PDF is Dead, Long live EPUB

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October 08, 2015

EPUB LogoPDFs have served their purpose, but it is time to stop using them. Just as they have become convenient to use they have outlived their usefulness. PDFs need to be seen as the liability that they are.

PDFs were intended to be a Portable Document Format. Something that anyone could open and read in a common format. It’s been a way more professional way to send a document like a resume or annual report than using Microsoft Word.  There are far fewer concerns about virus’ or version numbers and it generally managed to lock in the look of the page.

I’ve been opposed to PDFs for a long time because I’ve seen them as primarily being used as virtual-paper. This was very important when printed document was still seen as an authoritative, but this is no longer the case.

Fortunately, we are moving beyond a paper based economy. More people are gaining faith in Internet based forms of authentication, collection and publishing.

PDF forms have become pretty common these days. In good ones, you can type in your information so that you can then print it out, maybe sign it, and re-scan it in before emailing it off to some organization. That organization then hopefully skips printing out the form, but then needs to re-type the information you’ve entered into a database where it can be acted on.

There are so many problems with this approach to gathering information.

  1. Usually the form is inaccessible so that people with disabilities will have trouble reading it.
  2. It’s really a big waste of everyone’s time. The re-typing in information introduces many data inconsistencies.
  3. The fact that this document comes from my email address is way more useful as an authentication than any squiggle that appears on the dotted line.
  4. These documents are expensive to produce and maintain.
  5. Once a user downloads a PDF the author of it can’t update it.
  6. There’s no way to complete these forms without a printer and computer.
  7. Once you’ve printed out the document and scanned it back in, it becomes a security problem. Private information can often be found in the recycling or sitting on public USB keys.

So let’s all agree to stop using PDFs for collecting information from users. It’s an outdated legacy from a paper era that doesn’t fit with our modern technology. Build online forms easily & accessible using CMS frameworks like Drupal. Information can be collected all in one place and then exported in a simple machine readable format that eliminates user error.
 
The modern way to share information is through the Web. A web page can convey as much information as a PDF and it also provides the user the ability to navigate it with whatever device they choose. You control it so that your reader can know that they have the latest information available. Ideally you are using a CMS like Drupal that comes with version control so that authenticated users can see the history of the document over time.
 
Ok, but what about when you want to actually want share a document? Some people aren’t comfortable reading long documents on the web. What if you want to send someone a document for them to read offline?
 
I was stuck on this for quite some time, until I learned about the EPUB format. EPUB is a free and open standard published by the International Digital Publishing Forum that is the most widely supported vendor-independent e-book format.
 
An EPUB file is a ZIP archive that contains what is in effect an entire website with HTML5 files, images, CSS style sheets, etc. It can handle most elements that are associated with modern browsers. This is a great way to share documents in a format that is easy to consume however a user chooses to do so.
 
Because EPUB is based on HTML5, it will continue to evolve with the web. It is a forward looking technology that allows developers to leverage the tools that have been developed for the web to help ensure that their documents look sharp, are mobile friendly & accessible.
 
There are some great modules to export from the web to EPUB using Drupal epub_export or to display EPUB files from within Drupal using the epub module.
 
If you need to publish a PDF, fine. Just do it after you publish your EPUB document. There are some easy tools to convert from your modern, mobile ready, accessible format to that old format that your granny just got comfortable using.

If you'd like to learn our approach to producing EPUB, we've just provided some documentation on our use of Sphinx.

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.

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