W3C Workshop on Device Independent Authoring

InterX Technology Position Paper

Miles Sabin msabin@interxtechnology.com
Mike Lamb mlamb@interxtechnology.com
Mike McMahon mmcmahon@interxtechnology.com
Bill Dehora wdehora@interxtechnology.com
Nigel Byrnes nbyrnes@interxtechnology.com
Phil Sant psant@interxtechnology.com

InterX Technology has developed a web application server, one of its core strengths being the ability to dynamically generate, style and deliver content in a variety of formats in order to satisfy the display capabilities of a wide range of devices. We anticipate an increasing need on the part of our customers to efficiently and intelligently make their content available to both existing and future devices.

Nevertheless, whilst our technology is perfectly capable of delivering content to devices of many kinds, we are suspicious of the term "device independent authoring". We believe it is necessary to address the production cycle as a whole, from workflow to authoring through content management and the ultimate delivery of pages.

The proliferation of new delivery media for web content has brought an old problem to the fore in a new context: how to produce content which is suited to diverse media consistently with constrained cost and time budgets. The range of new devices is very broad, from traditional PC browsers, through mobile, embedded and consumer devices, to speech only devices and devices specialized for accessibility needs. This breadth, combined with comparative novelty, might make it appear that we have a radically new problem to solve, and that a search for radically new solutions might be worthwhile. We believe that this appearance of novelty is deceptive and that, regrettably, the search for novel solutions will be fruitless.

To see that this is indeed an old problem, compare the situation of the new breed of 'Web producer' with that of their counterparts in traditional cross-media organizations. Consider a news and current affairs editor in such an organization. She might be tasked with delivering headline news to all of television, radio, teletext, several kinds of print (not all of them ephemeral), syndication services and also in a variety of accessible formats. These old-fashioned media have much in common with our allegedly 'new' media, in terms of both diversity and mode of consumer interaction, so perhaps we can learn from how old media organizations have dealt with their version of the problem?

We can, and the lesson might be an uncomfortable one. The critical issue is not so much minor presentational differences between different media, but the fact that even when the gloss has been stripped away we are still left with radical differences. A news story delivered via radio is not the same as the story delivered by television but without the pictures. A news story presented in one short paragraph in a tabloid is not the same as the story presented in an extended column in a broadsheet, which is different again from a weekend feature piece. Each of these media have distinctive idioms which shape not just presentation, but also the content itself at the level of written, spoken and visual language.

Traditional media organizations deal with these ineliminable differences by having distinct editorial and production teams working in each medium. In most cases there isn't even much in the way of 'primordial' content from which the specialized variants are derived, rather, each medium has it's own set of editors, journalists and researchers. This duplication isn't particularly surprising when you consider, for example, sports coverage: what can be shown on television must be described in detail for radio, and summarized for print: a television commentator typically has a very different style of delivery from that of a radio commentator. We believe that it should be acknowledged from the outset that this is precisely the same problem space we face in the multiple web device arena, and that in all probability the same sort of specialization and duplication will be the norm.

This might seem like a counsel of despair, but what are the alternatives? Most currently popular solutions rest on the assumption that there is something which could be classified as primordial content. Further it is assumed that, with the addition of suitable markup, this would form a single original document which an application server would be able to transform syntactically into a variety of forms suitable for delivery to most types of device. We believe that these underlying assumptions are quite simply false: the only way to produce such an original document would be to reverse the imagined order of creation and first produce device-specific documents, then artificially merge them. It's not hard to see how this might be done, but, equally, it's not hard to see that nothing of any real significance has been gained.

Given that typically the only relationship between content intended for different devices will be at the level of natural language semantics, this sort of approach places the responsibility for handling multiple devices at precisely the wrong end of the chain that links content creation, management and delivery. Given that we cannot expect the breakthroughs in artificial intelligence that would be needed to help us here anything like soon enough, we must shift the problem closer to where it can be solved. Closer, that is, to human authors and managers. In summary, we believe that 'device independent authoring' is a chimera, and that we should focus instead on 'multiple device authoring', and investigate how it can be supported by content management and authoring tools.