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November 17 2011

What we could do with really big touchscreens

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

I don't hear much talk about Microsoft's Surface computers, those industrial-strength touchscreens-on-a-tabletop. But maybe the idea was about $10,000 too expensive and a few years ahead of its time. Hear me out while I play connect-the-anecdata-points and argue that 10-inch tablets are just the start of the touchscreen publishing revolution. I'll bet that large, touchscreen canvases are coming, and I think they're going to change the kinds of documents we create.

But first a quick bit on why on earth we need larger compositional spaces. After all, any decent novelist, blogger, or journalist can get by with a 11-inch laptop, right? Sure, but what about creative types who like scattering notes, sketches, and outlines across their physical desktops? And what if they want to mix and match different kinds of media and incorporate touchscreen gestures? Some tools (Objective-C, HTML5) exist, but how many creative minds have the skills necessary to use that stuff?

Last week in my digital publishing tools webcast I previewed a handful of apps and online software that let people create "media mashups": compositions that break free from the rigidly sequenced vertical layouts that many writing tools impose. Take for example Microsoft Word or pretty much any blogging tool — only with some serious effort can you break free from producing a stacked sequence of editorial elements:

<some text>

<an image>

<a header>

<some text>


Rigid layout structures like that are, of course, great for mainly-prose narrative. But they make rich page layout — think: the interior design you see in a magazine, infographics, and their touchscreen successors — tough.

I hope you all take some time to play around with the software I mentioned — Webdoc, Blurb Mobile, Polyvore's editor, Storify, Hype, and Mixel. Only by practicing with these rich media canvases will we begin to see the kinds of stories and messages that might emerge if we move away from the constraints of tools that segregate word from image.

But what I didn't mention in my webcast, and the heart of this post, is a hardware development that feels increasingly likely: the arrival of large touchscreens that will make composition even easier than it currently is on devices like the iPad. Consider how the spread of really big touchscreens could improve the kinds of personal publishing projects we all work on ... from family photo books to website design, and from slideshow presentations to scrapbooking. If we could combine the touchscreen's signature talent (allowing us to signal our layout wishes directly: put this picture over there) with the large displays and workspaces that many of us enjoy at our work desks, wouldn't that change the kinds of documents we create? And wouldn't that require authoring tools that make it easy for us to mix and match different media types?

So, here's my list of recently spotted data points and observations:

The slow but steady convergence of Mac OS X and iOS

Anyone who follows Apple closely knows the deal here. Some headline developments for those who aren't Mac geeks: Lion's elevation of iOS-style, touch-friendly app icons; the increasingly high profile of touch gestures on all Mac laptops and, for the desktops, the availability of the Magic Trackpad. Steve Jobs rightfully dismissed the notion that we'd ever reach out and touch vertical displays. But it only takes a quick stroll down memory lane, and a glimpse at the sunflower-inspired iMac, to imagine a screen design that could easily shift between vertical (for long-form writing and reading) and horizontal-ish for touchscreen activities like page layout.

The heart of Windows 8: the touchscreen-friendly Metro

Microsoft's next big operating system update is built around the premise that people will want to switch between keyboard/mouse-controlled computers and those operated via touchscreen. They're counting on manufacturers to build tablets that do both. In one of their Metro demos, presenter Jensen Harris (a senior executive on the Windows user experience team) makes the case that in a few years it'll be rare to find any display — tablet, laptop, or desktop — that isn't touchscreen capable.

Touchscreen software for the big display

The New York Times' Nick Bilton wrote recently about a sneak peak Adobe gave him of a 50-inch "drafting table running Photoshop Touch where you can essentially draw and create on a screen." As Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch told him: "The creative process has been tied to a keyboard and mouse until now, and we want people to be able to touch the screen to create, just like we all used to use pencils and X-acto knives in the past."

Decreasing prices

We all know how this works: new technology gets cheaper as it matures. Those first generation Kindles sold for $399; now they start at $79. It's not hard to imagine a time when not only 20-plus-inch desktop monitors (the swivel variety, as I described above) are affordable, but also imagine portable touchscreen displays everywhere from your office walls to your refrigerator.

Growing familiarity with touchscreen gestures

Beyond early adopters, you see it everywhere: toddlers, deliverymen, senior citizens, checkout clerks — all of 'em understand how to tap, pinch, swipe. As a culture, we're becoming touchscreen literate.

The way I work

This one's personal, but I wonder how unique I am. My writing method often involves a bunch of writing surfaces: draft notes that I crank out on my desktop display; a sheet of physical notebook paper where I take notes on what I've written; another piece of paper on which I construct an annotated outline. I don't quite know what it is, but I just need to see it all spread out. And, man, do I love — do I need — to be able to draw lines, curves, circles, and arrows, connecting this idea over here, to that idea over there.

Writing, for me, on a laptop display feels claustrophobic. (I'm talking about the idea-generating and the drafting phase here; when it's time to revise, I'm plenty happy blocking out all distractions and focusing on a single, limited-size writing viewport.) LiquidText is one company I'm following closely; they're developing touchscreen-friendly reading tools that let so-called active readers tap, touch, highlight, and move text in ways that resemble my compositional tactics. They call it "multitouch document manipulation," and it's just one reason I'm incredibly excited about what may turn out to be the next desktop publishing revolution.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012

Photo on home and category pages: 40+242 Work by bark, on Flickr


December 14 2010

Publishers, don't pave that cow path

As new publishing processes and platforms hit the market at increasing rates, publishers face bewildering choices. Where should they invest their time and money? What are the best technologies?

Gus Balbontin (@gusbalbontin), global innovation manager at Lonely Planet and a speaker at TOC 2011, has a different take on adaptation. In the following interview, he explains why agility and a willingness to try everything are the keys to digital success.

Lonely Planet has been transforming into a multi-channel content producer for a couple of years now. What hasn't worked during that transition?

TOC 2011Gus Balbontin: One issue we had was that we focused first on what we were doing. We needed to get the product right and it needed to look like this, and it needed to fulfill the customer in this way.

What we realized was that the market and the industry are shifting so quickly that trying to focus on the product too much will get you into the "death wobbles," as we call them in Australia. In traditional publishing we tend to "concrete the cow path" -- if the cow is going from the paddock to the waterhole this way, let's concrete it so the cow goes faster. Then the cow decides there's actually another way that's quicker, and you realize that you've concreted the cow path for no reason whatsoever. Our instinct in publishing is to say: "What is your new pathway? I'll concrete that one."

The lesson is that you don't want to concrete your cow paths. It is all about how you do things. You need to remain incredibly flexible. You need to intuitively understand your industry and your customer. Focusing on how you do things rather than focusing on exactly what it is that you're doing is something we learned over the last few years.

What's been your biggest success thus far?

GB: The biggest success has been focusing on the absolute essence of Lonely Planet, which is our content. Customers are starting not to see the borders between an app, an ebook, and a book. They want to have the same experience across all of these things; not the same features, but definitely the same experience. Have we nailed it yet? Of course not. We're still on the journey.

What emerging technologies should publishers pay attention to?

GB: You have to poke your finger at everything that is coming out to actually understand it. It goes back again to how you do things. If you are nimble, you should be able to test everything quickly and cheaply. That's where Lonely Planet is now. We can quickly throw together a prototype, figure out how we're going to do it, and then test the market. That's where you need to be.

One of the things I always think about is the convergence of all of these technologies. An app is a great little product you can do; an ebook is a great product you can do; a book is a great product you can do; and a game is a great product you can do. But when you bring all of those platforms together, you provide a much richer product experience.

What would "Harry Potter" look like if you provided an experience that went far beyond the book itself or far beyond the movie? Something that was actually in between those two, plus the game, plus another thing. At the moment, they do put the game out, and they put out the movie, and they put out the book. But it's still not seamless enough for the customer. You can put out a product in each one of those channels, but you cannot seamlessly read the book on a plane, and as you walk off the plane, grab your phone and continue your experience there.

I look at how Apple focuses on the experience more than the channel. So, if you're sitting at home, and you've got your Mac open in your kitchen, and you've got an Apple TV sitting underneath your telly, all of a sudden, an extra device -- the TV -- has become a valuable part of the experience. Apple didn't publish a product for the TV, a product for your laptop, etc. They just gave you an experience with three or four different channels that allow you to enjoy your content in a different way.

Publishing across platforms will be discussed at the 2011 Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, Feb. 14-16. Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.

How should the structure of publishing organizations change to accomodate the digital shift?

GB: Most companies, as they evolve, say: "There's a new channel. We'll create a new part of the company." So, all of a sudden, you've got your print business, and then you've got this digital business, or a dot-com business, and then a mobile business. That's one of the key things that needs to change.

Also, you need to stop the book metaphor from permeating an organization. You need to erase it if you can and try to become horizontal rather than vertical in the way you operate. It is incredibly tricky to break those barriers.

The essence of what the print people have known for 500 years is still the same in the digital world: you still have to publish great content. Yes, the tone may change a little. Yes, the experience might be slightly different. But at the end of the day, the people creating the content are humans. The people consuming it are also humans. The same humans that consume print consume digital. It's not different.

Stephen Fry recently released his autobiography across multiple platforms. Is that the new publishing model?

GB: That's the first step toward experiencing each one of the channels that are valuable to us today. That's fine, but it still doesn't provide a cohesive product or experience to the consumer. There is still a very clear fragmentation between the ebook, the book, and the app. We're all struggling with that.

The next step is going to be much more cohesive. In the future, you'll actually pump out content in one way, and that content will be consumed in 12 different ways, but it's the same experience across all of those. Publishers won't have to prepare content each time for each of the platforms.

What will publishing look like in 10-20 years?

GB: For me, it's going to be about the customers. We have to fulfill needs rather than just push content out that we think is right. It's going to be a seamless world where customers pick a combo of information and platform.

In terms of technology, I have no idea what's going to happen. I'm hoping that eventually we'll be able to play with our brains a little bit and implant all of those different bits of information that we want, so I can take Spanish into my brain and go to Spain and enjoy it in a much richer way because I can actually speak Spanish. How cool would that be?

In terms of the next 10 or 20 years, the essence of what publishers are doing won't change at all. This is what should make publishers feel comfortable about the future. The reason why you're there and the problems that you can solve for customers won't change. That's what you need to keep focusing on.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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November 22 2010

Open-ended publishing

TOC 2011All change begins with a thought. That's why I'm big on mental shifts. If you start thinking a different way, you have the potential to adapt to that new mode. It takes enormous effort and commitment to manifest change, but that simple act of deciding to look at the world a little differently is always the catalyst.

I was reminded of this when I ran across my colleague Russell Jones' recent comment on a company email list. Here's what he wrote:

"Publishing," in the past, was always tied to an event -- printing the book. That's no longer true. The "book" now consists of whatever content you provide for readers to download -- and if you can update them automatically, that's not even exactly true.

For example, you could create a book that updates constantly, a book that consists entirely of reader input, a book that is actually a series of links, a book that readers interact with, a book that grows over time, and, of course, book readers that collect their own metadata. Books that are applications, books that are interactive tours. Books where the ending (or the whole story) changes as people read them ... There are no reprints. There may be editions, but in most cases, that's not terribly useful to readers.

Everything has changed. The sky's the limit.

[Note: This was published with Russell's permission.]

Russell's comment got me thinking about how a mental "change filter" applies to the content industries. It also made me want to share some of the questions I've been noodling on over the last few years. Specifically:

What if all content is on a continuum? What if there's no end? What if there's no finality anymore?

That's a huge change from what most of us are used to. From early on, we're trained to create editions: an essay, a book, a magazine, a newspaper, a movie, a game, etc. Those are projects with defined beginnings and endings.

But digital content doesn't really exist in an edition-based world. It moves, it flows. It gets chunked up, mashed up, and recombined. It can be copied and pasted at will (whether you like it or not). It can be added to. It can be deleted from. It hibernates and reappears unexpectedly months or years later.

Just look at the revision history on a Wikipedia entry. Digital content is fluid.

What's odd and interesting is that many content creators -- even folks who truly understand digital -- are stuck in editions. I fall into this trap all the time. Too often I see the world in terms of "posts" or "articles." But by thinking that way, I'm leaving opportunity on the table. I'm limiting my creative output to a defined amount of content that's poured into a defined container.

So that's the set up. As you'll see, my thoughts about open-ended publishing are nascent. I'm not entirely sure this process has long-term utility. Nor do I know if it's viable as a business model. Nonetheless, here's a few ideas on how open-ended publishing might play out.

Everything can be public

Under an open-ended model, notes, excerpts, links, and drafts can all be published online. Few people would care to access this content -- heck, its disorganization could make it private while in public view -- but it's been my experience that pushing material into the public space changes it in an important way.

Public content holds the content creator accountable. This is why I dump all sorts of quotes and excerpts and half-baked ideas into my Tumblr. That's my big bucket of slop: all the stuff that informs the posts I write and the interview questions I ask. I put it out there not because I think it has value to all (it doesn't), but because public content makes me want to follow through.

I used to collect similar dribs and drabs in private Google documents. Despite good intentions, I never closed the loop on any of that stuff. It just sat there, locked in a doc no one will ever look at again. But publishing that same material publicly is like creating an alpha version for a future piece of content.

You'll notice I wrote everything "can" be public. It doesn't have to be. If there's a competitive advantage connected to a particular insight or breakthrough, you might want to hold that back. That's fine, but I'm of the mind that almost everything can and should be blithely tossed into the public space. After all, a stunning idea means little without great execution. (Note: Nuclear launch codes, secret herbs and spices, and private corporate data don't apply here. Just so we're clear.)

Go forward or back whenever you like

We're so accustomed to sensing "the end." We see that last paragraph or feel that last beat and we know, subconsciously, that the ride is almost over. Because of this, open-ended publishing feels weird -- perhaps even wrong. But I think we need to fight through that.

A content creator can always reach a full-stop with their work. He or she could tie up loose ends and make their creation cohesive. But even in these cases, the "never say never" adage will always apply. If a related idea pops up, what's to stop that same person from firing up the engine again? Or, if someone else wants to run with the same ball, why not? This is already common in the film industry, where franchise "reboots" are a norm (and given what we've seen from Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" films and JJ Abrams' "Star Trek," a reboot can be a very good thing).

The big takeaway here is that if content is open ended, creators can go forward or back whenever they like. Personally, I find that liberating.

Just start

The world is filled with people brimming with ideas. The world is not filled with people who will act on those ideas. Content creators are naturally scarce because writing, filming, and editing requires effort -- often lots of effort. Some of us are blessed (or cursed) with a need to create. It's a compulsion.

This section doesn't apply to those people.

I don't subscribe to the notion that all great material comes from borderline psychosis. "Writers have to write," that's true, but others have it in them to create interesting things as well. The key is to reduce the barriers to entry. When that happens, we'll see two things:

  1. Ungodly amounts of hideous material.
  2. A small but vital percentage of beautiful stuff.

YouTube is the embodiment of this. Much of that content is very, very bad. But nestled amidst the shaky home videos and cringe-inducing "comedy," you'll find genuine voices and genuine talent.

But YouTube is using technology to lower the barriers of content creation and distribution. What I'm proposing is a barrier-busting mindset.

The key is this: Instead of pushing the notion that all material of merit must only appear after countless revisions, we could instead just start. Just publish it. Just write it. Just put it out there. Let it become a thing instead of an idea. Since this content is open ended, you can always revise the material, or rework it, or completely alter its intent. The most important thing you can do is begin. (This is why NaNoWriMo is a fantastic project.)

"Publishing without boundaries" is the theme of TOC 2011, being held Feb. 14-16 in New York City. Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.

Expectations and platforms

I know it sounds like I'm suggesting that all content should become stream of consciousness blather. But that's not true.

I'm an editor. I value clarity, and I know clarity is only achieved through structure and revision. (This post, for example, was reworked and then reworked again.) I also see quality as a competitive advantage. Because there's so much bad stuff out there, committing to the good stuff sets you apart.

As such, open-ended publishing needs to mesh expectations with platforms. That's why I dump my random gatherings on Tumblr, where the expectation -- if there is one -- is quite low. I would never post that material on Radar. But I would (and do) take the ideas and links that bubbled up in my Tumblr and use those as building blocks in Radar posts.


There's a missing piece here, though. If Tumblr is where the ideas start and Radar is where they manifest in a better-formed way, then what do I do when a related idea or development pops up? Do I add to a pre-existing Radar post? Do I create an entirely new post? Or, do I use a separate platform for these "director's cut" versions? I'm not sure about the execution, but abandoning a line of thought because there's no home for it doesn't sit well with me. A story with energy deserves to continue. And with all sorts of low-cost and easy-to-use digital platforms now at our disposal, there's no reason it shouldn't continue.

Your thoughts?

In a way, this is a meta post. I'm gathering the threads I've collected over years of working in, and thinking about, digital content. Those individual threads were already "published" in various places: Tumblr, blog posts focusing on adjacent topics, emails, tweets, etc. Now the threads have been partially bundled here on Radar (for good or bad). This story is on a continuum, and I imagine it'll chug along in one form or another.

But is there anything to this idea? Does open-ended publishing make any practical sense? I welcome any comments, counter arguments, enhancements, or rebuttals.


October 18 2010

The gravitational pull of information

I just posted an interview with "Website Architecture and Design with XML" instructor Bob Boiko over on O'Reilly Answers. Much of the piece deals with the nuts and bolts of XML, but Boiko also discussed the relationship between content creators, designers, and programmers. I thought his response worth sharing here as well.

Are the lines between designers, content creators / coders, and programmers blurring?

Bob Boiko: The lines blurred a long time ago. It's been more than 20 years since I sat in my first software development team meeting with artists, writers, programmers, and managers all trying to figure out how to talk with each other. They continue to struggle today.

The language of business value and information structure is a great candidate for the common tongue we're looking for. Everyone on a team should be able to say why they are doing this project and what part they play. That's business value.

More specifically, in the center of a project you'll find the information that the project collects, stores and delivers. Designers need to understand the structure of that information in order to present it. Content creators need to understand it to originate or edit it. Programmers need to understand it to build the machinery that moves it from place to place.

The lines that need to blur are not at the center of the design, coder, or programming disciplines, but rather where they meet. And where they meet is in the information.


March 29 2010

The iPad needs its HyperCard

(Note: With the iPad scheduled to arrive this week, we reached out to a number of folks across a variety of industries to get their take on the device and the changes it may usher in. We'll be featuring these pieces over the next few weeks. -- Mac)

Dale Dougherty, editor and publisher of MAKE:

When I think about opportunities around the iPad, I recall the CD-ROM market of the late 1980s. CD-ROM followed packaged software but created a number of innovative "content" packages, creating new categories such as "edutainment" with products like Reader Rabbit.

iPadMy favorite CD-ROM product, which I thought held such promise as a landmark approach to multimedia, was Beethoven's 9th Symphony by Robert Winter, a UCLA music professor. While listening to the symphony, you saw notes appear that explained the music and some of its features. This was liner notes on steroids. This CD-ROM offered something you couldn't get on a TV or a stereo.

The Beethoven 9th application was written in Hypercard and it was produced by Bob Stein at The Voyager Company. Stein also combined documentary or feature films with the critical commentary in products like "A Hard Day's Night" and children's books such as "The Amanda Stories."

The CD-ROM market also consisted of "productivity" titles from Broderbund such as Family Tree Maker and Print Shop. It also gave birth to a game market that culminated in Myst (also based on HyperCard.)

The market for CD-ROMs collapsed because the distribution channel for boxed software went away, and the web became the primary means for users to find entertainment, games and productivity apps. It was also true that the web lowered the bar for creating applications, even though it was much less capable of delivering rich content. (Nothing like the Beethoven's Symphony app has been created on a website that I know of.)

So, when I think of the iPad, I wonder if a new opportunity will exist for interactive applications, which will find a space somewhere between a computer and the TV. They'll need to do more than convey information, as most ordinary websites do. They'll need to be more user-driven than television but they'll need to integrate all forms of media. iPhone apps certainly look more like simple CD-ROM apps than they do websites.

What's missing today is HyperCard, or an equivalent tool that can be used to create a new wave of applications for the iPad. And if Apple isn't thinking about it, you'd expect that Adobe would be, especially since its acquisition of Macromedia brought in-house the other professional tool used by CD-ROM creators, Macromind Director. It's not that HyperCard or Director is the answer, but I am just pointing out the lack of really good tools available for amateurs and professionals to use to create new kinds of applications for the iPad. HyperCard was not only used by The Voyager Company; it was used by teachers to create coursework; or students to prepare a report; it was used by individuals to develop novelty applications like recipe databases. We had highly produced, professional applications and mostly free shareware apps.

Making it easy to create content and increasing the number of people who can create applications for the iPad could be very important to its long-term success. The web has made producers of us all. If the iPad is just another consumer platform for consuming and not creating content, then it will just be another way to watch TV or listen to music or download information. Convenient, yes, but just another device. To be something different, the iPad must not be just a delivery platform but a creative one, offering professionals and amateurs an opportunity to create a unique experience with interactive media.

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