“Someone has to make the first great ebook publishing company; it might as well be us.” So I said a few weeks before the iPad was released this April. And a little while later Touch Press was formed. The iPad was released, and simultaneously, Touch Press’s first book The Elements was released. The book has been on the iPad bestseller list ever since—in addition to being featured in all sorts of iPad television commercials and the like.
Well, it’s good for a publishing company to have a successful first book. But for me it’s been getting a little old telling people that I’m a partner in a new publishing company, but so far we’ve only published one book. So it’s exciting to be able to say that as of this week, Touch Press has a second book: Solar System.
It’s a really neat book. There’s something very compelling about being able to spin planets and moons with your finger—and seeing actual spacecraft imagery on all of them. But as I click around exploring the final version of the book, what I’m most struck by is the diversity of innovation in it. Some pages have 3D rotatable objects. Some have computations to run. Some have cutaways revealed by stroking your finger. And yet others have little embedded videos that come to life in a way that nicely complements reading the text. (And of course many pages access Wolfram|Alpha to get detailed, live, astronomical information.)
The Elements has many spectacular features. But Solar System dramatically ups the ante, adding all sorts of compelling new mechanisms and concepts (yet another example of the liberal use of aural icons—“earcons”). And looking at Solar System, it’s clear we’re really seeing the emergence of a whole new medium for communication, entertainment and education. It’s not just “a book on a computer”; it’s a whole new kind of object.
Solar System is title #2 for Touch Press. And it’s great. But it’s only the beginning. And in fact Touch Press already has a long sequence of additional titles under development—in a remarkable diversity of areas. We’re steadily learning more and more about the new medium—and I can’t wait to see what we manage to produce in 2011.
But, OK, what really is the story behind Touch Press?
It all started 23 years ago, when a young Theodore Gray came to the recently formed Wolfram Research “for the summer” to help with the development of Mathematica. Theo was a great enthusiast of the Macintosh, and argued that on the Macintosh one could have something much better than the command-line interface we were building for the workstation version of Mathematica.
The result was the invention of the Mathematica notebook interface—mixing text, code, graphics, and later many other elements too. And nearly 23 years ago we started talking about how these Mathematica notebooks should make interactive books possible.
Years went by. Mathematica notebooks grew and evolved, and made possible things like dynamic interactivity and the Wolfram Demonstrations Project.
And all the while, Theo Gray led the User Interface group at Wolfram Research, inventing all sorts of new things. But somewhere in the late 1990s—while I was busily working on A New Kind of Science—Theo developed a new hobby, that combined his educational background in chemistry with his interest in building physical things as well as software.
The tangible result of this hobby was the appearance in our corporate offices of a large wooden periodic table that served as an actual table (sometimes used for meetings) containing samples of all the elements that can be collected. Well, this curious object soon won Theo an IgNobel award, and led to a whole parallel life for Theo in popular science writing and element collecting.
One consequence was that in 2009 Theo published a lavishly illustrated book about the elements—which was a runaway success, and continues to sell very well. So, when the iPad was announced, it seemed obvious that putting that book in some form onto the iPad would at least make for a great demo.
Borrowing resources both from our company and from Theo’s partners in the element collecting business, there was a feverish effort to put Theo’s book onto the iPad. I watched largely from a distance, but it was fascinating to see a stream of new ideas emerge for just what one could do with the new technology. And by the end, it was clear that this wasn’t just a “demo”; it was the first example of an important new form of publishing.
And that was when we decided to form Touch Press.
But who should be CEO? Fortunately, there was an obvious choice: Max Whitby.
Sometime in the early 2000s, somewhere on the web, Theo had intersected with Max over their shared interest in collecting element samples. And soon they were in business together, creating periodic table installations for all sorts of interesting venues. And somewhere along the way, Theo came to mention the name of his new business partner, and I said: “I know that name; we were in college together at Oxford thirty years ago”.
More soon came out. Max Whitby’s interest in element collecting was pretty much as a hobby, just like Theo’s. His day job was running a media production company in England, making all sorts of science and other documentaries, and related things. Oh, and he had another hobby/business: producing the definitive online guide to the birds of Britain.
When we were launching Wolfram|Alpha in May 2009, we decided to webcast our actual launch process—and to help make it more interesting “television”, we asked Max to come and lend some of his extensive BBC and other experience to it. Theo was not particularly involved in the technical aspects of making Wolfram|Alpha live, but had all sorts of “hobby” experience in presenting science and technology. And so we decided that Max, Theo and I should work together as the main on-camera “talents” during the (as it turned out, quite nerve wracking) Wolfram|Alpha launch.
And in addition to being in all the right places, Max Whitby had some history that probably fated him to be the CEO of Touch Press. In 1990 he was working at the BBC, producing lots of television documentaries—and got involved in the BBC’s new “multimedia” initiative, which he then helped spin off into a separate company, producing CD-ROMs. It was 20 years too early, but it was the beginning of the concept that’s now Touch Press.
As soon as the iPad—and The Elements—came out, freshly minted Touch Press started getting all sorts of enquiries. From publishing companies. From museums. From authors. From all sorts of people who had assets that seemed like they could benefit from the new medium of the iPad. And at Touch Press we started setting up arrangements to work with as many of these organizations and people as possible.
It’s not easy to make something like The Elements or Solar System. It requires a curious and extensive mix of skills, and it’s been interesting to see how it’s all been developing within Touch Press. It’s a strange combination of what’s normally involved with software development, movie making, photography, information design and book writing.
Needless to say, some of the most elaborate parts of the software development pipeline are based on Mathematica. Making use of its symbolic language to represent the structure of the book that’s being assembled, its computation abilities to create animations, and its image processing capabilities (now even stronger with Mathematica 8) to manipulate and prepare images.
The Elements had all sorts of challenges—like the need for a new type of 3D camera rig, and lots of tricks to achieve high performance on the iPad. Solar System had many new challenges—but the result has been a progressively deepening technology stack, and an increasing understanding of the management and production processes needed to create in this new medium.
And this means that as we head into 2011, Touch Press is primed to generate new titles at a considerably higher rate—and to begin the process of scaling up to become, in the words of my original motivational quote, “the first great ebook publishing company”.
But for right now, the exciting thing is that we’ve managed to publish Solar System in time for Christmas.
I thought I already knew a lot about our solar system. But I just spent a very enjoyable—and surprisingly long—time going through (and not even finishing) Solar System for iPad. I’ve learned a lot from it. Not only by reading the words, like in an ordinary book, but also by exploring the interactive elements for myself, and having a chance to discover all sorts of little things for myself.
It’s just a great way to engage with subject matter—and it’s fun too. So now I’m impatiently waiting to learn from the sequence of new Touch Press titles that are in the works for 2011. At least as a partner in the business I get to see them early…