Interview: Pearson Company on Open Web Platform and Publishing

I spoke with Diana Stepner, Dan Murphy, Chris Schoenfeld, and Arun Vasudeva of the Pearson company about their use of Open Web Platform technology in publishing. Pearson owns the Financial Times Group and the Penguin Group and has an extensive library of education materials.

Ian: Thank you for speaking with me. I’m interested in how the Open Web Platform is transforming publishing.

Arun: There is a lot of interest in creating content that can be refactored for different devices automatically. One aspect of that is how “responsive design” can increase versatility and efficiency.

Ian: I recently spoke with the Filament Group about “progressive enhancement”; sounds like people are very interested in this topic.

Arun: We are also looking to move content from Flash to HTML5. The latest Flash platform is now being presented as an environment suited to gaming and high performance applications. Additionally, HTML content is versatile in that it can be either accessed directly through the web browser or packaged into an app format on all the major mobile platforms.

Chris: A major issue we see in publishing in HTML5 is that there is not yet an easy migration for users of (Adobe) InDesign. It’s a big jump for users. What’s missing for them is the right HTML5 authoring tool. There is still some confusion in the marketplace and I think it will be a while until we get there.

Ian: Can you summarize the key motivators for Pearson to move to HTML5?

Chris: One reason is publish once, reach all devices.

Diana: The Open Web Platform lets us play in an open field. As the world’s leading learning company, we don’t want to be tied to just one vendor. We are still working on device-specific apps (in particular iOS today but Android increasingly), but investing in the Open Web Platform is safer than putting all our eggs in one basket.

Chris: As a publisher, we want to maintain and grow customer relationships. App stores have drained some of that business.

Ian: What are the main business decisions are driving your technology choices?

Dan: One activity to reach new markets is our “plug and play” platform, which we launched in August. We provide developers with APIs to give them access to curated content. It’s free bellow a certain threshold with a tiered fee structure for higher usage. The market is still in the early stages for this sort of thing. Similarly, Google maps now charges for access to maps above a certain threshold.

Ian: How has the platform worked so far?

Dan: It is still pretty early, but we are slowly increasing the content we provide. It’s a very interesting market and reminds me of the “open data” movement when it started: we want to let people innovate using our content. For instance, DK Eyewitness Guides offer travelers respected information. Someone developing a transportation ticketing service, for example, could make use of that information and provide a richer experience to customers.

Ian: Are you making the data available using semantic web technology?

Dan: For the moment only through APIs. But if we see a demand for a more semantic approach for the APIs we’d be open to it.

Ian: Any semantic web use internally?

Dan: There are some groups using internally, for example a taxonomy project.

Ian: So how do you represent the metadata in the Plug-and-Play platform?

Dan: The APIs let you search and query and get back metadata, but it’s not linked data. But through this work we have recognized the value of linked data, of being able to link our information with other people’s data. I’m interested in this and think that’s a good path to go down in 2012.

Ian: Beyond the authoring tool issue, how is it going with app development using HTML5 and other technologies, for instance in terms of interoperability?

Chris: This is familiar territory for me. I’m used to working with platforms and frameworks, and am seeing the same needs arise with HTML5. The list of frameworks you need to know about is always evolving. Recently, though, it has settled down a bit to jQuery and PhoneGap. I’ve been surprised at how well the cross-platform has worked, including in Internet Explorer. But in terms of development, it’s still a very manual process.

Ian: What are the keys to compatibility?

Chris: JQuery and PhoneGap. PhoneGap has a service where you upload your HTML5 app and they compile it into local binaries. This is way easier than before – we used to have people working full-time to create binaries for different platforms. PhoneGap has lowered costs and saved us time.

Ian: Any issues with Web App performance?

Chris: Performance is an issue, but bigger than that are behavior and control. Developers want fine control of threading and priorities. I think this is most common issue that comes up in HTML5 apps. In iOS you can have someone click something, update the UI, and make a network call in the background. You can’t do that yet in HTML5. Or it’s hard. In JavaScript you can be more specific. There are also issues of user perception of performance (e.g., activity indicators in the UI).

Ian: What about access to device capabilities?

Dan: You get more with native apps. And you know what you are getting. When you are writing HTML5 you know less about what you are coding to.

Ian: Would you say that overall HTML5 is the path to pursue?

Chris: I am more optimistic about HTML5 all the time. Last year people were asking whether they should do HTML5. But more and more the signal keeps getting stronger, such as the Financial Times and Facebook moving in that direction. Sony Ericsson released a WebGL phone, which is huge. There’s a lot of momentum right now.

Diana: HTML5 is not the solution for everything. Developers need to think about features, consumers, and choose the right technology. We are moving more toward HTML5 but currently it is still a conscious decision.

Ian: What are your criteria for going with HTML5?

Diana: If you don’t need to access specific features of a phone, or if you don’t need immersive graphics. We want to do more HTML5 in the future because it will save time and be more efficient to reach multiple devices.

Chris: HTML5 is good for rapid prototyping. You test, tweak, and then “burn” your native apps. Also, it’s very convenient to test some things on the server. You can deploy five different versions of a banner graphic and iterate on the server side before shipping any native code.

Ian: What else would you like to see W3C work on?

Chris: Here’s what would have a lot of value: there’s room for a standard layer above the HTML5 that would give you a framework for different well-known applications scenarios that would make development easier. When we think about a mobile app, we don’t want to have to turn to vendors to fill the gaps. I want to be able to use a tag that tells the browser a context I’m working in, for instance “a window with a menu bar” or “render that in the native OS widgets.” As a designer I want to focus on functionality and let the browser interpret my description of a high-level task, rendering appropriately according to platform standards. There are SDKs that take care of this sort of thing, but I’d like things to be pushed up into standards that people can use without going to a third-party.

Ian: Thank you for the conversation!