The Universe in a New Application

Curtis Franklin Jr., Executive Editor | 4/16/2012 | 11 comments

Curtis Franklin Jr.
What can a publisher do with a tablet that can't be done with a book? In the case of Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe, the answer is, "Everything."

An electronic application built as a supporting medium for the BBC television series of the same name, the combination of text, video, and on-screen graphics makes for a rich experience that has interesting implications for groups ranging from parents to textbook publishers.

I had a chance to talk with Alex Gatrell, digital publisher with Collins, the UK-based trade book division of HarperCollins Publishers. We discussed the nature of the application, why it's an application rather than a book, and what its success might mean for the publishing industry.

When I asked Gatrell about the decision to create an application based on the series, he was effusive in his praise of tablets as a publishing medium. "I think tablets themselves are wonderful because you can bring all this content together, and for publishers our skill is to bring information together. It uses some old-school publishing traits and skills, but it's totally new."

Once Collins had taken the decision to put the content on a tablet, the question was whether it should be in one of the electronic book formats, or as a separate application. Gatrell says:

    I think we'd like to make immersive educational experiences. As a publisher we do beautiful illustrated books, and we want to take that into beautiful immersive applications. Ebooks don't really give us enough control, so apps are very attractive in allowing a broader palette of resources.

Looking forward, Gatrell says that the experience of Wonders of the Universe is encouraging for Collins. "We recouped costs within three days, we're very pleased, and we'd like to continue, but it's going to be fewer, bigger, better for apps. I think other publishers are of similar view."

Among the differences between an application (sold through Apple's App Store) and a traditional book is the global scope of the app's reach. Gatrell says that a global reach has significant legal and financial ramifications for publishers:

    It does change it to a global market. Our sales are roughly split between the US and UK. We used to do deals with publishers in territories where we didn't have distribution, but the App Store really subverts the traditional rights deals because it changes the territories available.

That reach isn't without issues, though.

    The only problem is that Apple doesn't take tax on delivery in every jurisdiction and we have to deal with those separately. Right now we're not selling in places where the tax deals aren't in place, but we're looking at ways to deal with it. It's one of the only drawbacks to being able to sell so broadly.

Gatrell is careful to call Wonders of the Universe a mainstream application that could complement a textbook, rather than a textbook application that stands alone. For parents, libraries, or school systems looking for "enrichment," it's a model that seems almost certain to expand into other topics with time.

For educators and textbook publishers, though, it could well be considered the practical definition of "disruptive technology," though it's a disruption wrapped in a visually stunning and beautifully interactive cover.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Page 1 / 2   >   >>
batye   The Universe in a New Application   4/22/2012 1:11:43 PM
Re: Smithsonian
could not agree more 

after using my friends new ipad for few days

my old tablets displays seem dull...

I trust retina display is here to stay and way of the future...

on the other noted during friday chat

I forgot to mention as link - what may be interest to you :)

Hospice_Houngbo   The Universe in a New Application   4/17/2012 1:08:18 PM
Re: Smithsonian
Will the app be released on other tablets too? For this kind of app to become mainstream, it will be good if it can be ported to other platforms. I konw that most developers start with Apple, but not everybody can afford an iPad.
Hospice_Houngbo   The Universe in a New Application   4/17/2012 12:58:11 PM
Re: the universe app

I agree that combining textbooks and apps in schools could enhance students' learning experience. There is no need to prefer one educational support tool to the other. However, for many people textbooks will be their first choice.
Pedro Gonzales   The Universe in a New Application   4/17/2012 11:06:47 AM
the universe app
I agree with the use of this app as a support of the texbook rather than it complete replacement, from an educational point of view could greatly support education becuase there are many concepts that are very abstract and difficult to grasp, through the use of animation and video, students can gain a better understand of the material, specially with tables, they can interact with the data in such a way that was not possible with a book.
CurtisFranklin   The Universe in a New Application   4/17/2012 10:42:14 AM
Re: Bonus material
@Damian, I agree: The ability to "drill down" into a particular thought or topic is the most valuable part of the technology. The fact that the ability can come in a visually stunning package makes it that much better.
CurtisFranklin   The Universe in a New Application   4/17/2012 10:40:10 AM
Re: information
@Nemos, this particular app is an introduction to astrophysics and cosmology, looking at everything from the big bang forward, and ranging in scale from quantum particles to galaxy clusters. The reasons publishers a interested in the technology is that it allows the text to be supplemented with video and interactive graphics for an experience that is much richer than the one that can be provided by the text alone.
CurtisFranklin   The Universe in a New Application   4/17/2012 10:23:57 AM
Re: Smithsonian
One of the "happy accidents" around the release of the app was the release of the new iPad, with its Retina display. The higher resolution makes a huge difference in the way both HD video and interactive graphics look on the screen.

Between faster multi-core processors and incredible display technologies, the possibilities that can be put in apps that go in the palms of our hands are increasing exponentially.
Damian Romano   The Universe in a New Application   4/17/2012 8:57:41 AM
Bonus material
This might seem elementary and all but precocious, but perhaps the biggest advantages of the tablet is its ability to be interactive. I'd gladly trade the smooth reading experience for a more enriching one. Our minds wander when we're learning. Having the ability to chase those thoughts when warranted is priceless.
Nemos   The Universe in a New Application   4/16/2012 6:34:40 PM
I didnt understand what exactly does and for example why a publisher should use it ?
kicheko   The Universe in a New Application   4/16/2012 5:33:38 PM
Re: Smithsonian
An app as opposed to an ebook, does indeed turn the experience into a universe. Unlike a book which is finite, an app is more like a hub for exponential information, and especially because it takes shorter to upgrade for it to perform even better.
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