interface aesthetics to have to become reasonably familiar to the computing community. Around that time, Tim Berners-Lee at CERN and Marc Andreessen at NCSA were developing the World Wide Web and its Mosaic user interface, respectively. But before Mosaic started to show the possibility of multimedia on the Internet, the combined efforts of major electronics and computer companies established CD-ROM12 as a major platform for distribution of multimedia ‘titles’ for use with personal computers. A CD-ROM drive became almost standard equipment on PCs shipped during 1994 and the range of titles expanded rapidly. Games, educational titles, encyclopaedia, telephone directories and computer software are now routinely supplied on CD-ROM, and this medium is becoming the focus of numerous experimental developments.

One still largely unanswered challenge for the exploding multimedia content industry is the paradigm(s) for interaction. Our 1992 study of technologies in the delivery of higher education confirmed that models for interaction between users and multimedia content were developing slowly and incrementally, leading us to suggest that:

The higher education sector should be a leader in the utilisation of CD-ROM and actively participate in trials of newer formats, especially with a view to improving the quality of interaction between learners and the content of multimedia courseware.

Tinkler et al, 1994: 100

Since that study was undertaken a few landmark CD-ROM titles have appeared,13 but none of them offer a paradigm for interaction which is likely to find application across more than a small subset of the genre of interactive multimedia, be it on CD-ROM or the World Wide Web. For the immediate future, interaction with the distributed hypermedia that form the Web will continue to be dominated by ‘point and click’ hypertext link navigation. Internet delivery of richer interaction potentials, such as those pointed to by some CD-ROM titles and by computer animation and simulation, awaits some further layer(s) of functionality being built atop the Web, just as the Web itself has been built atop other standard Internet services. We will look more closely at one promising step in that direction towards the end of this story.

The expansion of media possibilities can enable an author to self-publish an electronic journal on the Internet or, at the other end of the scale, for the kind of production team that would be needed to produce a TV feature to be brought together to produce an interactive CD-ROM. It may be somewhat ironic that one of the key standards on which the World Wide Web is based represents an attempt to define the logical boundary between the responsibilities of the author and those of the graphic designer.

Standard General Markup Language (SGML) is a system for separating the author’s responsibility for defining the structural elements of a text (headings, paragraphs, emphasis, list of points, citations, etc.) from the graphic designer’s responsibility for the appearance of that text (typefaces, typestyles, justification, margins, etc.). While the SGML standard was mandated by the US Department of Defense for electronic document processing systems, it had little impact on the commercial forces of the desktop publishing revolution which served to largely obscure the author-designer separation that had been traditional in print publishing. However, computer screens vary much more in their presentation constraints than do pieces of paper, and so proved less than satisfactory as an output medium for the PostScript page description language whose ‘device independence’ underpinned desktop publishing. The great range of computers and screens on the Internet gave the concept of leaving the appearance details to the viewer’s computer a new lease of life, especially following the development of SGML-compliant HyperText Markup Language (HTML) as the standard for representing the primary navigable documents of the World Wide Web.