Mid February, Inkling Habitat was announced and I jumped in and produced a promotional title and am now producing a monograph and a multiple artist collection. Here’s a sketch of my experiences, along with a bit of a critique. This is intended as an overview. I am willing to share more in comments or in another post.
Must say right up front, Habitat uses modified xml, called s9ml. While it does output to EPUB, interactive features using s9ml outputs nonstandard EPUBs. Producers who are concerned with out-of-the-box universal accessibility will rightly grumble. (Look to People’s eBook to address art ebook universality.) Another limit: right now Habitat outputs to iPad and iPhone. The Inkling team apparently has Android on its roadmap. It is important to note that Habitat automatically produces browser-ready HTML5 output, so titles produced in Habitat are viewable (and sharable) via the web. Even with its accessibility limits, Habitat does have real benefits worth considering.
Under the hood Habitat is a HTML5/xml and CSS3 browser-based editor with some jQuery and Inkling enhancements. This is a good starting point for cross-browser/platform applications. If you’re familiar with web production Habitat will be an easy and natural fit. Code and title previews are presented in the same browser window, and CSS edits are immediately viewable. The structure of the book while it is being constructed, as well as the structure of the file directories/UI in Habitat, are logically presented. Each new project comes preset with the same base file and feature structure. For me, the order of the workspace quickly made it easy to work in.
The building blocks of Habitat books are modular xml “pages” — Habitat calls them “cards.” The cards are code blocks that can be dragged and dropped into chapters to form a structured book hierarchy. On the up side, through drag an drop the feature and structure outline of your title can be put together quickly. On the down side, if you are producing a title that is a simple monograph all this could seem structure-heavy. It did for me. It took a little effort to move this structure out of the way of the story, and honestly I am not completely certain the final result is perfectly balanced. Iteration and experimentation will help.
This structure issue is due in part to the fact Inkling’s business began as a textbook publisher. Textbooks are unit/chapter/section driven and notoriously figure and “furniture” laden. There is a lot going on in them and as a result a lot going on in Habitat. Still, having done the work to address deep structure challenges up front, Habitat provides a full and modifiable toolbox book designers can draw upon. This toolbox helped me think through design needs and will be handy when we have more challenging titles (next month.)
There are many good aspects of Habitat and a few reservations. Reservations first.
Because of its textbook DNA, Habitat’s modular, drag and drop “furniture” (figures, callouts, guided tours, lists) has a textbook design DNA as well. People unfamiliar with CSS and who want a quick title will end up using the modular book furniture out of the box, and a lot of Habitat books will have a similar “textbooky” feel.
This is a similar problem designers had at the beginning of desktop and web publishing — the technology was so attractive people forgot to design. However, once people understood how to manipulate style and structure (and CSS was established) good design began to flourish. People will have to bring design skills and focus — along with a willingness to re-style Habitat elements — in order to build and design a wide range of beautiful Habitat books. The last thing we need is a bunch of cookie-cutter textbook DTP.
Once you have gotten accustomed to the platform and past the structure issues Habitat’s design versatility becomes apparent. Because everything is built around clear, modular HTML5 code and a library of CSS classes, and because you can customize CSS classes easily, Habitat becomes very flexible for designers. Full frame images and backgrounds, drop caps, line-height, superscript, and custom fonts all are fairly easily employed by modifying CSS classes. And, all of this can be pushed to create innovative designs. There is even a (limited) design and code library to draw from. Different from iBooks, which locks you into established patterns and funnels designers into a kind of DTP mentality, Habitat is quasi open source. This is dangerous to say, I know; however, because you can restyle classes, create your own style sheets and even add jQuery elements Habitat is more versatile and “open” than some other platforms.
I found as I developed my own styles, swapped SVG images in for icons, laid out custom pages and modified Habitat figures I had created my own book design toolbox. Once you have produced a well-designed structure and template and published a title it is possible to save this to your book production dashboard to draw from and modify for another project. Ultimately, what solid design templates provide is peace of mind and my own unique design DNA. I can now get to work.
Very importantly, the entire production environment has a robust ticketing system that allows cloud-based collaboration and editing. In my opinion, this feature makes the entire platform. Without a collaborative ticketing/workflow overlay Habitat would not be adopted widely — it simply would not be professional enough to build far-flung teams around great design and efficient production. With cloud-based collaboration and workflow, Habitat allows teams to draw on global designers, content curators and editors. This alone is a breakthrough “feature” that could enable Habitat to have a significant impact on digital book design and delivery worldwide.
Did I mention that Habitat is free? Including prompt and helpful support? Including code and copy review? When I was ready for a final release and I realized I had several Habitat editors and proofers working on my title as a team for free I walked around my kitchen in amazement — honestly a little giddy. I was producing a new title collaboratively with dedicated people across the country in California who were professional and knowledgeable. This human aspect of Habitat is evident in their design, engineering, focus and purpose. Without this I would not recommend the platform. With it, a whole lot can happen.
Stuff I’ve Left Out (Lots)
In the interest of space, I haven’t addressed many key things. In terms of basic design: interactivity, page flow, verticality vs. horizontality. I have left out other basic elements of user engagement — Habitat’s handling of video, slideshows, full glossaries, searchable text, shareable comments, highlights, and bookmarks. As for workflow, I haven’t mentioned that styles set up in InDesign can be mapped to Habitat CSS classes. Or, that once published book content can be found in web searches, and pages and sections can be shared through social media and email. I haven’t mentioned that titles are always updatable, with a simple push of new content to user’s tablets and phones.
Perhaps above all, I haven’t gone into how Habitat titles are integrated with Inkling’s store. Commerce integration makes possible a new kind of publishing entity that can collaborate/design/publish/distribute all under the same platform. Habitat may be a step or two ahead of the transition from publishing empires to small, agile publishing studios. But, once it addresses some platform limits and people create a variety of well-designed, useful and meaningful books, it has put a versatile tool in people’s hands that could accelerate the entire process. We’ll see…
[Note: For anyone who would like images associated with this post I'm happy to provide. They may help.]