Electronic Publishing Tools

by Merlin Griscowsky

Table of Contents

A Brief History of Electronic Publishing Tools

Issues In Document Design and Choice of Publishing Tools

Current and Future WWW Publishing Issues


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A Brief History of Electronic Publishing Tools

It will likely come as no surprise that there are two main sectors that contribute to the ever-growing list of electronically-published documents that are currently being produced in the world: the commercial sector and the private sector. However, this has not always been the case.

The first electronic publishing tools that became available were almost exclusively developed for and used by commercial publishing interests. That is because, at first, commercial publishing interests were the only entities that had both the motivation and the capital assets that were required for the research, development, implementation, and maintenance of these tools. Thus, at first, the commercial publishing sector held a virtual monopoly on the use of the tools used to produce electronically-published documents.

However, as these technologies matured, they began to filter down to the general public in the form of simple Desktop Publishing Software applications, many of which we would currently look at as very poor, featureless text editors, but some of which allowed for the inline manipulation of graphics. As personal computer systems became more and more affordable to the general public, the availability and use of these applications became more widespread. As a result, a rather large market sprang up for vendors of the word and image processing software like WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, Ventura Publisher and Corel Draw, which were well-suited for Desktop Publishing.

With the advent of the Internet, and the World Wide Web in particular, has come an explosion of the creation of electronically published documents. At the same time as the World Wide Web has became popular, the computer systems and document-producing software available to the private individual have converged with the power and capabilities of those available and in popular use by commercial publishing entities. These developments have acted to level the playing field between commercial and private electronic publishing ventures. For example, when viewing well-designed pages on the World Wide Web, aside from recognizable trademarks that might alert one to a corporate origin for that page, it is virtually impossible to tell if the page was designed by a team of graphic designers employed by a large corporation, or if it was conceived and implemented by a single individual on their home computer system.

A last development of note in the area of electronic publishing is the fact that its use has forever changed our conception of what a "document" is. Previously, a document was a static collection of text, perhaps with embedded graphics. Now, the term is also applied to dynamic groupings of data which may include embedded animations, video sequences, audio information, and many other types of data along with displayed text. What the future holds in this regard is anyone's guess.

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Issues In Document Design and Choice of Publishing Tools

Electronically published documents can be roughly classified into those whose messages are conveyed both through their contents and their formatting, and those whose messages are conveyed by their contents apart from their formatting. And, while this is a somewhat simplistic method of distinguishing between types of electronic documents, it is a rather effective means of determining which tools would be most effective for their creation.

Documents Whose Messages Come From Both Their Contents And Their Formatting

Documents in this category tend to fall into the realm of those created by commercial, "shrink-wrap" software applications like those available from the proprietors listed below:

These applications allow a document's creator to both enter the text and other objects that make up the document and format the arrangement of those items in relation to each other. Documents that will be printed on paper-based media are especially likely to be created using these tools, which store both content and formatting information. Thus, for example, if one wished to create a brochure and send it across the Internet to a publisher for printing, one would likely use one of these tools, as they would ensure that one's usage of fonts, white space, and other formatting aspects were maintained through to the final printing of the document.

Yet, these tools do have their drawbacks. For example, as most of them store the document in a proprietary file format, end viewers are often required to obtain a commercial copy of viewer software in order to be able to peruse the document. As well, in spite of the fact that these applications attempt to store formatting information for the document, viewing a true reproduction of the original document is often hardware dependent. That is, one must have hardware that is capable of displaying the format in the resolution that it was created at. One attempt to work around this problem and the problem of a lack of a standardized storage format is the PostScript file format.

Documents Whose Messages Come From Their Contents Alone

Documents in this category can be created using generic text editors or any Word Processor. As well, a Markup Language is also usually used within the body of these documents to convey whatever formatting information they do carry. That is, they include hidden "tags" of information that can be interpreted by any one of a number of viewing tools, or "browsers" as is the case with the World Wide Web, in the manner that they have been programmed to display the text that is surrounded by these "tags".

Two such Markup Languages are the Standard General Markup Language (SGML) and the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which is a subset of SGML. Work on SGML began in 1969 at IBM. By 1980, an international SGML standard had been defined for it. Currently, it is the standard for Electronic Information Exchange for the governments of Canada, the United States, the European Community, and other.

HTML was derived from SGML to be a somewhat static, simple subset of SGML. It was primarily designed to allow for the easy creation of documents for distribution and viewing on the World Wide Web. Currently, there are a number of HTML authoring tools and other utilities available as shareware and freeware on the World Wide Web which can be utilized for creating and publishing electronic documents. Along with these tools are also language overviews, style sheets, and design guidelines (like the 10 Commandments of HTML). Being familiar with HTML itself, or at the very least, one of the HTML authoring tools is a requirement for the creation and publishing of documents for general distribution on the World Wide Web.

Yet, while HTML was initially conceived of as a static subset of SGML, with a limited number of tags, the overwhelming growth of the use of the World Wide Web, and the attendant increase in the commercial uses of HTML, have led to many developments in the language that have taken it beyond its initial specifications.

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Current and Future WWW Publishing Issues

In the rapidly changing environment of the World Wide Web, there have been many developments in the world of electronic publishing, and the momentum of change continues to increase. Many enhancements to HTML have been propagated, both within the tools used to create HTML documents, and in those used to view them. New data object types have been introduced, along with new methods of transmitting and displaying the data types that are being used within World Wide Web documents. The documents themselves have also evolved. They are increasingly being used as dynamic interfaces between the viewer and underlying applications tied to them by their creators. Some enhancements to the tools used to create HTML documents even make the documents "intelligent", allowing them to "sense" if the browser that is viewing them is capable of supporting some of the features that it contains, or if alternative information should be displayed instead. In just about all of these cases, the developments have outpaced the ability of any standards organization to be able to keep pace with.

Some examples of currently-used enhancements and add-ons are as follows:

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In this environment of rapid change and constant innovation, the greatest difficulty lies in attempting to keep up with all of the changes that are taking place in the field of Electronic Publishing Tools. And, as this change outstrips any governing body's ability to dictate standards, it falls to the individual to decide which of the currently emerging issues in the field to pursue, which of the latest generation of tools and features to master, and which of the latest trends appear to merit enough interest to allow them to become part of the common repertoire of the tools used in the design, generation, and distribution of electronic documents. In this field, like virtually all others in today's world of ever-changing technology, life-long learning is a requirement for survival.

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Go to Simon's Page On Electronic Publishing

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M. Griscowsky E-mail