On February 1, 2017, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) officially announced its merger with the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), stating in a press release that “the vision to align Publishing and Web technologies and create a new roadmap for the future of publishing became official today.”
A global standards organization that develops Web technologies such as HTML, CSS, SVG, XML and WCAG, the W3C seeks to merge its technological innovations with the future of online publishing by bringing the IDPF — which developed the EPUB standard used globally for accessible ebooks and digital publications — under its umbrella.
Although the IDPF membership voted overwhelmingly in favor of this merger in 2016, many industry experts have expressed concern that the maintenance and advancement of the EPUB standard will fall by the wayside as a result. The loss of a standard file format threatens to return digital publishing to the “wild west” of years past, in which ebook file formats abounded, and publishers’ digital catalogs effectively became “walled gardens” due to limited compatibility of ebook file formats with the many reading devices and software on the market.
The merger is still fresh, however, and W3C is actively promoting a new publishing initiative, Publishing@W3C, with the goal of building standards and best practices so that “EPUB and the Open Web Platform can continue to grow and evolve.” They have launched an EPUB 3 Community Group, essentially an online forum for publishers and professionals to communicate and collaborate on the advancement of EPUB technology. Active user groups connote life out in the Open Source world, but the questions our industry poses is whether such a user group can effectively replace an entire organization dedicated to the EPUB standard (the IDPF). Note the disclaimer on the EPUB3 Community Group page: “W3C’s hosting of this group does not imply endorsement of the activities.” As community groups like this are open to the public, not just to W3C members, this disclaimer makes sense. Basically, it appears that the organization that is now the gatekeeper to the standard file format for ebooks is crowd-sourcing that standard in an open online forum.
Again, this merger is brand new, and the call for participation in the EPUB 3 Community Group was published a week or so ago. The evolution of this group, its organizational structure, and the standards it maintains and/or develops remains to be seen. The community forum format for development and maintenance of digital standards has worked well in the Open Source community from which W3C hails. But the question for publishers is: will this approach further the evolution of the publishing industry, as it has with software? Or will it have a destablizing effect on publishing?