Digital publishing: the iPad vs CS5

Genuine revolutions in publishing don't happen often, but Adobe has big plans for the iPad and potentially for other tablet devices too.

While a lot of readers like print - it's convenient, portable and it works anywhere that isn't dark - it's also limited in obvious ways: you can't animate paper, you can't embed video, you can't add slide shows, and good colour print is expensive. It's also massively wasteful, with truckloads of newsprint being sourced, printed, distributed, thrown-away, and occasionally recycled, daily.

The iPad and other tablet devices offer a realistic alternative. While the first version of the iPad can be criticised for its weight and relatively low screen resolution, it's a good bet that future models will be slimmer and lighter. They're also likely to have an updated and larger version of the iPhone's excellent retina display. More importantly, the iPad and its competitors already have enough memory to store tens of thousands of pages of content, all in a single portable device.

A design environment for the iPad is the proverbial no-brainer, and Adobe has recently been previewing its Digital Publishing Platform project. Most print designers work with InDesign, so DCB (digital content bundler) works as an InDesign add-on. You can keep all of your familiar design and layout skills, but extend them by adding new media.

Because Apple has killed all apps that aren't built using its Xcode development tools, the core of DCB is an Apple-compliant Digital Content Viewer app. This is a generic shell app, very much like a PDF reader, but with extended features. Instead of saving a DCB project as a PDF, the content is compressed into a new .issue format which includes standard static content layout information but also embeds links to new content types. The reader loads the .issue file into the viewer, and they can flip through pages in the usual way, exploring the new content types when they're available. Unlike the ePub format, which reflows text to suit the viewer's window dimensions, the format assumes a fixed window size and layout.

The first outing for DCB was a new iPad edition of Wired magazine with slideshows, video clips and a rotating animation. The edition was a success, gaining massive attention. InDesign's print metaphor is a more flexible and responsive medium than the awkward, buggy and non-standard standards that rule the web. The InDesign workflow is likely to be simpler and more efficient, and it may be possible to dual-purpose print and iPad design with minor modifications. But the trade-off is a proprietary format that may lock designers into a certain technology, may limit what's possible in the future, and doesn't necessarily offer an experience that can't be duplicated or improved online.

Currently the range of extended content types is very restricted. There's no full-fat Flash or AIR support, so it's impossible to create completely customised and open user experiences. Basic slideshows, video embedding and simple animations aren't quite the last word in creative design: Adobe is hoping to extend the options in future. But without open Flash/AIR support, designers may be forced into a paper-with-extras idiom; a more open platform could enable more creative explorations.

There are also political issues to consider. It's not clear yet if Apple is going to allow the Digital Publishing Platform to proceed. Apple may also decide to lock out certain key technologies; Steve Jobs is notorious for his dislike of Flash, and he may shift the goal posts to lock out a possible Flash-by-the-back-door technology. It's also not clear if content will be available outside the App Store, or if Apple will try to monopolise distribution.

These may be reasons why DCB is running behind schedule. A public beta was promised for late August, but hadn't yet appeared as Computer Arts went to press. We'll be covering it in more detail as and when it does. Until then, it's worth keeping an eye on the technology, which is going to transform the industry. Read more at

The Digital Publishing Platform Workflow

In its current pre-beta form, the Digital Publishing Platform extensions appear as extra tabs at the right of InDesign's layout pages. When you create a page layout, you can define frames and grids in the usual way and then drop the new media types into them. For video content, this is as easy as dragging and dropping the video into position on the grid. The video must be pre-edited, and it's not clear yet which codecs, formats and standards will be supported. But transcoding is a relatively trivial problem. From the designer's point of view, the video is added just like an image file, but it appears in the final layout with an icon that the user can tap to play it.

The slideshow option is very simple. In the demonstration projects it appears as a full-size image viewer box with optional adjacent thumbnails. To populate the boxes, drag image content to fill them. In the final project, the viewer automatically displays an image in the viewer box when the user taps a thumbnail.

The most open-ended feature is the proposed AIR player. In the demonstration project this displays a flick-book style rotating animation, which can be added to the grid in the standard way. Potentially, other kinds of customised content may eventually be possible.