Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Next generation digital discovery

A few years ago we were asked by the British Library to imagine how research would work when everything was digital. No need to come to the reading rooms any more.

We worked for maybe two years building prototypes, working with curators, academics and researchers and doing some serious analysis in to work patterns, use of tools and interface expectations.

One output from that was the Growing Knowledge exhibition held in 2010-11 at the BL where some findings were presented and questions asked.

But we were convinced that there was a need for a fully-fledged piece of software for the next generation of researchers. It had to:
- work anywhere including tablet and phone
- be as easy to deploy as possible
- be flexible for users and customisable for clients
- provide a great set of research tools
- interface with all sorts of existing tools from Twitter to citation software

We've called it iNQUIRE and it's now available for your institution. There's more here and take a look at the first project we're just completing with the Bodleian.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Suspending Disbelief – the Dubious Role of Skeuomorphism in Software Design

The above is the title of a piece I wrote a couple of months ago for a project at the Tate - Transforming the Artists Book.

I was prompted to look at it again with the news that Scott Forstall, head of iOS has been fired from Apple. He is the guy that presumably champions interface designs like this:

An unholy alliance of overstretched metaphor and vanilla XCode button design.

Set that against the Windows 8 UI:

I just wonder if Scott Forstall was sticking to his skeuomorphic guns, and Tim Cook saw where Windows 8 and Android were going and decided that Scott's path was a dead end?

Anyway, here's the article...

My first job in what was then known as multimedia was for a design agency in 1991. One of the early jobs we did was an internal multimedia brochure. This being just after the 1980s the boss still drove an Aston Martin and wanted the interface to look like the dashboard of his car. So that’s what we built. You pressed buttons to go to various sections and the speedometer showed where you were. Steering wheel, walnut dashboard, indicators – this interface was a complete re-creation of the MD’s car. He loved it. Everyone else hated it.

Skip forward 20 years, and we see a strange revival of this sort of design, that includes the apparently unlikely participation of Apple. In iOS we see a shaky wooden bookcase to contain all your iBooks, a facsimile of some sort of notebook for Notes (complete with ripped edges to the pages) and a frankly bizarre green baize look for the Game Center.

This approach to interface design is known as skeuomorphism, or making one thing resemble another. More simply expressed it could be seen as the use of metaphor in design.

In 1991, the use of skeuomorphism was rife. Buttons lit up, had beveled edges and depressed when you clicked them. Backgrounds were made to look like paper, wood or glass. Aston Martin dashboards were still a rarity however. All of these devices were designed to familiarize users with a new world of interaction. Prior to the invention of “multimedia” driven by the use of software such as Hypercard and Macromind Director, users interacted via command-line interfaces or the early versions of Windows and Mac OS. How then to assist people in navigating this new multi-dimensional world of content? The easiest way was to appropriate devices people were familiar with and use them in interface design.

The last 20 years have made us comfortable with multi-modal ways of navigating content, and, for the born-digital generation, their ability to grasp seemingly-complex interfaces comes with a very short learning curve. Why then do software developers persist with this use of metaphor?

In 1997 we started to develop Turning the Pages – three-dimensional digital facsimiles of normally rare and valuable books. We would film a curator turning the pages of one of these books, use this footage as source material to develop a millimeter-accurate three-dimensional model of the original and then code it so that, when the users fingers swept across a touchscreen, the pages would turn. It was so realistic that staff at the British Library once found an elderly lady vainly swiping all the glass cases in the Treasures Gallery. She had spent too long using Turning the Pages and thought none of the books were real.

Why did we do this? Why not present the pages, folio by folio, flat on the screen? Our answer was that most books are about content. You buy them for the words on the page. Some books are about the artefact itself – the beautifully bound and the immaculately typeset. But some transcend the state of “book” and become icons. There is no other Lindisfarne Gospels or Domesday Book, no substitutes are possible. One of the earliest books we worked on was the Sherborne Missal, which allegedly has more medieval miniature paintings than the whole National Gallery. People wanted to engage physically with this object, to pick it up, to turn the pages. Because of it’s value and fragility they were not allowed to. Many very valuable books are now not even on display all the time. For six months a year they are “rested” for light, stress on the spine or binding and sub-optimal atmospheric conditions. So our attempt at digital facsimiles is a deliberate response to the frustrated needs of museum and library visitors to experience the original. We have been asked many times whether our software should be used to display magazines or print books. I simply don’t see the value in this. Continuing to use metaphor in this context seems a lazy approach to interface design when the folio ceases to have any meaning other than as a container for words that originated in a formless medium like Microsoft Word.

Why then does the use of skeuomorphism still exist in design? I believe it is because the wheel has turned full circle. We moved from a cartoonish use of metaphor, to a brutal exclusion of the decorative, the beautiful and the playful as espoused by usability experts such as Jakob Nielsen. The almost universal adotion of such principles spoke of a lack of confidence in developers for over a decade, but now, with a broader, more casual user base, increased confidence, and an iterative approach to design that readily allows for change, developers have re-discovered their playful side and introduced fun into a visual world that had become too austere.

For most books though, I think there remains a huge intellectual challenge to re-imagine their form for a digital age. The Kindle edition remains a largely slavish copy of the codex unbound. The first steps in a new direction have been taken by Apple with their iBooks Author software, allowing books to change and re-flow in portrait or landscape form, and for the ready inclusion of all sorts of media.

But of all the challengers for the re-imagining of the book interface, it might just be that we see Microsoft as the unlikely champions of a new approach. Their approach to the design of Windows 8 shows that they have been through a rigorous rethink of what an interface might be like, and the result is modern, pared down, triumphantly usable and surprisingly elegant. Were they to take this approach to books, perhaps in conjunction with their relationship with Nook, the results might give everyone a reason to denounce skeuomorphism for good.

Except maybe us.

Monday, 29 October 2012

eBook Fun and Games on Windows 8

Here's a short video of the things we did for the eBook Treasures Windows 8 app, making use of the stylus and the gyroscope built in to the tablets.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Our eBookTreasures Windows 8 App

So this is what we've been working on for the last 6 weeks or so. One of the first Windows 8 apps.

The previous versions of our books were (and are) sold in the iBookStore, and I had a revealing conversation with a client the other day. He was trying to demo one to a colleague and spent ages rootling around on his iPad looking for it. He couldn't find it as he was looking for an app. It didn't occur to him that we'd built it as an iBook.

With visual books like these, people just think of apps. So we built them one.

There are other advantages too. As well as aggregating all our books in one place, we can add features like gilded pages catching the light when you tilt the tablet, annotation on the page using a stylus, pinning a book to the start page, our own version of whispersync and much more.

We're really proud of the app and I think the sort of content we have sits very well with the minimalist interface design encouraged for Windows Store apps.

The app is free, and A Medieval Bestiary from the British LIbrary collection is available for free download within the app for a while. Other books range from £1.79 to about £3.49.

There's a link here to the Windows Store. If you are on another OS (kind of probable right now...) you'll just get a web page. But with a predicted 1m installs of Win8 a day, I'm hoping that the link will be useful for you someday soon.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Windows 8 pt2 - second guessing the future

As developers and publishers we have to make regular bets on where different platforms and devices are going to be in the next year or two. I don't look further out than that, as I mostly think things are too volatile, and if I can't turn our little ship around in that time frame, I'm not doing my job.

So I was interested to see some new Forrester research into predicted market shares in 2016.
For Windows 8, Microsoft are talking a lot about a unified experience across tablet, desktop and phone. With the phone piece, I think they have a way to go, but I can see the tablet/desktop differentiation blurring.

For the Win8 app we just built, we made a bet. We'd rather be a big fish in a small pond that's growing fast than a small fish in an enormous pond. This used to be called first mover advantage. Our app will be published in the Windows Store in the Books and Reference category. I expect around 250 apps to be there on Friday, so we should get some attention. Discoverability won't be a problem, even if overall numbers might be. Contrast that with the Apple App Store, where there are currently 28,255 book apps. We'd be buried.

Now the bet wouldn't make any sense if the Windows Store doesn't grow, but we know that Microsoft will sell 350m Win8 licenses a year if they track the progress of Win7. If you combine that, with the increased relevance in the tablet sector that Forrester highlight, and mix in people's habituation with buying from online stores and I think it will grow.

Which isn't to say we aren't building an iOS app as well, of course...

Friday, 19 October 2012

Windows 8 - Brilliant and/or Flawed?

I've been spending the last month or so working on a Windows Store app, and, as a result have installed the OS on a tablet and desktops. I'll come to telling about the app in a week or so when it's live, but the experience of using Windows 8 in anger has been interesting. And it's a tale of two halves.

On tablets, Win8 is a gamechanger. iOS is a slick OS and an iPad works great for the tasks we've grown accustomed to using a tablet for like web browsing, mail, gaming and some note-taking maybe. But how many people do you know who've ditched their MacBook and run only on an iPad? Pretty tough to do that, what with missing or hobbled key apps, small HD, no USB etc

The Win8 experience has made it possible or even likely to run a slate as your only computer. USB and HDMI out means you can plug in your monitor and keyboard, SD card slot means you can drop in another 64Gb of storage at low cost, and you have a full fat work PC. But then you come to the OS experience on a desktop. And I have to say there's a learning curve. In an attempt to develop one OS to rule them all, the erstwhile Metro UI elements mean you'll be scratching around for a while even trying to find things like Power Off and Control Panels (or maybe that was just me). Navigating the UI with a mouse is perfectly possible, but it feels like eating grains of rice with chopsticks.

In a touch environment, the whole thing makes sense. The UI makes iOS look dated, the UX elements that aggregate feeds into the Start page make life easier, and the fluid touch interactions that take some learning (from within any app, just swipe from the top of the screen to the bottom to close it) soon become intuitive. Shifting back, iOS felt clumsy, jabbing at buttons the whole time. Snap View even works well, running an app just in part of the screen while you get on with something else.

So I think Microsoft is to be applauded in trying to bridge this divide - one OS for all you do. There will be a vocal minority (majority?) who will not learn how to get the best from the OS and hate it because it's not Win7 (or even XP). But for those who give it a couple of days and realise they can run everything from one device, it's a gamechanger. Apple showed us how to build a tablet. And maybe Microsoft have shown us how it grows up.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Giants in the Room

When Gregory the Great sent Augustine to Christianise the inhabitants of this dank isle in 597 ("Thank you Holy Father. What exactly did I do to annoy you so much?") he settled at Canterbury as being a nice spot. I imagine him choosing it rather as I choose a place to lay out the picnic rug - largely random, but with some logic (like less molehills).

Seven years later the diocese of Rochester was founded, a fact of which they are very proud, and I was there this week to look at the Textus Roffensis, one of the earliest extant books of law, and the one which apparently sets out the concept of financial compensation for injury rather than corporal retribution. A fact for which ambulance-chasing lawyers the world over must be very thankful.

In the meeting I was sitting next to an elderly conservator, who spoke slowly and with some difficulty, and occasionally seemed to veer somewhat off-topic. At the end of the meeting I knew more about limp vellum binding and alum-tawed hide than I thought likely to be useful, but not much about the conservator.

Talking to Claire Breay and Alixe Bovey afterwards and then googling him, I discovered Chris Clarkson is the godfather of modern conservation.

Summoned dramatically to Florence in 1966 he rescued thousands of books from the devastation of the flood, working in a temporary conservation studio in the power station.

From there he was recruited by the Library of Congress to set up their first conservation studio with a budget of $6m "And in 1971", as Christopher told me  "$6m meant something". He went on to work in many places, eventually coming back to the UK and now consults for a select group that includes my friends of the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage.

It's often my privilege to sit in meetings with learned and erudite people, many of whom wear their learning and reputations on their sleeves. It's a delight then, to stumble into someone who has genuinely changed the face of a profession and who's main concern was making sure his sat-nav could get him out of the Rochester one-way system.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

When Developers Become Publishers

For almost 20 years now, we've been building websites and applications for libraries and museums. Fairly heavy code too, some of it. We won the British Computer Society, Best Web Technology Award a couple of years back for some 3D C# craziness.

So, when ebooks emerged we took a look and jumped in, leveraging our clients existing assets to generate a little revenue for them and us. At the same time, I started reading lots of blogs and articles, as I knew nothing about publishing, either the industry or best practice. I found myself in a very alien world. Undoubtedly lots of very smart people battling with sudden tectonic shifts. But some things that I took for granted seemed to complete blindside or outrage publishers and authors. So here are some of the glaring differences I've seen as we've tried to straddle what are (for now) two industries.

1. Change is normal. The practice of publishing doesn't seem to have changed much from Wynkyn de Worde to the present day. From the outside, change (until recently) seems slow. Even meetings are scheduled months ahead. In software development, change is very rapid. A year ago Flash was the default choice for rich internet applications. Now it's being shunned by all and sundry. The iPad turns up and everyone needs an app. As an industry, you need flexibility built in, as well as good antennae telling you what's coming next. As publishing and software development merge, publishers need to be able to react fast.

2. Expect conflict. Right back from when Netscape was battling with IE, we've had to deal with conflict. Code something for one browser, and it won't necessarily look good in another. Build a Flash version, and you'll likely need an HTML version for disability-compliance. Build a regular site, and you'll need a mobile version too (although these are now conflating). I hear regular cries of "when will there be one ebook standard?". I can guess at "never", and I know that developers accept this as just the way it is. Those late nights in the studio with take-out pizza? Testing and bug-fixing on all those platforms.

3. The code isn't hard. The codebase that makes up ebooks is not hard. Javascript, CSS, XHTML etc are pretty basic tools. Finding developers who are competent is a whole lot easier than finding good Objective-C people to code your next app.

4. International Rights. Coming from software, international rights variations for ebooks seem like a piece of legacy nonsense. I can release an app into the wild, why not an ebook? If someone can strip the DRM and mail an ebook to their friend on another continent, why can't I just sell them a book?

5. It's the beginning of the end, or maybe the end of the beginning. Either way, it's early days. Publishers are still finding out whether apps work, what the best price points are for ebooks, how to market them, what sort of sales volumes to expect from each platform and are still defining workflows. Me, I'm still waiting on epub3 adoption, the Kindle Fire, Nook and KF8 formats to arrive in Europe (we're over here, turn right at New York and keep going till you hit Ireland...), Apple to fix discoverability and the secret of a really good flat white. At this stage in proceedings, I expect things to be messy. And they are. In web terms we're at about 1995.

6. Disintermediation happens.There are still lots of web design agencies out there, but since the advent of Blogger and Wordpress, many individuals and companies have cut them out of the loop and just built their own web presence. Wordpress now powers 22% of all new domain registrations. It may not be as good as a bespoke site, but it isn't £30,000 either. As the tools emerge to create and market ebooks, writers of all sorts will seek to cut out middlemen. iBooks Author is the beginning of this, but expect something similar from the Microsoft/Nook deal.

7. Users decide. If a website or blog or Facebook page goes up, there's no quality control or screening from a third party. It's success or failure is determined by the community, and it's all there in black and white in the log files. Traditional publishing moves the gatekeeping upstream ("We really liked the manuscript, but..."). eBooks are undoubtedly going the way of the web. People will publish books because they can, and the world will decide. There's an interesting piece in the Harvard Business Review stating that Amazon reader reviews are likely as good as professional reviews. If that's the case, then they're probably, in aggregate, as good as publisher's opinions.

So, after 9 months or so, I still don't know much about traditional publishing. But the interesting thing is, I may not need to.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

42 - Don't Panic

In the latest, and very excellent Pew study on e-readers habits, published here, one fact jumped out at me amongst the data.

42% of people consume ebooks on a computer.

Almost half of all reading of ebooks is done not on Kindles, iPads, iPhones, Android phones, Android tablets or Kindle Fires, but on the humble and ignored PC. It's like there are legions of ebook contrarians going "You know what - the old PC suits me just fine."

But what's really going on here. Maybe 5 things.

1. Tablets/e-readers are expensive. People love free and many of the ebooks read are free, not least the Project Gutenberg collection. If you're in to classic literature, this trove is a godsend and has the benefit of being free. Download the Kindle for PC (or Mac) app and you're good to go. For the thrifty or cautious this route is perfect and good enough.

2. Notebook computers are pretty small too. An 11" MacBook Air is a pretty small device with a great battery life. For the sofa-use that the iPad/K Fire fits in to so well, a tiny notebook PC is a close second in terms of form factor, and you may either have one lying around, or figure picking up a cheap one makes more sense than a dedicated device. And you may well be right.

3. Reading at work. I think Mike Shatzkin picked up on this. In those dog-day afternoons before the bell goes, why not download the Kindle app and sneak a few books on to your work PC, fingers hovering over ALT-TAB in case the boss shows up? 

4. Try before you buy. Downloading an e-reading app is a nice way to try before you buy. If it works for you, you might then take the plunge and get a dedicated device. This is as much about behavioural change as cash. Any books you bought can then just be synced over.

5. Reading wherever you are (ie outdoors or on the train) isn't such a huge deal.

What are the implications of all this though?

The first is that I think there is big pent-up demand for e-readers. Using a PC is definitely a sub-optimal way to read ebooks, but people are putting up with it. The try before you buy brigade will soon start buying, and the price points and choice of devices is falling, which will encourage that.

Screen quality is not such a big deal. Most PC screen are pretty lame, yet people put up with them for reading eBooks.

Apple have nothing to offer for this constituency with iBooks. They can only therefore address a little over half the market. The same survey says only 23% read on tablets (in early 2012 tablets = iPads).

I'd seen Kindle for Windows as a sideshow. It's not.

Consumer behaviour is malleable, but not as plastic as we thought. Print=>PC=>Tablet looks like the progression (assuming dedicated e-readers are not long for this world).

So all the noise over devices has been masking the stories about behaviour. I think we need a "marketing noise" filter in this industry.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Very Personal Business of Publishing

For almost 20 years now I've been developing applications and websites for mainly libraries, museums and galleries. Gun for hire, the usual agency thing - client needs a project done, puts out an invitation to tender, we win the tender, build the app, walk away with a cheque. This is still a big part of our business, and I love this kind of deal: it's a partnership whereby we help our clients to solve problems, and money changes hands to make it happen.

When we started our digital facsimile imprint, eBookTreasures, I knew it would be different, but not like this. It's got very personal.

Because we sell these facsimiles online, we have a slew of data every day, every hour even. Here are the ones I look at most days:
- sales in iTunes Connect (daily and historic, including territories and taking into account present and past promotions)
- chart positions in iTunes (both overall charts and specialty charts)
- Facebook likes and reach
- Twitter follows and retweets
- Google alerts
- email enquiries
- Google analytics for our site

On one hand it's terrific. We can do a promotion and monitor it's effect in near real-time, reach out and tell people what's coming next and see what channels work best for us, what price points and what sorts of books.

But on the other hand it's all suddenly got very personal. 

Books I love don't sell. A new title launches and no-one tweets about it. For no reason, we put on 50 Facebook followers over a weekend. Sales tank or boom. It's all there in hard numbers, the various meters oscillating up and down hour by hour. My mood rising or falling with the numbers ("They like it - how wonderful!", "Facebook's a waste of time...").

The etymology of "publish" is "to make public". Perhaps I should have thought about that before getting in to publishing.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Slightly sNOOKered

To the Nook developer event yesterday in London, full of anticipation. The Nook team were coming to London to address developers - they must have something to say, right? Wrong.

The Nook is a US-only device (you need to have a US-registered credit card to buy one and then buy content), so has zero appeal outside of North America. Barnes and Noble and Nook as brands also have no resonance outside of the US. So the team gave us their best marketing spiel, with lots of slides of smiling Americans, without understanding that this is an insanely long bet for UK developers or publishers.

I'd guess that most UK developers/publishers have a strong UK constituency they need to keep happy, even if it's just in the boardroom. Developing just for the US requires a deep breath and deeper pockets.

But it's the same story with the Kindle. You could develop for the Fire, but it's not available outside the US, and the Kindle apps haven't been updated to support KF8 titles, so enhanced ebooks and apps are out. Effectively there's been no progress on the platform for years, unless you live in the US.

Apple, meanwhile has been charging ahead with iBooks 2 and the App Store and a nice authoring tool, but doesn't have the market share to make it viable as your only channel, so, if you love iOS, it's the app store for you.

It feels like an epublishing log-jam right now in Europe if you want to do enhanced or fixed-layout titles. The market-leaders haven't made it to Europe and Apple are neglecting to promote their platform.

All we can do is wait and see, assets to hand, ready to jump when we can.

The model we use to do this a repository system. Build an asset repository and re-purpose when the metrics make sense.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

iBooks and KF8 - Learning about Apple and Amazon

The last ten days have seen the release of the new iBook Author program from Apple and a new version of KindleGen from Amazon, each producing eBooks to their own proprietory standard, iBooks and KF8.

How they've gone about this though, reveals much about the companies and their approaches to this market.

Apple launched iBooks almost two years ago now with some ballyhoo, but have never really made a dent in Amazon's market share. The Nook might have done, and Kobo has nibbled a piece here or there, but Apple? Not so much.

So they flipped the strategy with iBA. Keep the lockin (iBooks only available and readable through Apple devices/channels), but provide better tools for publishers/authors and target a different market - textbooks. Instead of trying to convince the consumer, they're deciding to convince the supplier. It's the "killer app" strategy.

And you have to say, the samples they've put out are stunning. The EO Wilson "Life on Earth" really does redefine textbooks. By all accounts iBA is also a great tool. The backlash has been about the Apple walled garden and restrictions about the sale of works produced by the tool. I don't really understand much of this reaction - Apple is a business, not a university or library. If the Library of Congress produced a proprietory tool, then I'd get the outrage.

So, if you want to play Apple's game, there is now a compelling workflow from production to distribution, with QA thrown in along the way. Slick, if you can live with the terms.

Amazon launched KF8 then in to a market it dominates, working from a position of strength. But the KF8 launch has been confusing. The specs were announced in October, and missed elements like audio and video, present in mobi files as well as Apple's iBooks. The Fire launched in the US in mid-November, with some books being demo'd that had been made to the KF8 standard, so some publishers had access to the tools. Then last week, the tools were announced, but the guidelines were incomplete (since updated), but the Fire is still US-only and the Apps haven't been updated. So, although we now have the tools, there's nothing for us to target and test on outside of the US. And even there, do you just want the Fire as your entire potential market?

So it feels like a mess. Simultaneously late and rushed.

What these two launches tell me is that Amazon is not a technology company. Sure, it uses technology better than almost anyone, and it even re-sells spare capacity in a way that has changed the technology landscape (EC2, S3), but a real technology company understands developers.

And make no mistake, if you're in the business of ebook production, you're now a developer.

Amazon has the market right now, but, as Steve Ballmer memorably once said "It's about developers, developers, developers!". He may, at that point, have thrown a chair.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

10 Great Things About iBooks

In the last post I outlined 10 things Apple need to fix in iBooks. Who knows, maybe tomorrow at DBW, they'll tick off some of my list.

But in the meantime, here are 10 things I love about iBooks.

1. Technical
The way I see it, Apple read the epub3 specs ahead of time and cherry-picked some cool bits they liked for the iBooks specification. It's epub with a twist. So, for 6 months now we've been selling books made up of CSS, HTML, Javascript (even JQuery). We can animate and transform and bring our books to life. KF8 doesn't even come close. Check out the Yellow Submarine iBook if you haven't seen it.

2. Quality
Being able to drop in 2 million pixel images means we can get fantastic image quality in our books. Add in the slick page turns, the freedom to view landscape, portrait, big or small, and whatever we make as an iBook looks great.

3. Fixed width
We make digital facsimiles of rare books, so this is a deal-breaker for us.

Apple were the first to do this. Without this we don't have a business.

4. Audio and video
iBooks handle video really slickly. Tap to play anywhere in your page. Bring it up, full width, rotate the screen to landscape and you've got a 720p video playing. Tap to stop and the video resizes back down into it's slot on the page and you pick up where you left off. Elegant.

5. Apple people
The people I deal with at Apple want us to succeed. They're helpful (within their constraints) and smart. They know how the deck is stacked and are trying to make things better. I don't get a re-hash of unhelpful documentation I just read online.

6. Unified platform
It's hard to over-stress the ease of developing for a unified platform. Compared to the apocalypse that developing an Android app must be (x different OS versions, y different screen resolutions, z different processors) or even Kindle (Fire, iPad App, iPhone App, Windows App, Android App etc etc) we can test and release in hours. Sure Apple's walled garden approach has some downsides, but this is the reason iBooks (and apps) look consistently great.

7. Growing fast
When you publish a print book, you're releasing into the wild a product with a fairly finite market. Our universe is much smaller - just those with iOS devices. But it's growing at a breakneck pace. Maybe 32m iPhones last quarter, 11m iPads. Our potential market is doubling every year or so.

8. Great devices
People love using iPhones and iPads. They come at the top of consumer satisfaction surveys. Having our books run on great devices means we have happy customers. Imagine if we had to support all those buggy $99 e-readers that are made of tinfoil and glue. That bad hardware experience rubs off on us.

9. Some UX aspects
Despite my criticism of the iBooks UX in the last post, some of the iBooks UX works well. The navigator is great, multiple table of contents views is great, and the integration with dictionaries and notes is cool. We're really not there yet, but the foundation is solid.

10. Ongoing improvements to IBooks
This seems to come in fits and starts. The first 6 months from release didn't see much action, then we seemed to rocket from 1.0 to 1.4 with all sorts of improvements. Then a hiatus and recently some more changes. It seems like Apple have some resource to throw at this, and there is a commitment to improve the platform.

So tomorrow will be interesting. 

It really feels like the future of publishing belongs to those who can make the numbers work for content-creators. That means self-publishers, lean indie publishers and legacy publishers who can reinvent the business model and articulate their value.

I wrote my first multimedia app using Hypercard in about 1991. Right now our tools aren't even that mature yet. All of us could do with better tools and a bigger market. Here's hoping...

Monday, 16 January 2012

10 Things Apple Need to Fix with iBooks

Ahead of this week's iBooks announcements (likely around textbooks) and 2 years from the initial iBooks launch, I did a little thinking about iBooks in general and the successes and failures of the platform and the store.

First up, I have to say I'm surprised at the iBookstore's lack of success. It's impossible to get hard numbers on market share, but, reading around, and from my experience of publishing to iBooks and Kindle, I'd guess Apple has somewhere around 10% of the market. Probably less in specialised areas, maybe more in top 100 fiction titles.

Last summer I came across this graph from Asymco:
Damning, no? Their report contains some other, equally scary charts on download rates. It may not be 100% accurate, but other data, 18 months in, pointed to 180m book downloads (10m/month), which pales next to the App Stores 1bn a month.

Making the App Store 100 times bigger than the iBookstore.

So, if I was Tim Cook, giving my end of year appraisal, how would I score iBooks. Maybe a 5/10. Shows promise, hasn't delivered yet. Should have done better.

What can Apple do to fix this? Here are 10 ideas, some consumer-related, some for developers and publishers.

1. Mindshare
Despite the number of iBooks app downloads, the public do not think of either the iPad or iTunes as a book purchase/consumption channel. They're habituated into going to Amazon. Apple is probably the best tech marketing company in the world. Get on and produce some great ads that articulate what a great platform you have. Kindle is in danger of doing what Google and Hoover before them managed - becoming a verb.

2. Titles
When Random House declined to pitch in with iBooks early on, Apple just didn't have the catalogue of Amazon. That still feels like the case. Embrace more publishers, make it easy for them to come on board.

3. Learn to love self-publishers.
It's hard to self-pub on iBooks. What with ISBNs, EIN numbers, Apple IDs, tax sign-ups and what have you, self-publishers are mostly thinking "why would I jump through all these hoops just for a few more sales". What Apple is missing here is also the publicity that self-pub success stories generate for your platform. How many column-inches has Amanda Hocking generated for Kindle in the last 6 months? Make it easier for the next Hocking or Konrath.

4. Intelligence
The iBookstore doesn't currently have a high IQ. Apple must know a load about you, what with all your iTunes/iBooks purchases, but in terms of pushing appropriate content your way, all they can offer is "people who bought this...". Make it smarter.

5. Don't hide it.
iBooks still isn't a default iOS app, you have to download it. Why is that? When you load up the iTunes Store, the front page runs like this (from the top down): music; music; music/miscellaneous; music; music; films; tv programmes; miscellaneous; music. The charts on the right-hand side: singles; albums; films; tv programmes. Books just have a text drop-down menu at the top of the screen. If you want to sell more books, give them some prominence.

6. Development Tools
iTunes Producer and iTunes Connect handle iBook creation (from epubs) upload and management. There's a lot of overlap in the tools, and one's web-based and one an app, and they're both clunky. Want to run a promotion on all 32 territories for a week? Try having to change 3-4 fields for each book in each territory. I just did it for 3 books, and I actually gave up. It was so painful, and Connect was so slow, I just ran the promotion in our key territories (sorry Slovakia). The only way to create epubs from within the Apple ecosystem is also Pages, which wasn't designed for an epub3 world. Give us some great tools - if you can build iLife, this should be easy.

7. Documentation and Approval
Approval can take from 2 days to 4 weeks. You have no way of knowing which it will be when you upload. I understand the need for QA, but an indication of expected approval time would help us plan launches. And when building a book, it sometimes feels like you're playing a game to which you don't know all the rules. The documentation just isn't comprehensive enough. Sort the documentation and when a book uploads give us a status "Approval expected in 5-7 days".

8. Viewing Books in iTunes
How about allowing users to view books on their Mac (or even PC). Unless you have an iOS device (realistically an iPad), iBooks don't exist.

9. Other platforms
Or, even more radically, what about an iBooks app for Android/Windows. Buy an iBook, read it anywhere? Yeah, I know. Not going to happen #walledgarden.

10. iBooks UX
iBooks still looks like an intern designed it. The IKEA-style bookcase and the limited functionality (nothing social, nothing from iTunes) could do with a refresh.

When all's said and done, I love the experience of using an iBook, and I want iBooks to succeed. You can do things on iBooks right now that Kindle haven't even addressed in their forthcomg KF8 format. I show people the books we make and they're blown away.

So in my next post, I'm going to run through some of the things that Apple nailed with iBooks.