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6 posts from February 2011

Pennant iPad App Reinvents The Baseball Encyclopedia

Pennant

If you're a big baseball fan you probably remember the Baseball Encyclopdia.  The most recent edition from Macmillan is now 15 years old.  It was loaded with career stats and box scores but apparently became too unweildy to keep up-to-date.  The Baseball Encyclopedia was always a terrific reference but not something you'd typically spend a lot of time immersed in.

I recently discovered a new iPad app that provides details of every major league baseball game played in the past 60 years.  It's called Pennant and it's not a boring data dump like the Baseball Encyclopedia; it's a highly engaging app that's hard to put down.

The Pennant app lets me relive the 1971 World Series, one play at a time.  My (former) hometown Pirates beat the Orioles in 7 games and I get to see exactly what happened each step of the way.  This isn't just a bunch of box scores.  Pennant represents a whole new imaginative way of envisioning box scores.  As soon as I saw this video I was ready to cough up $5 for the Pennant app:

Why is this so special and what does it have to do with publishing?  I'm inspired by how the developers of Pennant took the box score, something that hasn't changed much in about 100 years, and came up with a rich iPad app that brings all those old games back to life.  There are plenty of features I'd love to see added to Pennant (e.g., career stats by player) but if baseball statistics can be recast like this, imagine how any type of content coud be completely reinvented in the tablet era.


Margin Notes in eBooks

Screen shot 2011-02-21 at 2.50.08 PM I was disappointed to read the conclusion drawn by this recent New York Times article.  The writer, Dirk Johnson, makes it sound like margin notes have no future in the ebook world.  I couldn't disagree more.

In a blog post I wrote late last year I talked about how content mark-up and sharing are features that need to be improved upon in today's ereader apps.  You can take notes with most apps but note sharing is only now starting to become a reality.  That concept led me to something more interesting though.

If you click on the image in the top left corner of this post you'll see a slide I presented in a TOC webcast called "My eContent Wish List."  The slide shows a marked-up ebook page and a picture of Bill Gates.  I referred to the feature as the "VIP notes edition."  The concept is that famous people read books too, and sometimes they probably even make some margin notes in them.  So why not let them do the same thing in an ebook?

Here's the kicker: Rather than there just being one copy of that famous person's notes, why not offer them for sale to anyone else who buys the ebook?  I'd pay more to see Bill Gates' notes on some of the books I've read.  The idea is for thought leaders, celebrities, etc., to make handwritten notes in ebooks they read and sell them as an add-on.  Like most rich/famous people, Bill doesn't need the money, so he could donate it to his Foundation if he chooses to.  There would be two versions of the ebook available: One without notes at the current (lower) price and one with the VIP notes at a slightly higher price.  Maybe you even have more than one thought leader with notes on the same book.  For example, the next time I buy a sports ebook, I might say, "I'll take Scorecasting with notes from Steve Rushin and Dan Patrick."  (Actually, I'd pay a lot more for any sports ebook with notes from Steve Rushin!)

It's too bad Dirk Johnson limited his thinking to how margin notes work in the print world.  I think the concept has even more potential in the ebook world.  We just need to get people to start thinking more about ebook possibilities and less about print limitations. 


The Atavist Reader & Authoring Tools

Atavist I've been banging the drum a lot lately for short-form content.  We've all got way too much to read and I believe concise content will become even more important in the mobile/tablet world of tomorrow.  That's one of the reasons Kindle Singles caught my eye a few weeks ago.  The Business of Media is the only Single I've bought and read so far and it was a non-fiction work of art.  Amazon is heading in the right direction with Singles but, as I mentioned in that earlier post, they need to reconsider their value proposition.

Earlier this month another short-form content platform caught my eye.  It's called The Atavist and it's touted as "nonfiction storytelling for the digital age."  There are only two Atavist titles currently available and I selected Lifted, an interesting story of high-stakes robbery, for my review. 

Atavist titles can be read via their iPad app or as Kindle Singles.  Knowing that The Atavist app offers a much richer content experience than the Kindle, I opted for the app, of course.

The screen shot at the top of this blog post is the first thing you'll see in the iPad app when you read an Atavist title.  Take a good look at that image (click on it to enlarge).  I'm all for rich content but the options on that screen are intimidating.  There's no way you'll remember all those features initially, especially the various inline elements, but I figured all those bells and whistles would make for a more engaging experience.

The Atavist product is filled with plenty of photos, maps and timelines of the robbery.  And although the links are plentiful, their value is often questionable.  For example, the maps come courtesy of Google but are limited to the standard view.  A satellite view option with the ability to zoom in and see rooftops (which, btw, is an important perpsective in the Lifted story) would have been much more interesting.  And how about the photos available at street-level in Google maps?  Enabling access to those would have been a nice touch.

At times I felt as though the creators of this product were incented to include a minimum number of links in the story.  Take a look at this partial screen shot, for example:

Screen shot 2011-02-20 at 2.22.42 PM

See all those globes next to "stretched", "across", etc.?  All 6 of those links take you to the exact same map.  No difference whatsoever.  Why bother making individual links out of each of them?

Despite all this critical feedback, I want to be clear that I'm a fan of what the Atavist is striving to achieve.  The app also has some pretty cool features I'd love to see other reader apps integrate.  The scrollable, visual table of contents is very handy as are the character profiles and timelines.  I also love the tilt-to-scroll feature that moves through a chapter based on how far you tilt the iPad; no more swiping the screen to change pages!

What I'm more concerned about is the authoring tools required to create the rich customer experience everyone is looking to create.  O'Reilly co-founder and colleague Dale Dougherty talks about how "the iPad needs its Hypercard."  I agree.

The other analogy that comes to mymind is the original version of Microsoft's Visual Basic.  If you were a developer in the early days of Windows you had to write each application line by line.  Some code reuse was possible, of course, but scalability was a challenge.  In May of 1991 Visual Basic 1.0 arrived and changed everything.  It was the first commercially successful visual development tool, which meant you could drag and drop objects on the screen to create your interface, not hand-code every piece.

Talk about a game-changer.  Not only did experienced programmers become more productive but, perhaps more importantly, non-programmers suddenly had access to a tool that let them jump into application development.

Today we live in a world similar to the pre-Visual Basic era of Windows application development.  Each rich content product is hand-crafted, line by line.  I'd hate to think how long it takes the Atavist team to build a product like Lifted.  And their efforts are limited to one platform today; you won't find the iPad app's richness in either the Kindle or Nook versions of their titles because those other platforms just don't support it.  What happens when Kindle, Nook, etc., natively support rich content features?  Will authors and publishers have to create multiple versions for each?  Things would be much simpler if a single standard such as EPUB takes over, but that's not the case today.

So when will we see a Visual Basic-like, rich content creation, multiplatform tool for authors of all levels of technical expertise?  It's got to be as easy to use as Microsoft Word but powerful enough to create next-generation, transmedia products.  Have you seen anything yet that looks promising?


Publishing Executive & Book Business as iPad Apps

I'm a longtime subscriber to both Book Business and Publishing Executive magazines, so I was happy to see both recently released as free iPad apps (iTunes links here and here).  Like most magazine apps to date, they're simply digital reproductions of the print edition.

One of the nicer options is that anytime you see an url on the page you can touch it and quickly jump to that website.  Unlike most ereader apps available today, you go directly to the site without leaving the app; a built-in browser appears on the bottom half of the screen, resulting in a user experience that's far better than any other I've seen.  Amazon and Apple, why are you guys unable to offer something as simple as this in your ebook reader apps?!  (This is exactly why I'm pleading with Amazon to open source their ereader app.  They could offer a much richer reading experience if they'd just let the community help.)

As much as I appreciate having these two magazines as apps there's one key feature that's missing: the social aspect.  I've never been one to write letters to the editor but I guarantee you I'd be more engaged if I could just touch the screen and post something about the article I just read.  I'd also love to see what other readers have to say using that same one-touch access.  They could use the same pop-up window approach they used for the browser so you could see the article and comments on the same screen.  Reader comments are a basic of every newspaper and magazine website, so why isn't it built into apps like these?


eReaders for Kids

I don't recall ever seeing anyone younger than 25 or with a dedicated eReader.  That's why I was impressed when I saw the stats cited in this recent New York Times article.  Here are the excerpts that jumped out at me:

At HarperCollins, ebooks made up 25% of all young-adult sales in January, up from about 6% a year before.

In 2010 young-adult ebooks made up about 6% of the total digital sales for titles published by St. Martin's Press, but so far in 2011, the number is up to 20%.

Wow.  And note that Kindles and Nooks are the devices cited; you won't find "iPad" anywhere in that article.  That doesn't mean the iPad isn't influencing these sales, of course, but it makes sense that the lower-priced dedicated eReaders are driving the bulk of this surge.  After all, how many parents are comfortable handing a $500+ iPad over to their 11- or 12-year-old?

This seems like it could be an even bigger opportunity for the eReader vendor willing to explore the sub-$100 price point.  Not $99.  I'm thinking $49.99, max.

I've suggested this before, but why not come out with a Kindle or Nook that's nothing more than a reader.  No wifi.  No cellular.  It's simply a reader with a port that tethers to all the popular smartphones.  You download your books using the smartphone app and move them to your eReader via a cable.  Even if the young reader doesn't have a smartphone it's highly likely their parents do.

Is this clunkier than the current solution with wifi/3G built in?  Absolutely.  But by casting a broader net, imagine how many new young book lovers we could create!


One Solution for Amazon's In-App Purchase Dilemma

The NY Times reported earlier today that Apple is "tightening its control of the App Store."  Apple spokesperson Trudy Muller was quoted as follows:

We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app with in-app purchase.

Hey, it's Apple's platform, so it seems reasonable that they can set the guidelines.  If Amazon decides they don't want to give Apple a cut of every Kindle ebook sale they can always abandon the platform, right?

That would be foolish, so I don't anticipate that happening.  What can Amazon do?

How about making the out-of-app purchase option more compelling than the in-app purchase option?  Believe me, I hate the clumsy close-your-Kindle-app-open-Safari process I endure every time I buy an Amazon ebook on my iPad, but is this an opportunity to take that awkward process and make it irresistable?

Think membership program.  What sort of a Kindle membership program could Amazon create where you earn points only when you buy out-of-app, direct from Amazon, without Apple getting a cut?  Comply with the rules and offer in-app purchases, of course, but make the out-of-app option irresistable.  What do you think, Mr. Bezos?...