On the Therapist’s Couch: Books as Apps, Really? (Neal Hoskins, WingedChariot)

Neal Hoskins is the founder of wingedchariot. Outdoors and onscreen it’s all about the obvious. You can follow him on twitter at @utzy. WingedChariot makes beautiful multi-lingual applications for many screens. Their work sits at the intersection of quality print and digital production. Follow @storiestotouch for news.

I begin with a personal story. By the time these crisp chapters come out, three years will have passed since WingedChariot made its first app. In terms of app development, this is long ago, but in practice it is really only 36 months.

That first app was an 18-slide picture book that was designed to be read on a 3.5 inch screen. Readers swiped to move the page and saw a total of six animations of a sheep on a motorbike. At the time, many people laughed at this effort. “What is it?” they asked. “Really? A children’s book on such a small screen?”

Then, in 2010, larger-form tablets arrived, and boy, we were off, as in “Vroooooooooooooooooooooooom.”

But track back a little to 2008 when the first app stores were opening. At the time, we were inspired by innovators like Scrollmotion and Enhanced Editions. These and other firms were pioneers, ones that saw apps as a way to provide books with pictures, sounds, and interactivity in a much more friendly and hands-on way than publishers ever achieved on formats like the CD-ROM or floppy disk.

Hardware met software met digital storefront and combined to provide the conditions for the widespread acceptance and growth of apps. Looking back, it seems obvious that the convergence was going to happen. But with the new tools came the equally obvious human confusion: “What about the browser?  What about HTML and its layout cousins? What about the internet?”

As tablets moved from mythical to magical in 2010, we  soon started to ask, “Does it really matter where all of this is going?”

When it comes to the potential for enhanced ebooks, there were—and remain—plenty of doubters. Underscoring these reservations, a presentation by Evan Schnittman (late of Oxford and Bloomsbury, now with Hachette in the United States) famously included a tombstone that read “ENHANCED EBOOKS AND BOOK APPS 2009—2011”. Language like “enhanced what,” infamously presented by a large publisher not so long ago in London, gave proof that we are indeed struggling to win the hearts and minds of established publishers.

Are we all washed up before we even get into the world of  interactive app making?  Do we fear the publisher as media producer? And if we do fear that, why? Is it a lingering legacy of how we think we sucked at making CD-ROMS?

I suppose at this point I could present hundreds of definitions and well-honed quotes on what a book is, how we define them, associate with them, what we love or hate about them. There are too many clever ones, but very few wise ones.

To answer the question “How can we get out of this maelstrom created by our own ingenuity?”, let’s turn to a LinkedIn discussion group that took place in May 2011:

Creating App or EPUB will be a question of delivery. If I want to sell my content in a bookstore like iBooks I create an EPUB. If I want it in a “department store” like the App Store I create an App. Since more and more Apps are made via frameworks which also work with HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript (“web app” is a keyword), App and ePub are only different containers of the same content, book or however you want to label them. (Uwe Matrish)

Matrish provides the answer to the publishing dilemma. There are formats emerging that may lead to making apps for all platforms. There may be new nuts-and-bolts tools (they are certainly NOT there yet) that will allow us to read through the browser. But it is really for publishers to decide whether they want to make packages and core code bases for some sorts of content, or not. There is no single answer.

Naturally, there are the arguments of cost and scale, but through experimentation those who really care about being publishers will define themselves in the new way and understand it for themselves.

Instead of panicking, take a deep breath and be resourceful. Study the flotsam of the moment and grab onto something solid. (William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry)

In short, for me, the real “e” in enhanced ebooks has always been “education.” One has only to look at some of the best learning content to see why we make apps. Look at the amazing work of Nosy Crow, Touchpress, or PushPopPress. Consider the fascinating visual archiving of apps like Bilbion and the New York Public Library.

In these, you see why this new medium works: a complete match of content machine and educational exploration that pushes out new forms of visual learning and entertainment.

Compare this with chapter books and text. To my mind, a black-and-white text display screen provides the quiet, contemplative reading experience that many of us are seeking. That is to say, the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony ereader, and a Kobo device are the right choices when it comes to just text and reading. Despite the arguments made elsewhere, I couldn’t see for a very long time any useful changes to the text-based book, not until the writer comes with her or his own idea to exploit this new medium. In that regard, we best ask Bob Stein[1] or Chris Meade[2] those questions.

Different Flavors

Back in 2008, there was only one app store. Now, you have a veritable ice cream parlor of them. Examples include:

  • The HP webOS app catalogue[3]
  • The Android marketplace[4] (which actually has an ice cream sandwich metaphor[5] come next year)
  • The Blackberry store[6], from RIM
  • Symbian (the Ovi Store[7]), now thrown in with Microsoft
  • The Windows phone[8]

and last but not least

  • The Apple app store[9]

For a great and free summary developers’ guide, just go here[10] for a wonderful 8th edition handbook.

Everything in the Mix

At the end of this short chapter we come back to the beginning. The more I think about the creativity of apps, the more I realize that there are so many ideas of what stories can do and how information can be displayed.

It helps to understand where all this came from. I have a number of friends who were working in London during the 1990s when the first attempt at mobile software and information on portable devices were being made. Apple smugly called this “baby software” (hello, Newton?).

Yes, it was clunky, and yes, it was sometimes hard to use. But we had to go through those years and all that development to get to where we are now. Publishers who want to see their content on modern screens are blessed with new and easy tools and a number of emerging standards.

Where we are now is a long way from the early versions. While there are different things in the mix today, the early icon screens are not that far away from what we have now. In one of the best roundups of what went on before in ebook publishing, Ars Technica[11] provided a look at all the failed machines. Sobering, yes, but these were the real brave hearts. The era of PDAs sowed the seeds of the modern smartphones and ultimately ebooks, apps, and the like.

It is endlessly fascinating and sometimes laughable how much the future of the book is put into discussion by publishers. This path was never followed by the record or film industry. When the digital juggernaut arrived on their doorsteps, they simply called up their lawyers. As noted in a tweet by Hugh McGuire:

The future of books in the digital age is apparently writing books on the future of books in the digital age.

Print book apps, EPUB3, HTML5, and CSS3 will all remain on the scene in one shape or form. They will combine, morph, mix, and fall in and out of love with each other. There will be new writers and new publishers who arrive and flourish and some large household names that disappear and are remembered and archived in other books.

Perhaps we need our own massive, interactive app that explains from the time of Saint Augustine what books and reading went through. Mr. Gutenberg “was a businessman and technologist” like some of us writing here. In the future we will carry a library in our old leather bags that will simply be the thickness of a page, offering text or even color, and then it will show us sound or pictures or whatever we decide we want from it; in the end it is us who will choose how we want our stories told.

So it is with every new thing. In the words of Henry Ford, “Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready,[12] and then it is inevitable.”

Epilogue

It’s a cold February day in 2012. A survey of publishers released at one of the recent digital conferences found that fewer feel apps are the right way to go. In fact, publishers have anxiety over the tablet as a platform in general (really!).

In retrospect, this doesn’t seem too hard. Choose your form, publish your work, pick your stores. With many larger publishers, I am convinced that apps are being shunned because they are reluctant to retool their staff.

In the time since I wrote the first version of this chapter, publishers have lost webOS, no longer supported by HP. This leaves publishers with three main contenders for app development:

  • Apple iOS
  • Android
  • Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 (forthcoming) for tablets

At the time of this writing, Apple and Android cover more than 80% of the new mobile sales, but those shares have shifted significantly over the last few years. In all likelihood, we will continue to live in a multiplatform world for some time to come.

Multiplatform life is hard, but it is life as we know it now. Publishers need to choose their platforms, publish on them, market their products, learn from their work, and ultimately publish again. In the end, we should have heart. As noted by Mike Kruzeniski, I think good app work will always take a cue from fine print work.[13]

Although the decision a publisher makes about web, hybrid, or native app development will vary on a case-by-case basis, in the end I think that Peter O’Shaughnessy shows the way in saying “web first, hybrid second, native third.”[14]

With respect to interactivity, an interview with Theodore Gray from Touch Press[15] provides valuable perspective.  Touch Press basically makes the best bookish super apps. There are all sorts of tools out there, but for the newest, most creative and content-driven uses, native software development kit (SDK) may be the likely winner.

For WingedChariot, we have a good set of five apps. Though a smaller publisher, that leaves us with almost as many apps as larger players like Penguin. We have spent a year in research and seen a lot of our future avenues in schools delivering excellent content on any screen (via the browser in these cases). Some of the research included:

1. Children’s views on paper books versus electronic devices[16]

2. Children exploring Stories to Touch[17] from WingedChariot on portable devices

3. Children’s reactions to Scruffy Kitty,[18] a WingedChariot multilingual app

4. Teaching languages[19] with Stories to Touch

5. Classroom activity[20] using digital Stories to Touch

6. Thoughts on the future of the book[21]

7. Electronic devices in the classroom—languages and literacy[22]

You can hear about that and more in a 2012 inteview[23] I did with Joe Wikert, publisher at O’Reilly Media.

Since 2009, I’ve learned that all of the best apps are informational games at heart, whatever the genre. Books are fascinating sets of data and streams of information.

At WingedChariot, our pillars of “languages, learning, and play” sit well with that. We’ll continue on our jolly path welcoming successive generations of tablets and other devices. I dare say that we will also embrace two-way educational TV, where your apps and television character programs interact. Now there’s something to think about….


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