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Opera brings fondleslab-style reading to bog-standard web

App developers: collect your P45s

Oslo Opera has published a few simple CSS extensions that allow developers to create the “reading” experience found on contemporary newspaper, magazine and book tablet apps using web standards.

The extensions enable “page-like” spatial navigation and layout, and the Norwegian company has submitted them to the W3C standards committee, under the name 'CSS Generated Content for Paged Media'.

“Expensive app developers, your time is up,” Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie told me – although I actually made that up, and asked him repeat it, for my convenience. (And yours.)

Lie is best known as the father of CSS, Cascading Style Sheets, and since 1999 has been Opera’s CTO.

Almost all web pages today are designed to be read vertically in one direction - from top to bottom - and have no sense of their spatial relationship to each other. That's fine when the only navigational aid is a scroll wheel. But the rise of multitouch interfaces, and tablets, has allowed designers to recreate paper magazine layouts, and users now expect to swipe a page to move forward or backwards.

And implementing this, in the absence of a standard, requires a lot of JavaScript code.

The New York Times has implemented something similar using web standards – but it requires masses of JavaScript. The beauty of the Opera-backed Paged Media extensions is the simplicity. There are just 10 new extensions to five attributes.

Technique 1:

html {
overflow:paged-x;
height: 100%;
columns:3;
}

"We want pages laid out on the horizontal axis, three-column view," explains Lie.

Technique 2:

img {
float:top-corner;
column-span:2;
}

"We need to float to the corner, extend the float property and add column-span."

Technique 3:

...
@navigation {
nav-right: link-rel(next);
nav-left: link-rel(previous);
nav-down: url (http://www.example.com);
}

Techniques found in sophisticated and expensive fondleslab apps become simple, bog-standard code. Publishers have spent small fortunes creating native apps for smartphones and tablets in recent years. These generate complex and buggy code that provides little more than a wrapper around some content. The process is duplicated for each native platform. It's all very expensive.

The Paged Media CSS standards are a much simple solution – but they need widespread browser support.

So is the party over for app developers?

Hardly, but if this becomes a standard, developers will have to move into commodity territory, where they’re still amply rewarded, or solve more complex technical challenges for clients, where no open web standards exist.

Or at least, you would think so. ®

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