Monday, 5 December 2011

Charles Dickens and Me

I was first forced to read Dickens at school. The book was Oliver Twist, and the length and density of the work put me off. I suppose I was about 12.

Many years later I picked up an old edition of Bleak House and read it almost at one sitting. The humour! The plot! The characterisation! The satire! Something for everyone - you can't not like Dickens.

About a year ago, we moved offices to Cleveland Street in central London, an old road marking the ancient boundary between Camden and Westminster. Doing some research I found that Dickens lived at number 22 when he was just 2, and he enters this address again when registering at the British Museum on the 8th February 1830, when he was 18. Number 22 is now, in a truly Dickensian twist, a button shop.

Just up the road, between us and number 22 is the Cleveland Street Workhouse, which would have been fully occupied in Dickens time. It must have influenced his description of the workhouse in Oliver Twist.

When I was last in Boston I stayed at the Parker House, where Dickens lived for two years, and where the first ever reading of "A Christmas Carol" took place on 3rd December 1867, almost exactly 144 years ago.

I think I've turned into an inadvertent Dickens stalker.

So we're delighted to be publishing an incredible facsimile of an illuminated 1916 edition of "A Christmas Carol" through our digital imprint, eBookTreasures. It's available through iTunes, and if you haven't read it in a while, I commend this version to you.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

eBookTreasures III

Here's the last post about eBookTreasures. This one deals with the commercial side.

When we decided to go for this, it was to answer 2 questions:
- how can we help our clients generate revenue?
- how can we provide access to collections on mobile platforms?

Our client base is possessed of some of the greatest treasures in the world, but not with great amounts of money or the appetite for risk. So the commercial model we developed was one that many app developers in this space have used: revenue share. Put simply, we take care of all development and management, we share marketing responsibilities, and the revenues, after the vendor cut, are split. The exact way revenues are split depends on the kind of titles the institution has, and the number of titles they commit to. The better the titles and the more they want to do, the better deal they get.

This effectively gives the library no downside (other than the management opportunity cost), which makes it an easy decision. Which then compels us to keep the quality bar high. We've had to turn away a number of potential clients as we couldn't see us selling enough of their titles to make it worthwhile. To be honest, we're still not sure what the breakeven number is. We know how much work goes into creating an iBook, but we're just about to launch for Kindle, and looking at building out an app. All these costs have to be amortised over the catalogue we have at that point.

We know we'll never sell tens of thousands of any given title - the market for digital facsimiles just isn't that large, but we hope to build a catalogue of several hundred titles each selling respectably over a long period of time. And then there are the crazy spikes we sometimes see. When the last Alice in Wonderland movie came out, we saw 40,000 downloads a month for an online version we did. Nothing to do with us.

Pricing has been interesting. Kindle wisdom would tell you around £2.99 is a sweet spot. But we're not on Kindle, just iBooks for now, and the pricing seems different - not so many self-pubbed authors for one. Then the only alternative to buying some of our digital facsimiles is a print facsimile, and they can cost thousands. Add in the provenance of our titles, and we decided on a somewhat premium pricing model, but still cheaper than Big Six ebooks of their latest hardbacks. So, £9.99 for a complete large facsimile, less for smaller ones. To hedge our bets somewhat, we did highlights editions of books like the Luttrell Psalter and Leonardo's Codex Arundel. To our surprise though, the complete versions have been outselling the highlights versions 2:1. We're slowly learning more about our audience.

We're three months in, so it's early days, but we're really encouraged. Books are dropping into the system week by week, and we're taking a long view of this. We might just be building the greatest library in the world, and making some money for our clients at the same time.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Briefcase in the Hall

It's standing next to the pew, by my front door. It's a black leather briefcase my wife bought me in 1993 or 1994 when I started Armadillo Systems. "There" she said, "now you're a businessman".

I haven't used it for years, so it's going to the charity shop. In its day I used to carry vast folders of paper around. Printouts of letters, contracts, checklists and sketches. It's day has passed.

It was in 2005 when I was spending a lot of time with Microsoft in Seattle that I realised paper had died. In meetings, 10 or 15 people lined up either side of a long table would open their laptops almost in unison, tappeting away throughout the meeting, every comment and thought filed away ready for copying and pasting, ready to later justify or judge. Times had changed.

Then the other week I was in another meeting. This time in a coffee shop. All three of us pulled out iPads and silently stabbed at our on-screen keyboards. Times had changed again. No formal meeting rooms and no formal filing system. Coffee and the cloud rather than formality and folders.

Over the last weekend, Apple sold 4m new iPhones with their latest voice recognition system, Siri. Make no mistake, this is the beginning of another big shift, this time not from paper to keyboards, but from keyboards to voice.

This won't define the future of how we relate to computers, but it will surely point the way.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Unripe Apples

It was the summer of 1985. I was working for a financial institution as part of my degree in an office made of grey. The walls were grey, the suits were grey and the floor was grey. Ties were pink or yellow though.

We had two computers in the department - an IBM XT and an IBM AT. One was better than the other, but it was hard to tell which, as they both had green screens and ran DOS. They were hooked up to an enormous dot-matrix printer that would go "screeeek, screeek" as it spewed out reams of stripey paper.

Down the road was a computer shop that had just started to sell things called Macs, which didn't look at all like the PCs. I persuaded them to lend me one for a couple of weeks. I think it was a 512k running System 1.1. Over that two weeks the entire company must have crowded round my desk.  

"Look at that nice screen"

"Wow, it has pictures on screen"

"What's that box on a wire on your desk? What you move that box and that little pointer moves at the same time?"

"Do that thing with the font again".

It just changed everything. Computers moved from the domain of the data-processing guys to everyone. We could suddenly envisage them being useful in all sorts of ways, not just as gigantic calculators.

You know the path we've trodden since then and it doesn't need revisiting here, but I wouldn't be doing what I do now if it wasn't for Steve Jobs. 

For which I'm grateful.

Monday, 3 October 2011

eBookTreasures II

OK, here's the second post about eBookTreasures. In the first we covered the background, today it's technology and UI.

Prior to 1.1 iBooks had done a similar job to most epub readers, but then the iBooks team saw the writing on the wall and adopted many of the epub3 standards - HTML5, CSS, Javascript as well as fixed-width books.

Fixed-width was the starting point. You can embed images, pretty large ones if you want, in regular epubs, but they don't fill the screen. You don't feel like you're reading a book. The device acts as a frame, and then the app acts as a frame within that. There's no suspension of disbelief there. Fixed-width changed all that. Books can butt up against the iPad bezel and suddenly you're leafing through a manuscript, not reading an ebook. And with the iPad's 2m pixel ceiling for image size, you have plenty of headroom to drop in nice high-resolution images. That got us started.

We then wanted a very stripped down UI, that let the book just be the book, but we wanted some subtlety too. Discrete arrow buttons bring up custom functionality. We animated these using jQuery classes, and then wrote some Javascript to do things like flip Leonardo da Vinci's pages the right way round, play MP3 audio files and do some image swapping.

The latter is important, as it swaps the page bitmap for a blank page bitmap (custom-coloured for the book it's placed in) with system text embedded in it. This allows for the text to be searched, taking advantage not only of iBooks rather nice search function, but also it's highlighting and dictionary functionality.

For these generic pages, as well as the introductory pages, we used CSS to allow for easy customisation. Our objective here is to build a template or engine that will give us the chance to build new books very quickly and easily.

This is a key differentiator in what we are doing. We didn't want to build a big "bet the farm" type app model where huge development costs go in to building each book. This is more like a large number of smaller bets, meaning it's easier to get partners on board, easier to scale and easier to fine tune.

The HTML5 capabilities of epub3 are allowing us to easily embed video, which will be a feature of a forthcoming title, and getting to grips with all these capabilities puts us in a good place for working on more complex ebook projects in the future should we want to.

For all of this we had to test against lower-end devices like iPod Touch and iPhone 3G, which operate with much less RAM and an older GPU. We were really concerned about performance on these devices. In the end, Apple advice was to go for quality, so we did (using the high-res files for example) and the low end devices cope OK. An iPad2 gives a snappier experience than an iPad1 for example, but the latter is plenty usable.

Overall I guess we built up to 400 test epubs of various sorts over a 3-4 month period. Different bitmaps, different code, breaking changes as Apple released new iBooks builds, UI tweaks, you name it. Ironically though, the technology set we are using is the lowest we've used in many years. This hasn't been a project with huge technology hurdles, just UX and marketing ones.

One of the things we have our eye on is the Kindle approach to facsimiles. So far we've seen Kindle Print Replica appear out of the ooze, but this primitive life form is nothing but a PDF in a DRM wrapper. Plenty of scope for evolution there.

Next time I'll look at the business model and the barriers to adoption.

Monday, 5 September 2011

eBookTreasures I

This will be the first of a couple of posts on a new venture we've just launched called eBookTreasures.

Basically it's like Turning the Pages for iPad, but you get to download and own the book. If you're having a hard time visualising this, take a look at a video.

I want the posts to cover the background, the technical approach and the commercial model. I think it's worth doing this as so many things fall out of this project: open vs closed standards, Apple vs Kindle, free vs paid, social media vs traditional marketing.

This post is on the background.

Around summer 2010, the iPad had just launched, and whilst we had been looking at what TTP on mobile devices might be for quite a while, this launch acted as a catalyst to take another look.

Our options were:
- build an iOS app
- build an Android app
- create an iBook
- create a mobi file for Kindle

Building an iOS app condemned us not only to a lifetime of support, but also the need for an Android app at some point. And then maybe a WinPhone 7 app. No chance - we were never going to get Angry Birds style volume so the development costs couldn't be justified. Plus the Android app store was a black hole made of nasty.

We actually made a few mobi files to see what they looked like on a Kindle and the answer was predictably ugly. They looked OK on Kindle apps though, and we really wanted to use Amazon as a channel, but the deal-breaker was Kindle's charging model - 10p per Mb on top of the 30%. One of our books came out at over 200 Mb, so we'd have to give Amazon £20 per download, with resultant ridiculous pricing. Another one crossed off the list for now.

So we looked at iBooks. The iPad was great, but in summer/autumn 2010 iBooks was like Kindle - no support for graphical books.

So we waited, and then came a rush of updates to iBooks. Essentially they added a slew of features from the forthcoming epub 3 standard before it was ratified. Woo-hoo! Fixed-width pages, support for Javascript, CSS, HTML5. Now we could build the books we wanted. True digital facsimiles of the greatest books in the world with interpretation and enhanced features like narration.

This felt good to us. The iBook platform uses the open epub standard, so the books should have a life outside of Apple when epub3 is supported by other vendors, we can offer a great user experience, and a slick delivery mechanism.

The strategic technical decision was to let someone else build the app. So Apple do the heavy lifting in building, testing and updating iBooks, and we develop a model to cost-effectively populate the app with our content.

This allows us to focus on our customers, not the technology.

The approach is also the one we plan to use for all other platforms - to use the Kindle platform and apps to reach into Android/Windows/WinPhone 7 and Kindle devices, rather than build our own platform.

The only thing we knew we were missing was the volume that the Amazon channel could offer, but we figured we could make up for that given the impressive nature of out launch partners (the British Library, Natural History Museum etc).

We soft-launched in August and have spent the last few weeks ironing out some wrinkles in the metadata, so now would be a great time to tell us what you think.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Change of Pace and the Pace of Change

We're working on an Apple project at the moment, and I was thinking back to January 2007 when we launched Turning the Pages 2.0 to coincide with the launch of Windows Vista, and what has happened to Microsoft since then, and what has happened to Apple.

Since then Microsoft has got back into shape with Win7, which is where it ought to have been all along, and finally launched sort-of viable phone software that hasn't got much traction yet. Kinect has been big but hardly changed the world. The cloud strategy is still unconvincing, at least to me.

Apple meanwhile has in the meantime launched the iPhone (60m+ sold), iPod Touch (100m+ sold) and the iPad (35m+ sold), redefined mobile computing and along the way sold about 13 billion apps and the same number of songs. In mobile computing and gameplay everyone else is left for dust. The pace of change is truly staggering.

And then there is the cultural sector. Sure, you've put on some exhibitions, and maybe done some digitisation, but does your institution look very different from 2007? Probably not. For some it does though. The National Library of Norway has reinvented itself as a digital library with two thirds of all staff engaged in digital projects.

In January 2007 Microsoft was worth around $293bn and Apple $78bn.

In April this year Microsoft was worth around $213bn and Apple $321bn.

How far has your institution come in those 4 years?

* update* Apple announced 15 billion app downloads by 6th July. That's 5 Billion downloads in 6 months. Heading towards 1 billion/month. I think I need a sit down...

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Glories of Cambridge

"And on your right is Trinity College, where they discovered splitting the atom and creme brulée".

I'm in Cambridge, at the Wren Library, and the disconcerting patter of the guide in the punt drifts over the immaculate lawns.

The self-aware beauty of Cambridge never fails to impress, and the more you dig, the more there is to be impressed by. A Russian doll of varied cultural glories. From the Cam and the backs to the elegance of Wren's library. Then inside to the astonishing carvings by Grinling Gibbons, who worked boxwood like putty, and on to the shelves to see the Trinity Apocalypse in all it's prurient, appalling glory. An age when the consequences of sin had to be spelt out, lest the fabric of society be completely jeopardised.

Occasionally, when I tell people what I do, they are overcome with sad envy, sweating, as they do, for uncaring American corporations. Occasionally I feel lucky and today was one of those days.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Power of Reproduction

When the Royal Couple got married, the bit my son was most interested in was (predictably) the flypast. Wanting to know what a Lancaster bomber looked like, I dug out my old Big Book of Aircraft and found a picture. But interleaved next to the picture of a Lancaster was a piece of tracing paper that I had used 30 years ago to trace a wobbly outline of the plane that I never got to transfer to a nice clean sheet. Maybe teatime or homework interrupted me, and the tracing paper lay sealed up in this book since the late 1970's.

What efforts we used to go to to reproduce pictures and maps.

Secure the tracing paper to the picture with paper clips. Pick a soft pencil (HB or B) and carefully trace the outline. Remove the tracing paper and affix over a clean sheet of paper. Pick a harder pencil (H) and retrace the outline you just made, pressing hard enough to leave an impression on the paper underneath. Don't press too hard or you rip the tracing paper and you have to start again (a problem if you're tracing a map of the world). Having removed the tracing paper pick any pencil or pen and follow the indents along the page, twisting and turning, until you have a representation of a bomber (or the coast of Norway) appear on your page with surprising fidelity.

Fast forward to today. Type "Lancaster bomber" into Google, narrowing the search to Images. 99,400 results. Hmmm. Colour or black and white, cockpit or whole aircraft, flying or stationary…Right click, copy, paste and the image (copyright permitting) is ours to do with what we want. Information wants to be free and now this collection of bytes has been let loose to appear whenever and wherever we like.

As we fill our repositories with digital images, we're allowing for a myriad of unexpected, unpredictable and unknowable future uses, with entirely unforseeable results. A chaos theory of image dissemination.

And a long way from tracing paper.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Harper Collins vs the Real World

We're working on a really exciting e-book project at the moment, so I've been spending time digging around the e-book world seeing what's going on.

The other week Harper Collins decided that e-books sold to libraries could only be borrowed 26 times. Then they would expire. Give up the digital ghost. Cease to be bits.

It sounded bizarre - 26 times? Why not 25. Or 100. It turns out 26 is the amount of times a paperback would be lent before it became too shoddy and had to be replaced.


I'm getting that deja vu feeling all over again. HC is trying to map an old economy model on to a new economy business. And guess what will happen - exactly what happened to the music industry. When Napster and others came along the market spoke loud and clear to the music labels and stores: "We love this music, but we believe, with the new models of distribution, lack of packaging and retailer markup, we really shouldn't be paying £14 for an album any more. You're choosing to ignore what the market is telling you, so we will take matters in to our own hands. Goodbye Tower Records, hello BitTorrent". The first to go were the stores (Tower, HMV, Our Price, Virgin) labels had to reinvent themselves as 360 degree merchandising machines.

The first company (Apple) to come back with a sensible counter argument ("OK, we'll reduce the price just a bit, but we'll make it super-easy to get what you want legally") won the day. They've now sold 12 billion songs, and over 10 billion apps (an unforeseen bonus with the ITunes model).

The second company to come back with a sensible argument, Spotify ("All you can eat - $10 a month), just passed 1m paying customers.

When you try to shore up an old economy model in a new economy, you're just delaying the inevitable. In a mirror of the record industry, bookstores are now closing with Borders filing for chapter 11 the other week.

Harper Collins can try this on for a while, but the market has spoken. And I'm not sure they're listening.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Facebook and Geeks

Ars Technica is one of the grand-daddies of tech blogs. It's been around for years, and about a year or so ago refocused to become even more technical, putting some daylight between it and sites like The Register.

So it's safe to say that readers of the site know their stuff technically speaking and are up to speed with the latest sites, apps and trends. Ars have a poll on their site today to gauge the use of Facebook. I voted and checked out the results - and was stunned.

As at today, 36% of readers never use Facebook and 18% have an account but never use it. More than half of all readers are just not engaged with the dominant social networking platform. Why?

A measured response. This audience won't believe the hype. They'll take a look, weigh it up and decide if it's for them. They're smart and they normally make good decisions.

Time poor. Geeks work hard and then either play hard or disengage with technology. They don't generally have endless idle hours to fill before going home time, and have better things to do with their evenings (such as they are).

Trivia-intolerant. Much of what I see on Facebook could fairly be described as pointless drivel. The Ars audience has a low boredom threshold.

A preference for privacy. Technically-savvy users understand (and may even be paranoid about) the use of their data and profile. They don't want private information shared, and prefer to control dialogue rather than have it exposed to scrutiny.

Low sociability. Lets face it - geeks aren't the most sociable of creatures.

So why is this important - who cares if geeks don't use Facebook so much?

Because they're the advance guard. Exposed to technology more than most, they will actually be representative of the rest of the population in a decade.

Busy, clued-up, a bit cynical.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Not Fading Away

To Grasmere last week, to the Innovative Interpretation of Manuscripts conference, organised by the indefatigable Jeff Cowton from the Wordsworth Trust.

As we edged along Ambleside in glorious sunshine, I mentioned to my taxi driver where I was going. She never learnt Wordsworth at school, she said, and had never been to Dove Cottage. He was just a name, and his work was irrelevant.

I spoke with Dr Luca Crispi from University College Dublin (formerly from the National Library of Ireland), showing some work we did with Joyce and Yeats manuscripts. Eighty people jammed in to the Jerwood Centre with others sitting in the lobby outside, and a further fourteen on the waiting list. It was a great event, the numbers proving that there's a real demand for information on this subject. Too often librarians can just do what they've always done. The charismatic Nat Edwards spoke about the Burns Birthplace Museum, and I was struck by the attention he'd paid to environment, and the erudite David McKitterick from Trinity College Cambridge illuminated us on the revolutions in writing.

I blogged not long ago about the centrality of special collections, and the importance of the user experience and interpretation. The conference gave me a new understanding of the need for leadership, knowledge sharing and collaboration in these areas.

Unless we can get user experience and interpretation right, it won't just be the taxi driver who doesn't know who Wordsworth is. Visitor numbers are declining at the homes of many smaller collections. I think we know how to fix this, but we will need to learn from those who already have.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Luttrell Psalter - the Movie - For Free!

Following on from a post I made a little while ago, the lovely people at WAG Screen have now put the film they made of the Luttrell Psalter online for free!

I'm a fan of this kind of thinking. You can hang on to rights in the hope of some tiny future gain, or you can give stuff away, enrich the community, enhance your reputation and call it marketing if you need to convince your boss.

If you're a fan of medieval manuscripts or just enjoyed The Beauty of Books on BBC4 the other night, you should take a look.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Lessons from Latte

Lots of noise recently about the future of libraries. I liked the marches to protest against library closures, and the BBC carried quite a lengthy piece on it's website rather fatuously entitled "Libraries vs the Internet". The very fact that the BBC chose to give the article this title tells us that libraries aren't doing a good enough job of both utilising the internet and telling the world about the great work they're doing regarding digitisation, online catalogues, aggregation and online exhibitions.

One of the problems was highlighted to me again last week in a meeting with a big library. They'd scanned a large number of 19th century books and converted them into eBooks. But, as the OCR'd text was much the same as that to be found in Project Gutenberg, or even Google Books, they had no real option but to give them away for free.

This is the commoditisation of knowledge. Why should I go to this library rather than another?

I've just moved office, and next door is a nice non-chain coffee shop run by a Turkish guy who this morning tried to convince me to go to his Turkish barber (I tried that once, and they set fire to my ears). His coffee is about as good as anyone else's, but he does a few things well. He know who I am, he offers a nice environment, and he gives me a discount. User experience and personalisation.

Maybe I need to persuade my new friend to start selling Turkish coffee though - that's something Starbucks would never do.

And libraries are just the same really. They may offer much ubiquitous content, but their unique offer is their special collections - stuff no-one else has. Baklava are optional.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Making Meaning

I noticed a piece by Alain de Botton the other day on the failings of museums. His opening statement is "Museums should help us to live better lives". Alain de Botton is very keen on us living better lives. He's written books on philosophy, travel, architecture and status in order to try and help us. I've read them, and I enjoy his well structured, precise prose and thoughtful arguments.

But should that be the purpose of cultural institutions?

Well I believe it's possible for these institutions to help us live better lives in all sorts of respects. From the simple but profound appreciation of beauty (take a trip to the V&A) to the unravelling of the past that illuminates our present (past performance normally being an indicator of future behaviour), these places can enrich us in ways that our work and home lives cannot.

But so often I see museum and gallery visitors straining to find meaning in their experiences. Hunched over tiny labels, taking a close look at the brushwork of a painting, then stepping back to take in the whole canvas. Or sleep-walking through the endless galleries of the British Museum, dazed by the riches.

And here's the problem. We can show off artefacts (well those that aren't in storage), and we can can give some interpretation, but we don't seem to be able to give meaning to these objects. They are just not relevant to the visitor. The quasi-religious presentation of the objects declares their importance, but the visitor's response doesn't correlate to this declared value.

So Alain de Botton frames it like this "curators should co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live".

Surely it's possible for us to contextualise objects for visitors, make meaning and therefore value? As with some of the humanities, museum professionals seem to take for granted that everyone will understand the value of what they do, and they are poor at articulating this value. But politicians and the public clearly need persuading.

David Cameron is championing a number of initiatives such as Big Society and the new measure of national well-being.

Surely now is a great time for the cultural sector to cry out "We can help with this!" But we need to add meaning, not just information.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Future History

For Christmas this year I got a great book called Lost London, published by English Heritage. It documents in photographs London in the years 1870 to 1940. The London that the combined might of planners, developers and the Luftwaffe swept away.

I have also spent quite a lot of time, for one reason or another in Streetview, looking around various locations. I even invented a game at home for my kids. I dump them somewhere in Streetview and they have to work out where they are (the best was the Isle of Mull - "Balamory!", the easiest "Grandma's house!")

So what technology has brought us is perfect recall. The tantalising and fragmentary glimpses we see of London 100 years ago or more give us an elliptical glance at the way life was, but the record is incomplete. Streetview allows us to stroll around towns cities and the countryside at will, observing every detail of architecture, town planning, fashion, advertising, automotive design, agriculture and even economic activity.

Which presents posterity with an amazing opportunity. If Google's slightly creepy Streetview vans take a snapshot of our country every 5 years, the legacy for future historians will be immense.

And it doesn't stop there. Mix in the petabytes of social media data generated around people and places that has all ben time-stamped, and future historians will have a field day. Imagine the young Charles Darwin was on Facebook while at Cambridge, or tweeting away his early cogitations. What insight we would have into his world and the way he came to think the way he did, and who might have influenced him. Stepping back into Streeview, Cambridge 1829, we'd be able to walk the streets as he saw them.

Which means, I guess, be careful what you write, wherever you write it. You never know how you might get entangled in future history.