Monthly Archives: January 2008

My Mission

I’ve been involved in many projects in my 13 years at Microsoft, pretty much all of them to do with improving reading on the screen. I’m a “man with a mission”, and not ashamed to admit it. Oh, I know idealism might be regarded as old-fashioned and sneered at; but I’ve never been able to regard work as just a way to make a living. If I can’t feel I’m making a difference, it’s not worth doing.

Here’s my mission. I believe that reading has to transition from paper to the screen. It’s not just about getting rid of paper. It’s about improving access to information to billions more people in the world.

It was access to information, in books and libraries, that changed my own life. I could easily be doing some menial job and still living in a depressed housing project in the East End of Glasgow. Instead, more than a billion people are using technology I helped to invent, and Bill Gates uses me as an advisor to answer his detailed questions about reading and what Microsoft needs to do to improve reading on the screen.

I’m not trying to impress you with those statements. They’re really just to illustrate the difference reading made in my life. And that’s why I believe every child (and adult) in the world should have the right of access to the same wealth of information, so they can use it to improve their lives. See my Digital Declaration of Independence.

Anyway, if you wanted to produce a printed science textbook in, say, Swahili, you’d have to convince some publisher that you’d sell about 10,000 copies – because that’s the point at which sales break even with costs of printing, production, distribution etc.

However, if you wanted to produce the same book in an electronic version, all you’d have to do is find someone to translate the text, and replace the original language strings with the new ones.

That means the cost of books should come down dramatically, and access should go up just as dramatically.

Of course devices have to get cheaper too, and that is happening – maybe not as fast as we would like, but it is happening.

To make this really work, text on a screen has to become just as readable as paper. There’s no doubt in my mind it can be. There are screens which produce better text than print (I have a couple). It’s really just a matter of developing the right technology, and getting it out there. And that’s why I’m at Microsoft. With more than 600 million users of Windows and about 400 million users of Office, you can deploy that technology on an incredible scale. There’s nowhere else you can make such a dramatic impact.

If you want to change the world, change Windows and Office. That’s my mantra.

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Word as a blogging tool

This is an experiment. Rather than mess about with the rudimentary text features in Blogger’s editor, I’m posting this by using Word’s blogging functionality. “This is a set of quotation marks,” he said, just to make sure that these traveled across. Be nice if Word could somehow carry font embedding across into Blogger – then I wouldn’t be stuck with the limited choices Blogger offers. This is
Arial Black. And this is Magneto.

So the fonts do travel – this is cool. But what happened to the quotation marks? I’m back to those dumb “Feet and Inches”. More investigation needed here.

Of course, Arial Black and Magneto fonts are on my system. I’d be interested to know if this still works for someone who doesn’t have them installed. That WOULD be cool!

But it doesn’t. My son just hit my blog from his laptop. He sees only the Arial Black (I guess he has that on his system) but not Magneto. On my cellphone I see neither.

And I just noticed that the Arial Black I used turned up as Arial Black Italics. Since Arial Black has no true italic, this means the system’s creating one of those horrible artificially-skewed versions of the regular font. Ugh!

Now Word has supported font embedding using Embedded OpenType (EOT) for a very long time (it was embedded TrueType back when it was first implemented). Internet Explorer has supported EOT since 1995 by using the code developed for Word. I used Word’s “Save as” options to make sure the fonts were embedded.

Earlier this year I drove a move to make EOT a Web standard by opening up what was until then a proprietary Microsoft embedding format into an open standard. It’s been submitted to the W3C.

Somewhere along the line, the embedding information is being stripped out. Either Word is stripping the embedded EOT font object out when it publishes a document as a Blog post, or it’s being lost somewhere along the line. But there’s no pointer to an embedded font object in HTML.

Be nice to get this fixed… Have to investigate to find our who’s doing (or not doing) what…

Dumb Quotation Marks: Inching Away From Readability

Why do many editing programs – like the one in which I’m typing at this moment – use “feet and inch” marks for quotations, instead of proper “curly quotes”?

I’ve tried copying and pasting the correct characters. They should look like this “ instead of this “. You can’t just paste them into the text, though – and even if you paste them into the HTML in Blogger’s editor using Windows Character Map, it seems to recognize the opening and closing quotes as the same Unicode character!

U+201C is the Unicode for Left Double Quotation Mark

U+201D is the Unicode for Right Double Quotation Mark

U+2018 is the Unicode for Left Single Quotation Mark

U+2019 is the Unicode for Right Single Quotation Mark

I’m sure I could find a way to do this manually. But why should I have to do that every time I use a quotation?

This is a mark for the measure of Feet ‘

This is the mark for Inches “

One day we’ll have decent typography on the Web which will be smart enough to do this automatically.

Microsoft Word has been clever about this for a long time now. When you type the quotation marks on your keyboard, it uses the typographically correct quotation marks, and even gets the beginning and end directions right. It’s hardly rocket science – why isn’t everyone doing this? Curly quotes look so much better, and give an optically pleasing space around the quotation which sets it apart from normal text. Which is what quotation marks are supposed to do…

“This is a quotation” was copied and pasted from Word into Blogger’s editor. It just works, because Word does Unicode right.

I guess that means I have to write in Word first, then copy and paste here. Seems a shame. Takes the “instant post” factor out of blogging. But I’d rather do that than put up with ugly quotes.

Spelling Bee

I’m not like those French academicians who believe language should never change, and want to ban “invasions from other languages” like Le Weekend. Where would the English language be without words like “curry”?

And even though I’m a Brit (well, Scottish), I can see no earthly use in spelling the word “color” as “colour”.

But misusage of words has no excuse – especially when the writers are supposed professional communicators like newspapermen and broadcasters.

So I’ve started a list on this blog I’m calling “Spelling Bee”, to highlight incorrect usage whenever I find it. Call me pompous or pedantic if you like, but you can take the man out of editing, you can’t take the editor out of the man.

Misuse of the apostrophe – as in the panel truck I see sometimes driving around Redmond advertising “New Bathroom’s Fitted” – remains a Capital Offense.

Welcome to my new blog!

Blogging is supposed to be the future of journalism, writing and publishing.

Here’s how the theory goes:

  • Blogging and websites are the “new Gutenberg technology”, democratizing publishing in a way that’s never hitherto been possible.
  • The Web has already created a publishing explosion, which will continue to grow.
  • Anyone can become a publisher. All you have to do is create a blog and write content.
  • No-one will pay for it, so content must be free.
  • If bloggers’ content is good enough, they will build readership.
  • They can establish an income by signing up to have advertising streamed to their site.
  • They can also sign up to revenue-sharing schemes such as that run by Amazon (which offers 10% commission on referred sales).
  • Few commercial publishers will survive the transition.

So I’ve set up this new blog as an experiment to see how well the theory works in practice. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

In order to get things going, I’ve copied over all the relevant postings from my previous blog.

Welcome to the new blog!

Welcome to my new blog!

I’ve been blogging for a few months now, and wanted to try out an experiment.

If blogging is the future of journalism and publishing, then how can people earn a living from it?

The theory is that if your blog attracts readers, then advertisers will pay to show them relevant ads.

So I’ve set up this new blog, in which I signed up to have advertising streamed to it. Since I read so much, and books have played such a key role in my thinking (and my life), it also seemed to make sense to add a place to share my favorite books and a link to Amazon so you can buy them if you’re interested.

We’ll see exactly how this all turns out, and I’ll share my experiences with you.

In order to get things started, I’ve copied all the posts from my previous blog onto this one – which is why all the posts have the same date. I’m not that prolific a writer!

bill

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The Future of Newspapers

When I was a young newspaper reporter in Scotland, back in the 1960s, old-timers had a great put-down for any youngster who got too full of himself/herself after filing what they thought was a particularly good story:

“Son, they’ll be wrapping fish and chips in that tomorrow!”

And it was true, of course. The traditional Glasgow “fish supper”, bought from the local “chippie”, (which means a fish-and-chip shop in Scotland), was so swimming in deep-frying grease you needed something to absorb it. Glasgow and the West of Scotland was known back then as the Heart Disease Capital Of The World…

I love newspapers. Good ones, like the Scotsman (for which I worked for 12 years), or its Scottish quality competitor, the Glasgow Herald – or the New York Times, Washington Post, and so on – do an amazing job of monitoring a huge amount of news every day, checking it, focusing on what’s most important, writing it in a way that’s readable, and laying it out with good typography, photos and so on.

The news organizations they’ve all built over the years are amazing, but cost a fortune to run.
Anyone who believes all information should be free should be forced to take a walk through a busy newspaper editorial department about an hour before edition time…

Anyway, much as I love newspapers, the “paper” part of what they do is an anachronism that surely can’t survive the Digital Age. The number of trees that have to be cut down and pulped just to satisfy one day’s demand is insane, in a world of global warming. Within a few years we’re going to need every tree on the planet just so we can breathe…

I know there are issues with the resources the computing industry uses, but it is becoming more conscious of them and beginning to do something about them.

I’d like to see good news organizations survive by adapting, and creating a successful online business model for news.

Reading on the Web is still nowhere near as good as it can or should be. I’m not the only one who believes that; it’s clear from the evolution of Web standards like Cascading Style Sheets that many people feel the need of better typography and more sophisticated layout. See the CSS 2.1 spec at:

http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/

There’s a lot that needs to happen in addition to better layout. Layout needs to become adaptive, so I can read on any device and still get the best-possible experience.
And scrolling’s still a horrible thing to do to someone who’s trying to read.

The geeks who invented the Web and the first browser at NSCA hadn’t a clue about readability. I remember back then; the “Model T” option – “You can have any typeface you want, as long as it’s Times…”

Putting text into a bottomless window through which readers could scroll was done merely because it was the easiest option – a lot easier than doing the right thing, which was paginated content in a multi-column layout.

But just because it’s easy, that doesn’t mean we should have to live with substandard readability until the end of time.

This page is a great example. To read this, you’re scrolling down a single column of text – and most of the display shows nothing but white space.

We also need to be able to read our “newspaper” when we’re offline. We need to be able to manage all the different “subscriptions” we’ll have. I’d like the New York Times, Newsweek, The Economist, The Scotsman (for sentimental reasons and to see what’s going on back there), MSDN magazine, and probably quite a few other publications.

The best implementation of an onscreen newspaper I’ve seen so far is the New York Times Reader, built on the Windows Presentation Foundation graphics which shipped with Windows Vista (and also runs on Windows XP).

The English Daily Mail and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have also done WPF-based readers. You can find them on their websites.

The WPF team has just released a Software Development Kit which anyone can use to build a reader of their own. There’s also source code for a Microsoft Developer Network magazine reader, and a Subscription Center application where you can manage your subscriptions.
See my colleague Tim Sneath’s blog for details and pointers to all of this.

http://blogs.msdn.com/tims/archive/2008/01/16/we-ve-released-the-news-reader-sdk.aspx#comments

These WPF readers synchronize news at regular intervals and cache it, so you always have an edition you can read offline. The NYT Reader even keeps a seven-day archive for you.
I use the NYT reader almost every day. Sometimes, I read on my Tablet PC in landscape mode, sometimes in portrait mode. The layout adapts beautifully whichever I choose, to give me the best layout. But it doesn’t work on my cellphone – which is often the place I’m most likely to read the news.

These readers also support advertising. There’s not much expertise out there yet in building WPF-based adaptive ads, but the concept is very powerful, and promises much higher quality adverts – which also means more revenue for publishers. So maybe “newspapers” and “magazines”, at least, can support their content creation staffs and systems with advertising, which would allow free content.

I still can’t see an advertising model that works for books.

Having said all these positive things about WPF-based readers, you still have to have a pretty good software engineer or two to create one from the source code that’s provided.

What about the rest of us who’re not programmers and just want to put content on the Web? The power of Desktop Publishing, which appeared in the mid-80s – I was there – was that it opened up the power of quality publishing to far more people.

The Web needs to evolve to support similar standards of readability, offline experience, adaptive layout, etc., and allow anyone to create content.

The CSS 2.1 flurry of activity was sparked by people who saw the NYT Reader, and asked “How can we do this on the Web?”

We’re not there yet, even with CSS 2.1. But within a few years we will be, if I have anything to do with it 🙂