App, Meet Book (Ron Martinez)

Ron Martinez is the founder of Aerbook, and its parent company, Invention Arts. He’s a prolific inventor, with close to a hundred and fifty issued patents or patent applications currently in flight. Prior to his current work at Invention Arts, Ron worked for a number of years as Vice President, Intellectual Property Innovation for Yahoo! You can find Ron on Twitter at: @ronmartinez.

When considering the evolution of the book, it’s useful to look at the dynamics in other forms of media. We have enough history now with computers as an expressive medium to see that some dynamics are repeated so reliably that they may as well be considered laws. Take, for example:

The Laws of Surprise and Demand

  • The first iteration of a platform delivers enough to establish that platform.
  • Platform capabilities evolve faster than does the content.
  • Content innovators surprise the marketplace with delightful new experiences made possible by the evolved platform.
  • People demand these and other delightful new experiences.

In the technical medium, the act of surprising people with cool new experiences leads to demand for those experiences. It may seem shallow, but it’s not, really. It’s kind of the story of human expression in all forms of media, if you think about it.

Recent market experience illustrates this invariable progression. Take computer games, for instance, and the continual stair-stepping of fast-evolving platforms. They have to evolve first, because you can’t make content for a non-existent machine, and they are soon followed by the games that take full advantage of the new capabilities. From Pong up through graphic adventures, role-playing games, flight simulators, massively multi-player games, and now social and mobile games, each new set of cool platform capabilities is followed by cool new games that use the new capabilities.

So, what does this have to do with publishing books? For text-based, immersive narrative of one kind or another, it turns out, not a whole lot. There’s not much a graphics card, geo-locator, or sprawling social graph can do to improve upon a great novel. In fact, it’s pretty clear that attempting to inject any new platform capability into the existing form and expecting a good outcome is a misunderstanding of the laws. The resulting experience must also be delightful. Pride and Prejudice interrupted by a video clip is not delightful.

But the potential for other forms is real, nonetheless. Entire classes of books, those I’m interested in, like illustrated non-fiction, children’s books, culinary titles, how-to, and special interest books, have until recently had to sit out the revolution. The first-generation, text-centric, reflowable ebook platform has been incapable of delivering even the baseline capabilities these books require.

And so, books like these have had to go outside the ebook format to try another that offers more capabilities: the app. There are marvelous apps available in every category I mentioned. For publishing, the dynamic has played out like this:

  • The first iteration of a platform delivers enough to establish that platform. (Think Kindle/genre fiction.)
  • Platform capabilities evolve faster than does the content. (Think iPad.)
  • Content innovators surprise the marketplace with delightful new experiences made possible by the evolved platform. (Think app makers.)
  • People demand these and other delightful new experiences. (Think apps.)

More specifically, think of the aforementioned children’s book apps, as well as culinary, popularized science, travel, and how-to apps. “Revolutionary new book platforms” like PushPopPress once aspired to redefine the ebook itself–as an app.

Well, what is it that the app does that the ebook cannot?

Until recently, things as basic as ensuring that an illustration and the related text appear together as intended was something only apps could do. But there’s more. Apps can provide motion graphics or animated characters that instruct and mesmerize, synced sound and touchable components that reveal illuminating information. They may support non-linear navigation when useful, integrate with social networks, and gain from location awareness. Apps can deliver physics engines that enable graphics to capture the dynamism of the real world. The solutions delight, yes, but they also solve design problems in new ways, the sine qua non of meaningful functionality.

The eBook Platform Evolves: App Capabilities Migrate into Books

Now it’s the ebook’s turn to get advanced capabilities, and if the laws hold, books designed from the outset to take advantage of evolved capabilities to deliver delightful new experiences will flourish.

At the moment, Apple’s iBooks is the most technologically capable ebook platform, though each certainly has its strengths. Apple was first to market with the fixed layout EPUB format, reliably pairing illustrations and text. It is built atop Webkit, the advanced browser technology behind Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome web browsers, with many of the same HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript capabilities powering the most advanced web apps.

It’s truly remarkable what can be done in the current version of iBooks. Design labs like Aerbook and others, notably Liza Daly and Threepress Consulting (now part of Safari Books, which is partly owned by O’Reilly Media, publisher of this book), have demonstrated the potential of this platform.

Lately, Apple has taken the lead in migrating experiences that have been successful in native apps into the ebook reader itself, making it standard equipment. For example, the “read to me” feature, the word-by-word highlighting that entire children’s book app companies have been built upon, is now standard in iBooks. It’s possible to add soundtracks to books that span multiple pages. This deceptively simple capability alone opens up a range of new possibilities for graphic novels, dramatic performance paired with source texts, music-based books, and narrative, illustrated non-fiction.

Given past experience in other media, we know that other ebook platform makers will soon enough deliver these kinds of things and a lot more. The EPUB 3 standard provides a way to script all kinds of interactivity and to communicate with servers, further broadening the expressive palette of books. It’s clear that numerous books, perhaps most books, will have no use for any of this. But there are thousands of existing books and currently unforeseen titles that will inevitably be imagined and brought to market. This time they will come as ebooks, not as apps.

How Will “The Rest of Us” Contend with Yet Another Set of New Technologies?

In the early days following a platform’s generational evolution, only wizards, those with seemingly arcane knowledge (“eye of newt, attribute of div”) can actually make anything. It’s one reason that app developers get to charge such impressive rates. But this changes as platforms mature, and moreover, we live in an extraordinary time of makers and toolmakers, freely or inexpensively contributing what they know and what they have made to anyone who’s interested.

There are plug-and-play software components composed of intricate clockwork mechanisms that require little more of the creator than an ability to drag-and-drop. There are APIs (application programming interfaces) granting simplified access to vast networks of information and social graphs, again, with the requirement that the creator know only how to point-and-click.

A perfect example of this is WordPress. At the turn of the century, building a media-rich, customizable content management system-backed website like today’s typical WordPress site was an extraordinarily expensive and complex undertaking. Today, it is drag-and-drop, point-and-click. Maybe you can’t do everything that the most adept web designers can accomplish, but you can do a great deal. You can do more than enough.

It’s inevitable that app-like presentation and interactivity will become available to ebook makers, much like WordPress plug-ins, ready to be configured, styled, and lit up within one of a wide range of highly configurable templates. Tool makers are working on these things now, and Apple’s iBooks Author software is a first strong step in this direction. It takes little more than an inquisitive spirit to sign up as an Apple developer and see examples of the ebook platform’s advanced capabilities, in many cases already available. The ease with which they can be implemented is only growing.

Of course, none of this matters without something meaningful to publish, any more than having the fanciest maple box of water colors will enable you to paint great paintings. The perennially good news is that talent, passion, and the courage to create will never be drag-and-drop. But if you have these, it’s also nice to have that big box of paints. Especially if it’s practically free.


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