An Open Plea for OpenEFT
By Peter Meirs
OpenEFT is a new open source standard for packaging and exchanging digital content that was officially released by IDEAlliance at the end of September. The format can be used by content creators, advertisers and digital newsstands to publish digital magazines on tablets. OpenEFT is free to use and carries no restrictions on how it is customized or distributed. The OpenEFT format was created by the industry to give publishers an alternative to proprietary formats that are commercially licensed and locked down.
In the early days of digital publishing, almost every technology solution was an interdependent mix of code and proprietary hardware. Technology providers offered workflow solutions to publishers that could save them time and increase their productivity. The cost of these systems would often exceed $1 million, but publishers made the investment in hopes of reducing significant labor costs.
This was the model for selling publishing systems in the 1990s, when technology companies made huge profits on single-vendor solutions. In his book, "The Innovators Dilemma," Clayton Christensen described the risks that successful companies carry when they focus on optimizing their specialized products, rather than anticipating changes in market demand. Those changes happened quickly, and they profoundly disrupted the publishing technology model.
Scitex, a provider of advanced graphic design systems in the 1980s and '90s, sold expensive, proprietary workstations and had annual sales approaching $700 million at its peak. When Adobe and Quark created similar applications that ran on inexpensive hardware, the market shifted, and Scitex's sales dropped by 85 percent. The captive supply model didn't work in a world where buyers could choose less-expensive alternatives.
While it wasn't exactly a move to standardization, platforms like Apple's Power Mac and Workgroup servers provided an open environment for running interoperable applications. This led to the creation of best-of-breed publishing workflows that usually included software from multiple vendors. Interoperability drove a competitive marketplace and solutions truly became cheaper, faster and better.
When Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, the focus on print workflows tilted heavily toward digital. Publishers scrambled to adapt their processes so they could also produce tablet versions. Woodwing, a company that provided print workflow systems, created a method for packaging content for its tablet apps. A year later, Woodwing opened its well-implemented OFIP format to the public, free of charge. It was a noble attempt to standardize interactive publications across the industry.
In the short term, many providers and publishers benefitted from the new “OFIP standard.” This license-free format allowed third-party software companies to build their own tablet solutions, providing more choice to buyers. While the demand for magazines on tablets was still in question, at least the process to produce them was moving forward.
This is where the story turns. Opening OFIP to the public was not the same thing as making it an open source format. Woodwing offered its specification on a license-free basis, but it was not a true open source format under the control of a vendor-independent standards organization. As quickly as it was given, OFIP could be taken away. And that's exactly what happened.
In October 2011, Adobe and Woodwing announced an alliance that involved, among other things, a “retirement” of the OFIP format. This meant all the niche players who had built solutions around OFIP were no longer able to create products using that format. Instead of using OFIP, Adobe's DPS solution used a new format called .Folio. Adobe's terms of service clearly restricts the use of the .Folio format to drive third-party viewers.
The sudden lack of an open standard for packaging and exchanging content prompted some industry players to approach IDEAlliance, a not-for-profit membership organization that supports the media supply chain. This resulted in an IDEAlliance-led effort to create a new, open format called OpenEFT.
The mission of OpenEFT is to serve as a universal format that will allow users to:
• Export interactive digital magazine issues, using existing workflow tools, into a standardized format for exchange and rendition.
• Deliver a standard, non-proprietary content package that digital newsstands can easily transform or customize.
• Publish reader applications to a broad spectrum of platforms, with a single set of reader-independent XML based instructions.
• Receive production-ready interactive ads from brands or agencies, packaged with all required media files, enhancements and business data.
• Gather user metrics for both editorial and advertising for any analytics reporting model.
The value proposition for OpenEFT is far-reaching. Its adoption by publishers, technology providers, advertisers and digital newsstands would enable a frictionless supply chain that can allow unrestricted development and optimization of tablet applications. This would ultimately lead to a better consumer reading experience. Many companies that lost business when their OFIP-based products became unsupportable can again compete in an open marketplace.
Despite what some may think, OpenEFT was not created to compete with Adobe or with any other established industry player. IDEAlliance's key objective is to re-establish a standardized format that was lost to industry with the deprecation of OFIP.
Publishing companies are desperately hoping that their subscribers will support paid digital editions. Unfortunately, the present model for producing digital renditions has not generated much consumer interest or publisher revenue. Demand will only happen when the perceived value of digital products matches that of print.
An industry standard technology like OpenEFT will enable a competitive marketplace that can innovate and disrupt the present model, much like Adobe and Quark did 15 years ago. Best of all, unlike OFIP, OpenEFT is a truly open format, maintained by a vendor-independent industry association. Industry players can confidently use the format to create, modify and exchange content without fear of losing access to the technology.
OpenEFT offers a great opportunity to increase both innovation and interoperability across the digital magazine supply chain. The question is whether publishers, advertisers, distributors and solution providers will agree to implement the format. The bigger question is, "Why wouldn't they?"
Peter Meirs is a media industry strategist and the founding partner of Digital First Media NY. Meirs was Vice President of Production Technologies for Time Inc., where he managed a range of publishing systems and operations.
This article was originally published in Media Shepherd.