I recently led three conference sessions in one week.  They were for two communities trying to move off two different types of “pages”.

I did two sessions at Publishing Expo (generally very print-page oriented crowd) organised by Mekon, and then on the Friday at Content Strategy Applied (a very web-page oriented crowd) in the track headed up by Rahel Anne Bailie and hosted by the great folk at eBay and RLYL.

It was a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast the mentalities regarding publishing, and mobile of course was high on the topic list.

The ‘guts’ of this 3 part post are in Part 2 and Part 3, which detail the issue and how to approach resolving it, but I think Part 1 is important scene-setting.

Web enters Print’s Victim Support Group

By the Content Strategy Applied session at the end of the week, I was very comfortable dropping into my session the comment: Web’s lull is over.

The process of communication enjoyed a 550+ year lull where we enjoyed unchallenged, single-format paradigm: the printed page.  Technology moves faster now, and the desktop-web-focused paradigm is now shifting with the introduction of mobile after only 10-ish years of real dominance.

But we online publishers must now adapt exactly as print publishers before us did. And, as they did, accept that a paradigm-shift, not a format-change, is happening. 

Interestingly, many print-oriented folk are still adapting to web, which shows just how long paradigm shifts can take.

Lily-pad Hopping: What’s the New Master Format?

My belief is that we have to be careful to not seek the new ‘dominant’ format.  I have heard some folks talking about mobile being the new thing (as if an iPad, Kindle, and blackberry were somehow just one thing).  Something along the lines of “We must now design our content for mobile and adapt back to desktop (and it goes without saying that print can take a hike),” but there’s not a lot of detail supplied after that.

Mobile as we know it today is just the tip of the iceberg.  On the CS Google Group, Ann Rockley chimed in on this topic, fresh off her new release of the seminal Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, she said:

The scary thing right now is that we are having a lot of device wars. Everyone is jockeying for ultimate supremacy. In some ways this is good because we get a lot of innovation, but in a lot of ways it is bad because we can’t just do one thing and expect it to work everywhere.

In my sessions I talked about all the various technology companies out there tripping over themselves trying to provide new, better, cheaper ways to interact with content.  Smart phones and tablets that seemed like science fiction in 2000 don’t even raise an eyebrow today.  It’s the responsibility of the contents strategist to think strategically for the brand.  That is, not for the course of a project lifecycle, but the life of the content and the brand.  We need to think long-term and act short term to prepare.

My favourite examples of the potential to come are the http://eink.com/rugged.html video where we see the same screen technology that is used in the Kindle get folded, hit, submerged, burnt, and more, and still keep on ticking (take that Timex), and Corning’s Day Made of Glass:

In short – content is REALLY going to become king (although not really).

When access becomes this ubiquitous, we’ll be designing content for a vast number of scenarios and contexts we’re not even thinking of today.

If we keep trying to find the new format or tool that is going to magic away our issues, we’re jumping to a lily-pad, waiting until it sinks under us and then desperately trying to time our jump to the next one.  Jump too early and you splash down in the water, jump too late and you sink and drown by simple inaction.

Side-Step the Format War

We must design for maximum agility (intelligence, nimble-ness, reusability, adaptability, etc) in the content itself so we can tackle X number of formats.

This was the warning that the XML/structure folks were giving 20 years ago. XML folks said. “We’ll be ready for whatever may come if we bite this bullet today.”  It’s those folks who transitioned their content, and their people, a decade or more ago who are most ready to take on new formats now.

They analysed their content models, built mark-up based, platform-agnostic ways of structuring and storing it, and proved their content was future-proofed, as promised.

Now web needs to bite that same bullet.  Our customers don’t want PDFs or websites or mobile apps, they want them all.

It’s not so bad

You may be suitably concerned by now, but it’s not all fire and brimstone.  Content folks should know that mark-up is the easiest bit. You learn some tags. Boom. Done. Most of us have a reasonable grip on HTML and many get CSS, even if we can’t code CSS ourselves. It’s the other parts that are difficult and need collaborative, multi-disciplinary approaches.

Writing reusable, info-typed modules and thinking format-free is harder than the mark-up. New editorial processes and managing things against a taxonomy is harder. Information modelling to decide how and when to use what tags is harder.

All content folks of various specialisms need to adapt to new format-neutral processes. There’s challenges but by no means impossibilities. The world moved from pens to typewriters to computers. In the 70s, executives couldn’t type, and there was such a thing as a ‘typing pool’. Now typing is not a specialist skill. People learned. They’ll learn this too.

The worms, however, will go to the early birds.

So What Do We Do?

The following parts of this post will discuss some more specific techniques and things to think about when going mobile-ready: