Corner Office: Know the Code
Having trouble getting a handle on HTML5? Don't worry, you're not alone. Even executives whose job it is to shape the future use of technology in publishing face significant challenges in implementing the latest Web coding language for long-term strategic goals.
At IDG Consumer & SMB, Chief Technology Officer Aaron Jones faced just such a challenge in adapting to changes in the marketplace and media. The company is undertaking the relaunch of PCWorld and MacWorld and the launch of a new brand, TechHive.com, all on one publishing platform. This required reorganizing around a "new product management infrastructure," he told an audience at the recent "MPA Digital: Technology" conference in New York. The new structure meant revamping sales, editorial, business operations and, most significantly, technology.
Adding MacWorld to a system built originally for PCWorld was the impetus for change. Initially, to allow for flexibility in how content was displayed, two separate branches of code were maintained on the "front end," which often meant double the work for developers.
"You end up managing two things that are very similar but not the same," he told Publishing Executive, "so every time you want to introduce something new … you have to do it twice." As sites becaome more complex, this meant additional hiring or more coding for existing staff. With plans to rebrand and expand further, the situation became untenable.
To solve the problem, platforms were unified into one core database, with the goal of speed, scalability and flexibility. Rather than maintaining separate templates for multiple sites and platforms, IDG created a fluid system for making quick changes across platforms.
At the heart of this effort was the building of documents based on semantic cues—in other words, instructions that express use and context rather than spell out the exact appearance of something. By allowing systems to understand what an element is meant to achieve in multiple situations, rather than forcing it to render an exact certain way (say, four pink columns 80 pixels wide), elements can easily be altered and adapted across multiple digital platforms.
HTML5 is a coding language build around just such a structure. IDG has developed Web coding that works across its three TechHive sites, eliminating the accumulation of templates (and the need for more and more coders to maintain them). HTML5 achieves this by being built around semantic tags, whereas previous incarnations incorporated many "presentation" tags to create a multitude of specific attributes that made recreating sites across the Web, smartphones and tablets a chore.
In an interview with Publishing Executive at the Time-Life Building in New York during the "MPA Digital: Technology" one-day conference in June, Jones goes into more detail about his experience with rebranding and reinventing the TechHive sites, the synergy that can exist between editorial and technology strategy, and HTML5 as a key driver of the process.
Why did you decide to unify PCWorld and MacWorld behind a third brand?
The reason for the third brand was we saw an audience opportunity. We had PCWorld, which was largely the PC ecosystem but also covered Macs and mobile and all these kind of things that were outside this core initial mandate. Then we had MacWorld covering similar things, and we saw an opportunity in the space in the middle, where there's a lot of tablets and mobile and really interesting stuff between these areas. We went through a branding process that allowed us to clarify what our mandate was overall for the entire brand portfolio, but also for each individual brand. We're bringing them all closer together, but also allowing them to flourish on their own.
So it was an editorial decision, but it was also an opportunity to revamp the whole code.
Well, at that point we weren't thinking code. We were thinking at some point we'd have to redesign based on the brand outcome, but at that point the objective wasn't to rebuild the systems, it was to revitalize the brands. Out of that came the idea that we wanted to have another brand. That opportunity was presented to us and we thought, 'Well, OK, we're managing these two sites now on this one system, is that working? How well is that working? How difficult is it? What's the friction there? And it was high, and so we thought we'd be better served … stripping it down, starting from scratch and putting everything in one database.
It's a tech move that dovetails with the brand move, that might be one way to say it.
Yes, and if we hadn't actually gone through the branding process and gone through our other physical reorganization I don't think we could have done this as easily.
Does a lot of it have to do with the idea that this was going to be a multi-platform brand and you were going to be repurposing content across audiences?
Yes, and we've done that stuff in the past, but it was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back so to speak. It just got to the point where we thought can we really manage three code bases efficiently—and the answer was, quite clearly, no.
How did HTML5 and CSS 3, the language that describes the look and format of an HTML document, help you to be more efficient while improving the reader experience?
You've talked about the goal of 'responsive design,' which you describe as a way to adapt a well-formatted experience to any device. Explain what this is about.
Responsive design is just a technique. It's something that's a buzz word right now … but it's going to be a fundamental part of everyone's toolset, because the efficiencies are too great and it's designed for this ability to take the same semantically developed document and render it appropriately to the medium, whatever that medium is.
Why is that better than what everyone is doing now, where you've got your mobile website, your browser site—that works pretty well for people.
That's what's generally referred to as an adaptive approach. Adaptive and responsive are two counterpoints …. [and] there's a couple of reasons why I feel responsive is better. One of them is obviously the efficiency—there's one document that you have to publish, you are managing less code, so for a publisher trying to be more efficient over time, managing less code helps to reduce context-switching.
There are just fewer things you have to do. If you want to deploy some new thing you only have to build it once rather than twice. The other thing about responsive design that's really good is it provides a much better continuity of experience. If you go to the website and you see something, unless you've explicitly hidden it you're going to find it on [every other related] site. It may look a little bit different but the branding's all going to be there, it's going to be relatively consistent and you can reuse a lot of code to [achieve] that.
Apps vs HTML5: A Worthy Debate?
So do you believe the move toward HTML5 will get publishing away from the 'walled garden' quality of proprietary apps?
I believe that they're both important. I don't believe in the apps vs HTML5 debate; I think that there's room for both. Religious wars over code are bad in general. Most technologies have a place in the world and a place that works really well, so tablet editions are a great use of the app form for people who want to do that kind of stuff. For us it doesn't make as much sense, being a technology publication where the content moves so quickly. The other thing we're looking for is volume, and in many cases what you lose with the walled garden is the network effect that gets your content out there, gets you eyeballs. …
In many cases, you have a finite amount of room on a screen. For MacWorld, you have to be a really avid MacWorld user to use one of the 16 slots [for apps] on your [smartphone screen] to put a MacWorld icon up there. You're much more likely to go through an aggregator to find it than you are to go and find the app. Because most people do a lot of media consumption, they're not going to go just through one brand, especially if it's a relative niche brand like what we have.
How does this fit into your longer-range planning as you build out the brand? Do you see HTML5-based things as the future and a pretty safe place to be?
Absolutely. HTML is not going anywhere. HTML5 is not going anywhere. The most recent estimate of when it's going to be fully approved as a recommendation is 2022. But the other part of it is the evolution of HTML, where you have documents that express semantic meaning as opposed to documents that express [presentation].
Give an example of what you mean by code based on presentation.
In older versions of HTML there is a font tag. In that font you can put a font color, a font size—and people did that liberally. Say you had a font size equals 20 pixels and a color equals blue, and say you wanted to port that document onto a site whose branding was yellow. It would still have the presentation characteristics, which would carry through the document. In a semantically-created document you'd tag that same thing in a headline tag [telling the system you want it to appear as a headline in that context]. You define your document and your document tagging by the meaning of what's in the document, removing all presentation from it. So that makes it extremely portable.
In older versions of HTML, say you wanted to list an address book or something. You might have something that loops through and describes how that address book would look in a browser, what the person's name would look like, what the image would look like and what the size would be. An HTML5 document … says what it is, not what it looks like, which makes it completely portable because you can use CSS to style that person's name to be whatever color, size, dimensions you want it to be.
So HTML5 recognizes what that is supposed to do and then you can put it into any context.
HTML5 has removed all of the presentation tags. There has been an evolution of HTML over time. HTML4 had a lot of those things—it even had things like the 'blink tag' that don't have any semantic meaning, they just describe behaviors and presentation. Those have been slowly removed and HTML5 is the final removal of all of those things. It also introduces a lot of new ways of having metadata, like micro formats and things like that, that allow programmatic usage of these documents, so a machine—a program—can come in, read the document, interpret meaning from tags that are embedded in the document and be able to improve your search results and aggregate against certain things. PE
Editor's Note: The online version of this story has been revised to reflect the following correction: MacWorld and PCWorld are not being merged into TechHive.com, as originally stated in the second paragraph. MacWorld, PCWorld and TechHive.com are being merged into one platform but will maintain separate Web brands.