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section heading icon     Delivery: Online and Disk

This page considers online versus physical format digital publications (eg CD-ROMs), including online delivery of content for reading offline. 

It covers -

It is followed by discussion of formats for electronic publishing - PDF, HTML, XML, TEI.

Developments in print-on-demand publishing are discussed later in this guide.

subsection heading icon     key questions 

In publishing information electronically you face three questions:

  • what are the needs and expectations of your readers
  • how you are going to deliver the publication (online or embodied in data carrier such as a floppy disk, zip disk or CD) and
  • how the information is going to be presented.

Different presentation mechanisms - PDF, HTML, TIFF, GIF etc - can be delivered online and in physical carriers. Your answers should be determined by what works best for your markets and by consideration of issues such as cost, maintenance and portability.

Estimates of future use of different media vary significantly. One of the better studies is The Scale of Future Publishing in Digital and Conventional Formats: a report to the British Library Policy Unit (PDF) by Mark Bide & Associates

subsection heading icon     physical format publications

A decade ago the "road ahead" for many publishers appeared to be physical format publications rather than the global information highway. As late as the mid-1990s Microsoft still envisaged that you'd be using CD-ROMs rather than accessing content online, a vision memorably recorded by Fred Moody in I Sing The Body Electronic (New York: Viking 1995). 

Why the emphasis on publishing bits of plastic? There are two reasons. 

Some publishers (and librarians and consumers) are more comfortable with tangible objects. More importantly, CDs offer 'canned bandwidth': the ability to quickly deliver large quantities of information - video, text, audio and still graphics - to a market that may not have a good internet connection.

Although pricing and infrastructure constraints mean that broadband has yet to arrive in much of Australia, publication on the web meets the needs of most users and publishers. With the exception of products involving quick access to video or major interactive graphics (eg virtual reality), physical format is now generally seen as at best a transitional stage in the move towards publication online. Few database/book publishers now use CDs.

As a consequence there is little recent writing about CD publication. One exception is On A Silver Platter: CD-ROMs & The Promises Of A New Technology (New York: New York Uni Press 99) edited by Greg Smith, a collection of US academic essays that now appears almost quaint. Most of the technical literature is concerned with specifics of the technology, for example the excellent guide by Grant Erickson of the Uni of Minnesota, or with sound and video recording. 

Examples of that work are Sorin Stanís definitive The CD-ROM Drive: A Brief System Description (London: Kluwer 1998), Lee Purcell's CD-R/DVD Disc Recording To Optical Media (New York: McGraw-Hill 2000), Mark Chambersí Recordable CD Bible (New York: IDG Books 1997), the CD-ROM Professional's CD-Recordable Handbook: The Complete Guide To Practical Desktop CD (New York: Info Today 1996) by Dana Parker & Robert Starrett and their more general New Rider's Guide to CD-ROM (Indianapolis: New Riders 1994). 

The CD-ROM Handbook (New York: McGraw-Hill 1994) is a detailed collection of technical papers, edited by Chris Sherman, on the history of CD-ROM and CD-R. 

Purcell & David Martin collaborated on The Complete Guide to Recordable CD (New York: SYBEX 1997). Many of the above are accompanied by a CD-ROM of demonstration software for several platforms.

Electronic Publishing on CD-ROM: Authoring, Development & Distribution (Sebastopol: O'Reilly 1996) by Steve Cunningham & Judson Rosebush and Creating Interactive CD-ROMs for Windows & Macintosh (Boston: AP Professional 1996) by Scott Fisher are now difficult to obtain, as is Electronic Publishing Unleashed: Discover the Power of Electronic Publishing Online & Via CD-ROM (Indianapolis: SAMS 1995) by William Stanek, Lee Purcell & Robert Bind. The latter's title foreshadowed the future: the next edition was simply titled Web Publishing Unleashed.

The archival performance of CD-ROMs and CD-RWs remains contentious. One starting point is the discussion in Images on Ice (PDF) by E. Sapwater.

subsection heading icon     online

In presenting information online publishers have several options, depending on requirements for navigation through the document, verisimilitude to a printed text and inclusion of audiovisual content.

In practice publication as ASCII text - just the text, nothing but the text (no hyperlinks, no formatting) - while acceptable for a browserless internet of the early 1990s is no longer a viable presentation standard. 

Debate instead rages about PDF versus derivatives of Standard Generalized MarkUp Language (SGML) - ie XML, TEI and HTML - and about particular graphic or audiovisual tools such as TIFF, GIF, JPEG and PNG. The following page of this guide explores those standards. Later pages look at how they are being used by specialist and general publishers.

As a starting point Bill Kasdorf's 1998 article on SGML & PDF: Why We Need Both in the excellent Journal of Electronic Publishing (JEP) discusses both technologies. There is more detailed coverage of tools and issues in the Design and Accessibility guides elsewhere on this site

subsection heading icon     delivered online for reading offline

Although it is clear that electronic publication is replacing some print formats, much of the content delivered online is actually read offline and away from a screen.

In essence, many users are using the web and intranets to identify and access publications but then print the particular publication rather than reading it in detail onscreen. Many similarly print publications that they have received by email. Many print multiple copies for distribution to professional or other contacts; explanations for copying print rather than electronic formats include "it's more polite" or "I can add a comment".

Reasons for relying on printouts of online publications rather than relying on personal computer monitors, PDAs and other devices include -

  • difficulties with online navigation through long documents
  • ability to simultaneously read and annotate paper versions of online documents
  • 'at a glance' benefits of paper, such as juxtaposing a passage of text with its corresponding footnotes
  • higher legibility of print (with associated greater reading speed, improved comprehension and lower fatigue)
  • better quality graphics and more tables
  • intangibles such as greater comfort with a physical medium.

Researchers such as A. Dawn Shaikh in the 2004 Paper or Pixels: What are People Reading Online? study note that reasons for preferring online publications include ease of identification, 24-hour access (including from home, office and other locations), lower cost and convenience.

The extent of reliance on print embodiments of electronic publications varies, depending on audience and the nature of the publication.

Some publishers have, for example, sought to build technological restrictions into networked and physical format electronic publications - readers cannot readily print their own copy and must pay a premium for an authorised hardcopy available only from the publisher.

Shaik cites a study, consistent with other research, suggesting that although 96% of academic participants located academic journal articles using the web only 3% reported reading the entire article online, instead skimming the text before printing selected articles so that they could read from paper.

Feedback about use of this site suggests that many users combine reading online and offline, for example using links in the online version to jump to other electronic documents and using a print copy for reference purposes.

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version of November 2004
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