The Age of iPad Superbooks? Not Yet
Jadedness: it’s an occupational hazard in tech journalism. Other people look at new software or gadgets and say “Wow.” I look at them and say “Hmm, needs work.”
Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine provided a case in point. Writer Virginia Heffernan reviewed 15-Minute Everyday Pilates, a video e-book from Alameda, CA-based Vook, a publishing startup I profiled last August. It was one of the most perceptive pieces I’ve read about Vook, focusing on how the embedded video in this title brought the book’s exercise instructions to life. “People have talked about book-video combos since the days of CD-ROMs, but Vook has quietly found the right content, the right software and the right distribution system,” Heffernan wrote. Right on.
But then, in the recommendations section at the end of the piece, Heffernan had this to say: “Some of the most fascinating books around aren’t books; they’re superbooks—books with so much functionality that they’re sold as apps. Consider: Alice—a beautiful Alice in Wonderland that lets you move the illustrations. Or David Eagleman’s Why the Net Matters, a book about the Internet with photos, animation and even 3D.”
Superbooks? That sounded exciting. I’ve been wondering for a long time whether the advent of the iPad and its big, beautiful, multitouch screen would inspire book and magazine publishers to go beyond their unimaginative early experiments in digital publishing. So I went right to the iTunes App Store and bought the two titles Heffernan mentioned.
And boy, am I underwhelmed.
I mean no disrespect to the creators of these two apps. It’s still early days in the tablet revolution, and book and magazine designers are just starting to figure out how to exploit the iPad interface in ways that add intellectual and aesthetic value, rather than just glitz, to the core text. So all of the criticism that’s about to follow is meant in a constructive spirit. In fact, I think it’s a compliment to the creators that they’ve built apps that are engaging enough to inspire others to ponder what’s missing. Still, as I set out to write about these apps’ shortcomings, I admit to some hesitation, because I know their creators are already dealing with plenty of fear and criticism from the opposite direction—that is, from traditional publishers with a vested interest in killing anything new or risky. Anyway, here goes.
First, Alice for the iPad. It’s an $8.99 app from Atomic Antelope, a London-based app design studio run by former CNET journalist Chris Stevens. Praised by Oprah Winfrey, no less, as an app that will “change the way kids learn,” it’s an interactive rendition of the classic Lewis Carroll book, which was first published in 1865 and is therefore securely in the public domain. That means anyone can recycle the text and illustrations without fear of the copyright police.
Alice for the iPad works well on a basic design level because it respects its source materials. The sepia palette evokes a real Victorian-era children’s book, and all of the user-interface elements, such as the next-page and back-page arrows, are appropriately unobtrusive. What gives the app its ‘Wow’ factor, though, is … Next Page »