The Age of Tablet Superbooks? Not Yet

Jadedness: It's a professional hazard in technology 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 start-up 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 3-D."

Superbooks? That sounded exciting. I've been wondering for a long time whether the advent of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) 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 the work Atomic Antelope has done to animate the book's original John Tenniel illustrations. Many of the pictures have touch-sensitive layers that wobble or bounce like cutouts in a pop-up book, while other pages are more elaborate, behaving almost like self-contained games.

At the end of the caucus-race with the dodo the other animals in Chapter 3, for example, Alice hands out comfits as prizes. (I had to look it up: They're torpedo-shaped bits of licorice.) On this page of the e-book, there are a bunch of realistic-looking comfits floating around, as if in a miniature aquarium. If you tilt your iPad to one side, all the comfits slide to that side. You can also flick them around with your finger; they bounce off each other according to more-or-less realistic physics.

What's the relevance of such high-tech effects to the story, you may ask? There isn't much. It's just a bit of fun visual nonsense. In one sense, the game-like effects are perfectly appropriate for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, one of the original literary nonsense stories. And in the book's defense, the interactive visual jokes in the Atomic Antelope app go way beyond anything traditional book publishers have tried, mostly for lack of a platform like the iPad. If you're looking for an entertaining way to introduce a youngster in your life to Lewis Carroll, you could do far worse.

But at bottom, the moving illustrations are just gewgaws. So much more is possible on the iPad. When I hear a word like "superbook," I think of something that, at the very least, comes with a built-in glossary (so I wouldn't have to put down the app to look up "comfits"), or videos from the many films and plays Carroll's book has inspired, or links to critical essays. Some background on Carroll himself, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and the symbolism and mathematical references he larded into the text would be nice. I'm not asking for the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer here (that's the immersive e-book at the center of Neal Stephenson's cyperbunk classic The Diamond Age -- go look it up). I'm just saying that we should expect more depth and variety from the enhanced, Internet-connected books of tomorrow. Oprah was wrong: This version of Alice may change kids' expectations about how books work, but it definitely isn't going to change the way they learn.

Moving from the rabbit hole to the Internet (which may not be such a big leap): Why the Net Matters is a $7.99 app introduced last month by Canongate Books, an independent publisher based in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was written by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and designed by PopLeaf, a two-man app development studio in Cambridge, England. (The U.K. seems to be the current capital of interactive book design. Don't ask me why.)

The app is, in essence, the iPad version of a TED-style lecture that Eagleman delivered in April 2010 to San Francisco's Long Now Foundation. And therein lies the problem. Why the Net Matters is not a superbook -- it's not even a book. It's more like a slightly extended text version of Eagleman's lecture, supplemented by hyperlinks and background illustrations, in many cases the same ones from the slide deck for the San Francisco talk.

Eagleman's thesis is actually more interesting than the container it comes in. When civilizations fall, he argues, it's usually because of crises like epidemics, natural disasters, resource depletion, or the loss of collective knowledge (e.g. the burning of the library at Alexandria). Fortuitously, Eagleman says, the Internet provides modern-day societies with most of the tools they need to prevent or blunt such catastrophes. This is important stuff, and I mostly agree with Eagleman that the Internet is bringing about shifts far deeper than those we usually recognize. But if you're going to spend an hour or two with Eagleman's ideas, I'd recommend watching the video over at Fora.tv rather than buying this app.

For the iPad, Eagleman breaks his argument into eight chapters, and each chapter is divided into sections: the shortest has three and the longest has about a dozen. Each section is just a few paragraphs long, and when you flip between sections, a new illustration pops up either above or beside the text, depending on whether you're holding the iPad in portrait or landscape orientation. Sometimes these illustrations are actually illustrative: for a section on crowdsourcing, for example, there's cool 3-D model of a molecule from Fold.it, a website where users compete to discover the most likely structures for complex proteins. Unfortunately, much of the art is insipid stock-photography stuff that adds no real information. A section on energy efficiency, for example, comes with a graphic of a light bulb shaped like a dollar sign. If you're just trying to add spice to a website or give lecture audiences a visual distraction while you speak, this kind of stock art can be a decent solution. But come on -- if you're presenting a serious argument about the survival of civilization, it deserves a more vivid visual accompaniment.

There's another element to the interactivity in Why the Net Matters: the navigation screens, which feature portentous circles linked by portentous, pulsating dotted lines. Here, again, there's less than meets the eye -- this is just a table of contents with a bit of gratuitous geometry and animation. In a short video at the end of the app, Eagleman says that he wanted to "introduce a new way of navigating a non-fiction argument: something where you could have interactive figures and random-access chapters and zoom in and out on the structure of the argument." That sounds wonderful -- I'd love to see a book that works that way. But rearranging your chapter and section headings into chains of circles does nothing to bring out the "structure of the argument." It's a prototypical example of chartjunk -- Edward Tufte's term for "interior decoration ... that does not tell the viewer anything new."

OK, it's easy to pen withering assaults, but obviously harder to say how I would have handled this material differently if I'd been in PopLeaf's or Atomic Antelope's shoes. I can barely use Photoshop, and I don't know Webkit, Cocoa Touch, Objective-C or any of the other tools that go into building an iOS app. I just know that what we're seeing today in the world of interactive e-books is a mere shadow of what can be built for the iPad and other touchscreen devices. At the moment, designers of tablet-based books haven't even progressed to the point where CD-ROM producers left off around 1996, just before the Internet killed off that promising medium. My concern is that New York Times readers will see a word like "superbook," seek out these apps, and then have their expectations dashed so drastically that they might not stay around to watch how tablet-based e-books evolve -- as they inevitably will.

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Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can email him at wroush@xconomy.com, call him at 415-796-3024, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wroush. You can subscribe to his Google Group and you can follow all Xconomy San Francisco stories at twitter.com/xconomysf.

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