History teaches us that each new communications medium imitates its ancestors before finding its own role. We are just beginning to see the evolution of book publishing from imitation to innovation, thanks largely to the iPad. To date, book content has been mostly ported to new platforms without much added functionality. One might even argue that the Kindle is beloved mostly because it closely imitates the print reading experience but on an ultra-portable device – without the clutter and noise of web-based reading because it offers no movies, no music, no links, and no sharing. In its latest software upgrade, it even took a back-to-the-future step even closer to print by restoring page numbers to its eBooks.
The iPad, despite its considerable multimedia capabilities, has mostly been about porting existing versions of books with only modest feints toward multimedia. But there are some emerging examples of how tablets may find their mojo for book publishing. Not surprisingly, the drive behind this innovation seems to be more from technologists than from publishers. One of these pioneers, Push Pop Press, is a new company formed by former Apple designer Mike Matas to develop interactive products specifically for the iPad and iPhone. The company’s work is mostly still under wraps, but the company has been giving demos of an interactive version of Al Gore’s book Our Choice. Push Pop employs a physics engine designed to give users a highly intuitive, seamless experience as they interact with photos, videos, music, maps, and interactive graphics. The usual user interface of status bars and tabs has been eliminated so that the content and device become one. It’s not clear yet whether Push Pop will become a publisher or remain a technology provider to publishers.
Another pioneer is Inkling, which has produced several digital textbooks. Moving beyond the multimedia experience that most of the major textbook publishers have achieved on PCs, Inkling has sought to re-create textbooks as digitally-born works in which the page is no longer a basic building block. The company says, “…a page is a page not because it makes sense for the content itself, but because that’s just what happened to fit. Enter iPad. There’s no such thing as a page….There’s a display instead of ink. There’s memory instead of paper.” Inkling is also trying to make the textbook into a social learning experience by letting students and faculty share ideas and develop conversations around specific parts of the content.
In newspaper and magazine publishing, there’s a much longer history of evolution toward multimedia versions on the web and more recently in apps. However, it took many years after the web technology was available for publishers to widely embrace products with multimedia at their core, rather than just use multimedia as a way to augment text. How books will adapt to these new technologies is a chapter that’s not yet written.