Publishing's Future: Paper or Plastic?

Newspapers on an electronic tablet instead of your front porch. Publishers moving away from print. And content that's designed once and published anywhere. If the visionaries at this year's Seybold Seminar conferences in Boston are correct, the publishing industry is on the brink of tremendous change.

Wild predictions of print publishing's impending demise have become as common at this annual publishing conference as doom-and-gloom Red Sox forecasts are at Fenway Park. Still, this year's Seybold conference has offered a glimpse of what alternative publishing might have in store for us.

Take Microsoft, which greeted Seybold attendees Tuesday with the announcement that the days of the morning paper were numbered. "In 20 years the broadsheet newspaper will be dead," said Dick Brass, Microsoft's vice president of technology development, who admittedly made his bold prediction while showing off the Tablet PC. The forthcoming Microsoft product is a lightweight, tablet-size touch screen device that boasts a resolution of 122 dpi on which we'll presumably read eBooks, peruse the news, and generally avoid the printed word.

So trees have something to look forward to.

Few of Tuesday's panelists and speakers were as dramatic as Brass. But most seemed to agree that the Internet-despite its recent pratfalls in the stock market-will play an increasingly vital, if not exclusive, role in the publishing industry.

The World According to Adobe

The clearest picture of this future came from Adobe President and CEO Bruce Chizen, who took the stage on Tuesday to outline Adobe's vision of the next stage of publishing.

"We are entering a whole new era," Chizen said. "It is no longer just about paper, no longer just about browsers on desktops. It's about getting information anywhere, anytime on any device."

Adobe's strategy-which the company unveiled last year as part of its Network Publishing initiative -uses the Internet, dynamic media standards such as XML, and, of course , an array of Adobe products to create a single publishing workflow capable of creating, managing, and delivering content reliably and effortlessly to multiple devices. The upshot? With little effort and even less time, information could be pushed to handheld devices, the Web, or print.

At least, that's the way Adobe sees it.

The problem with current publishing workflows, Chizen says, is a lack of interaction between people who design for print, the Web, and wireless devices. Content must be continuously redesigned for each medium, wasting valuable time and needless resources.

To make network publishing a reality, Abode is putting its weight behind two key technologies-the Portable Document Format (PDF), developed by Adobe to reliably package publications for electronic distribution; and eXtensible Markup Language (XML).

All Adobe programs will be XML-enabled in the future, Chizen says. That includes the upcoming update to InDesign, Adobe's page-layout application. XML lets publishers separate content from design. By breaking down content into its most basic elements-such as headlines, graphics, and story paragraphs-the pieces can be created once and then dynamically applied to multiple designs on multiple devices.

For example, a document created in InDesign could be created on the fly from small snippets of XML data, and then exported as a PDF file to be distributed as an eBook or on a Palm OS device. Then using the GoLive Web-authoring application, a designer could quickly import the same XML data into a new HTML document customized for Web viewing and quickly send the information over the Web or to a wireless device. In each case, the design and text flow would be perfectly suited for the intended device.

Adobe isn't the only one eyeing XML as the future of the publishing industry. At last year's Seybold conference, Quark announced that its new version of QuarkXPress would also be XML-enabled. Quark President and CEO Fred Ebrahimi is scheduled to speak at this year's conference on Thursday.

Farewell to Print?

The shift to XML publishing by Quark and Adobe does not in itself suggest that fewer publications will make their way onto the printing presses. In fact, both companies emphasize that this new publishing model should help traditional printers become more efficient and productive. Still, other industry observers acknowledge a continuing shift away from traditional print publishing.

"As a society, we are moving away from consuming information on paper," said Thad McIlroy, program director of Seybold Seminars, during a session on the 20-year view of publishing.

McIlroy pointed to statistics showing a steady decline in newspaper readership and the rapid growth of electronic documents. When display technology reaches 200 dpi (instead of a mere 72 dpi), McIlroy predicts that people will no longer dread reading long passages of text on a screen.

Craig Cline, vice president of content for Seybold Seminars, was more skeptical of a print-free future, noting that when it comes to reading books, people still prefer the convenience and comfort of paper. People prefer to be able to sense how far into a story they are and aren't comfortable taking an expensive and breakable piece of equipment along on their daily routine, Cline added.

Of course, once Microsoft invents a computer screen that can be crumpled up and left on a subway seat, all bets are off.

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