Publishing Executive & Book Business as iPad Apps
Margin Notes in eBooks

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?

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