Typesetting for portable devices

One of the talks at TUG 2010 was about typesetting for the iPad. Anyone following the general area of working with portable devices (iPad, Kindle, iPhone, etc.) will have picked up why this is interesting. The new book-like electronic devices are posing a lot of questions for those of us interested in typography. The problem is that the screens that these systems have aren’t really suited for the fixed approach that PDF provides. The current solutions go with something more flexible, but as a result miss out on the layout quality that TeX-based solutions can provide.

In the talk, the approach shown off was going very much for a device-dependent approach, and creating pre-defined bitmaps for both landscape and portrait viewing on the iPad screen. There is some good discussion after the presentation about alternative approaches, such as doing the typesetting on the device, reflowable PDFs and intermediate methods.

While I don’t have any of these devices, I can see that thinking about supporting them is going to be important. It’s clear that the overall market is very big, and that there are unique challenges in supporting small screens with a different form of interaction to the ‘traditional’ PDF. So I’m pleased to see that a variety of people are exploring all of the possible TeX-based solutions.

5 thoughts on “Typesetting for portable devices

  1. Aside from the TeXnical aspects, I just want to point out that it is impossible to legally run any modern implementation of TeX (or any other GPL’d software) on the iPad (or iPhone), due to Apple’s draconian DRM policies. One would have to go back to Knuth’s sources (no pdfTeX) — and even then, Apple may or may not accept it and could kill it at any time, with no reason and no notice.
    Here is one of many articles about it; of course, Apple is supremely uninterested.

  2. I’m well aware of the wider issues about Apple’s attitude to what can and can’t go onto an iPad/iPhone (as I said, I don’t have any of these things). I’m not really sure that typesetting on-the-fly is really the best plan in any case, whether on an iThing, Kindle, or whatever. However, I do think that it is important to find workable solutions for portable devices, both technically and legally. They are only going to grow as a share of the market for typeset material, and it would be a shame if that meant that bad typography was allowed a free rein.

  3. (In the interests of openness, I should add that I’m writing these comments on a MacBook Pro running MacOS 10.6.4!)

  4. I have an e-ink reader, DR1000, that supports pdf and epub, and a host of other formats (txt, djvu with an external plugin, chm, etc.). Since most of the documents that I use are math heavy, I mainly use pdf. And TeX is extremely useful for that.

    There are two types of documents: (i) working drafts of my papers and (ii) papers that I download from the net.

    For (i), I have a few custom made LaTeX and ConTeXt style files, that set the page size and font size to values that I prefer for the reader. (with slightly different styles for math heavy and text heavy documents).

    TeX really shines for (ii). The journal papers that I read are either single column, like AMS math journals or SIAM journals; or two columns, like IEEE journals or Elsiver journals. To read them comfortably on DR1000, I trim the margins of single column papers, and convert the two column papers into one column papers by appropriately selecting the dimensions of the page. For that, I have written a ConTeXt module using which I specify the dimensions like


    Since the journals have a consistent style, I need to figure out the dimensions for each journal only once. And then, I can easily transform a journal paper into the streamlined format.

    I actually find that TeX has made it really simple to read different journal articles on DR1000. I am sure that the same can be done for IPad and Kindle (if they support pdf).

    Personally, I do not feel the need for resizing documents on the reader. For documents that I create, I set the font size to something that I like. For journal papers, I already get some magnification by cutting out the columns (DR1000 is almost the size of a letter paper). In fact,
    for two column papers, after splitting them into one columns, I have almost 180% magnification. For single column documents, I get almost 240% magnification by viewing them in landscape mode. So, I do not find any need for increasing the font size or reflowing the pdf (DR1000 can do that, but it completely messes up the math formatting).

  5. Thanks for the detailed information Aditya. As I say, I don’t have an e-Book reader or anything similar, so it is useful to get some feeling from people who do.

    One thing I notice is that you are talking about documents that you are typesetting. There, of course, PDF is perfectly acceptable as you can make changes to your set up to get what you want. I’m thinking more about the general public, who will be getting hold of books from some supplier (whether paid-for or free). In the ideal world one file will cover all of the available devices, but that does require changes as each device has unique requirements. That’s before you get on to ‘value added’ things like having images ‘pop up’ from pages (this is done in the HTML versions of various academic papers I read, for example).

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