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Q&A With Co-Creator of Classics iPhone E-Reader

Classics e-reader application for the iPhone and iPod TouchWe’ve covered iPhone-based e-readers in the past, but the Classics application offers a few twists: it’s not free, and the app’s book content is updated along with the software itself. Classics co-creator Phill Ryu discusses the application’s design and development in the following Q&A.

Why did you develop a book-centric application?

When we started comparing the iPhone to the Kindle, it was immediately clear to us that we could take advantage of the iPhone’s brilliant color screen and touch capabilities to create a reading experience that would stand out from the crowd, so it began as a very, very tempting challenge almost, and eventually turned into a months-long passion project.

How many books do you offer?

We’re currently offering a dozen books. They’re handpicked favorites of ours, but we’ll be adding more with free updates to the app.

Are these books all in the public domain?

Yeah, they are public domain. At the start, [co-creator Andrew] Kaz and I thought we could really do something radical in terms of the digital reading experience, but we couldn’t start working with publishers based on the strength of some cool interface ideas, so we settled with the “Classics” name and created this as essentially the first prototype of our reading engine.

Did you consider releasing this application for free?

Yes, for a moment. Then someone knocked on my apartment door and slipped in a rent payment notice letter. The reality of the situation was, we had gone basically broke over the summer working on a pretty cool desktop app, and had to halt development on that until we could find some income. At that point, we came up with the brilliant plan to develop an iPhone app in a few weeks to generate some income, to continue the aforementioned desktop app. Classics of course ended up turning into a serious passion project lasting months of development time, and we went extra broke due to it, so going free was hardly an option. We’re rather painfully aware that free apps tend to gather something like 25-50 times the downloads of similarly charting paid apps, and we’d like to reach that audience someday, but most likely it’ll be with a spinoff app, and not with Classics.

Are you still developing the desktop app? Does this app also focus on books/content?

I really can’t (and shouldn’t) talk details, because the app might never fly depending on how talks with some content publishers go, but no, it’s not book related.

You’re using Apple’s built-in software update process to load new books into the application. How did you come up with this idea?

For a variety of reasons. One thing that drove us toward this was gentle but insistent prodding from Apple throughout the dev process to stay away from selling books through our app. We’ll be transitioning to server-hosted books later on though, once the collection has grown further.

Did Apple explicitly guide you away from selling books?

They guided us away from selling books directly through our app, which is against the terms for iPhone developers. We’re hoping we can figure out an elegant workaround that they are fine with, but I want to stress that overall, they’ve been very supportive of this app, and have even been showing it off in the ongoing iPhone tech talks around the world.

How often will books be added?

I would expect to see several new books with each app update, the first of which should come later this month or so.

Will updates be free?

Yes. The app may become more expensive later on as it matures, but updates will remain free for all existing customers.

Since the books update along with the software, will users be able to keep/archive titles previously loaded into the application?

We have no plans to remove any books we release. Once the library size becomes prohibitive, we are planning to shift to server hosted books.

Apple requires applications to be under 10MB for download over cellular connections. Does this restriction limit the total number of books you can make available through Classics?

Not really, in that we are already pushing 20MB. We’re hoping that we can eventually transition to server-hosted books while retaining the user experience though.

How many people were involved in the development of Classics?

Beyond Kaz and I, there were four designers who helped with various parts of the app (including the cover art, interface, and even processing illustrations for the books), as well as a friend and Web programmer who helped us create some in-house tools for correcting and formatting these books.

The Classics bookshelf interface has a unique look. How much effort went into this design?

Probably more than most people would think! The bookshelf interface for book management was inspired by Delicious Library’s visual shelves (an app that Kaz worked on when he was 14). So starting from there, we worked with David Lanham on realizing our own flavor of bookshelf, and slowly refined the look over the next couple months, experimenting with various levels of decoration, tints, etc.

Of course, the other half of the bookshelf view are the custom book covers. As I mentioned before, Classics ended up being a passion project for all of us, and the designers really went overboard with the covers. (In a good way.) We started with the idea of procedurally generating each leatherbound book cover with different colors, sizes and such, with a unique “cover image” for each book designed to look like they were embossed on this set of leatherbound novels. Unfortunately, this ended up looking extremely bland. So after literally weeks of going back and forth on this with Dan Goffin, who was drawing concept art for book covers from the start, we settled on a much more colorful, and less restrictive style of fully illustrated covers.

I think this is the point where it gets a bit crazy. At this point, the concept books were looking much nicer, but we began to feel that the slightly simplified style made them look more like icons than real books. They looked a little fake. So the designers ended up illustrating these in high res, as if they were real books. The user for now actually never sees the vast majority of the detailing, but I think this level of detail adds a really unique level of polish to the app.

Will you port Classics to other systems, such as Android?

We haven’t even investigated Android at all yet, but it’s certainly a possibility. For now though, this remains an app we just personally really wanted on our iPhones!

Have you used/seen some of the other book-based iPhone applications? What’s your impression of these?

Yes. And I feel like you are leading me on a bit with this question, but I’ll take the bait and bite. I’ve tried a bunch of the other book apps out there, and frankly, the overall quality of these apps (in particular the “one-offs”) horrified us, and only further motivated us to go full out with Classics. The only other book app out there worth picking up is Stanza.

How many copies of Classics have you sold? Have book publishers or others approached you about including their material in the app?

We’ve sold over 20,000 copies so far, though there hasn’t been so much in terms of profit yet due to our initial investment in the app. We’re optimistic though, and we’re hoping some leads work out with publishers. There are publishers who want to work with us and sell books on the store, but the main issue for now is that there aren’t many viable options for them besides selling one-off book apps, which is not ideal. If there’s a nice way to do this though, we’ll find it.

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  • bowerbird

    > the Classics application offers a few twists:
    > it’s not free, and
    > the app’s book content is
    > updated along with the software itself.

    except neither of these “twists” are good things, however.
    the first is understandable — programmers have bills too…
    but the second is just an exceedingly stupid design decision.

    > eventually turned into a months-long passion project.

    ok, that’s good. let me know when the passion runs to years.

    mine has run to decades…

    > Kaz and I thought we could
    > really do something radical
    > in terms of the digital reading experience

    oh please.

    > but we couldn’t start working with publishers
    > based on the strength of some cool interface ideas

    there’s nothing even remotely new in the ideas here.

    and the execution isn’t all that great either.

    it’s certainly “worth” the $2 it costs. and i encourage
    people to buy it, so as to make their own judgment.
    but this is _not_ the program you will end up with…

    ***

    ok, so here’s the deal. you evaluate an e-book viewer-app
    for the iphone the very same way you do it for the desktop.
    in fact, the program should work substantially the same on
    both platforms, and be cross-platform on the desktop too.

    if you need a list of the criteria you should use to evaluate,
    i prepared one some 5 years ago that you can use yourself:
    > http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/bparchive?year=2004&post=2004-01-08,3

    until a program scores high on all of that, save your praise.

    -bowerbird

  • John Taylort

    I have tried in vain, through messages sent to the developer, to find out if these books, any or all, are abridged. I’ll still love you regardless, but I’d like to know. –John

  • Mac Slocum

    @John: I followed up directly with Andrew Kaz from Classics and he confirmed that all books included in the application are unabridged.

    Hope that helps!

  • Jeff

    This is such a great application. Now…more Jane Austen!
    Thanks,