Is the "e" in ebooks the new blink tag?

How one vowel creates a limiting design paradigm

Do you remember the blink tag? My gosh, I do. This was back when we were indiscriminately mixing our content and presentation, our HTML and our CSS, our data and its display. Usually you’d be graced with this tag in some horrible sort of “40% off!” fashion.

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We’d all grimace at this abuse of the web (and even the most common sense of design). Why? Well, besides the tag itself being obnoxious, this was a classic case of taking your content and manually controlling how that content would look. That little bit of data — “40% off” — was inexorably and permanently linked with a bit of formatting — the <blink> tag.

And you all know about this, whether your knowledge is localized to the blink tag, or just produced in a growing separation-of-content model for web design and development. Hardly anyone intentionally and consistently mixes content and presentation in web pages these days. CSS (and SASS, in some circles) simply makes it too easy to keep your style separate from your content.

So here we are in 2010, all design-sophisticates, separating our content from our style. Well, on the web we are. The more I listen and watch and involve myself in ebooks, though, the more I find myself thinking about the blink tag again. And while I think the term “ebook” is useful and possibly necessary for intelligent conversation, I just wonder if that little “e” in front of “ebook” might be on its way toward becoming the new blink tag.

I won’t draw this out. I’ll make it simple. Right now, I’m typing into Movable Type’s editor. I’m typing words, and sentences, and paragraphs. And MT will take those words, sentences, and paragraphs–my content–and display it on the Radar blog, formatted, styled, easily consumable by web browsers and RSS readers.

Typing-in-MT.png

At no point has it even occurred to me, until right now, that I’m in fact typing e-words or e-sentences. I’ve not thought about adding an e-carriage return to separate this e-paragraph from the next e-paragraph.

How absurd would that be? Come on. I’m just typing. I’m creating content. Plain old raw content. And it just so happens that my content will be delivered in a particular format (a blog). I suppose if O’Reilly wanted, they could assemble this content with a bunch of other content, and print the sum of all that content into a book. It wouldn’t be an e-book because its content started out digital. That’s just as silly as saying that because content first lived in printed form, and then was released digitally, we have a digital print book.

Web 2.0 Expo San FranciscoSo why the “e” in ebook? Yes, I know there are some naming issues. We have to use language, and we need some means of distinguishing a book bound with glue, printed on paper, from a book that lives purely in the digital realm. I get that with every bit of my editor-laden, grammarian being. Communication requires a distinction.

But I’m increasingly seeing the ebook treated as more than just a language distinction. I see people creating content with a specific display paradigm in mind. The content assumes a certain width of screen; a certain font size. Images are being inserted not because they belong, but “because iPhone and iPad users will expect more imagery.”

Really?

So just because your image is easier to look upon than a blink tag, are we not returning to a very bad time in the history of the Internet?

So let’s be clear: I’m saying something that isn’t overly original, but bears saying (again). The first group/publisher/company/person who moves away from the ebook and to content–content that can be delivered to a variety of media, digital and non-digital, with display and style applied separate from and after content creation–wins. They’ll have lower costs involved with taking content and making it available on multiple platforms. They’ll have content that can adapt to new formats quickly, because there’s no “un-presenting” content before it can be repurposed for another platform.

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Sure, we’ll always have ebooks. But can we all hope that this becomes a term based on a distinction in display format and medium, rather than a fundamental distinction between one type of content and another? I’m really not up for another blink tag.

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