W3C and IDPF: Better Together?
Dave Cramer

My first, short, response to you on this IDPF/W3C thing:

(I’m hoping I’ll be able to put together a proper response later this week.)

At the heart of this issue is a fundamental difference in philosophy on what is the best way to solve systemic problems in an industry or an ecosystem.

The W3C/IDPF approaches share a philosophy of prescriptive solutions, put together by experts, who have ‘discovered’ what the problems are through observation and analysis. Sometimes these experts are in-house. Sometimes they are invited outside experts.

The core difference between that and the community approach—which makes the two pretty incompatible—is that the community incubation model treats the ultimate problem as essentially resistant to discovery through analysis. It has a built in assumption that problems are best discovered through wide-ranging and structured community interaction. Workable solutions are generally emergent properties of a healthy community that has been enabled to address its own issues. Focus on giving the community the venue and the tools and let the community prioritise what to solve and in what order. Don’t focus on canvassing experts on what fixes you should prescribe to the masses.

The former approach is prescriptive and top-down (i.e. expert-led).

The latter is emergent and bottom-up (i.e. practitioner-led).

I don’t think any of us know what the actual, root problems of ebooks and longform web reading are and we don’t even know if those problems are shared across the web community and publishing. Working off a checklist provided by the various middle management will only ever tackle symptoms, not causes.

Adding experts and organisations to a top-down process when the problem should be solved bottom-up decreases the chances of success because you are doubling down on the wrong approach. You’ll just end up with a gridlock of clever people disagreeing on minute details on a solution that practitioners will never adopt.

Even disregarding the economic issues (which are numerous—I touched on them in my earlier post—and I hope to go into more detail in a later post) the IDPF/W3C merger is inadvisable because it simply does not solve any other problem than the egos of those responsible for a failing organisation (IDPF). There’s no reason to assume that it’d increase participation, increase the odds of success, or lower the costs of anybody involved. In fact, there’s every reason to think that publishing industry companies in particular would find the merged organisation more expensive to join and and more intimidating to approach than leaving the two organisations separate. Publishing is a low margin business with plenty of other things to worry about.

For all its faults, at least the IDPF is their organisation and they know for certain that it will take their concerns seriously. That is not something they can be certain about when it comes to the W3C.

And there’s no reason to assume that browser vendors or tech companies will increase their involvement in book tech as a result of the merger. It’s just as likely that they’d see it as an opportunity for cost cutting.