Some say that tablet computers, especially the Apple iPad, will save books from extinction by turning them into singing, dancing, multimedia "apps." But as the convergence begins to occur, the opposite seems just as likely: that by offering the kind of deep, focused content the Internet abhors, it is books that will save tablets from death by drowning in the digital junk stream.
Ample evidence for the latter view emerged this year in a steady stream of often stunning "book apps" published for the iPad, which have become some of the most talked-about products in the Apple app store. Designed to take full advantage of the new technology, the best of them are far more elaborate and interactive than ordinary e-books that simply reproduce printed content. They are also generally more expensive, suggesting a whole new value equation for digital content. In other words, they're worth it – and sure to be welcomed by anyone who finds an iPad under the tree this Christmas.
Solar System for iPad. Touch Press. $13.99
A year after its publication, this pioneering book app from upstart Touch Press, working with traditional publisher Faber & Faber, has more than fulfilled the developers' boast that it "raises the bar on what an electronic book can be." Most remarkably, it reversed the tide by becoming the first e-book to subsequently appear as a physical edition in bookstores. Touch Press has sold even more copies of The Elements for iPad ($13.99), a visual introduction to the periodic table based on a physical book of the same title by Theodore Gray, which the publisher modestly describes as "the most beautiful, the most interactive, the most magical e-book ever created." Many agree, including uber-Tweeter Stephen Fry, who described The Elements as "alone worth iPad."
On the Way to Woodstock for iPad. 955 Dreams. $4.99
Designed as a generational timeline that begins in the 1950s and culminates with the legendary festival in 1969, this app is packed with more than 100 hours of "consumable content," consisting of photos, videos, music and "narrative" – i.e. words – according to developer 955 Dreams. But music is what matters here:
Designed from the ground up for the iPad, both On the Way to Woodstock and 955 Dream's first title, The History of Jazz ($9.99), explore new ways of bringing music to the masses. Playable samples include links to buy the songs from iTunes.
Warplanes: A History of Aerial Combat. Gameloft. $6.99
One obvious feature of the fast-developing market in book apps is the early domination of technology-based startups with no prior experience in traditional publishing. The popular Warplanes and its sister app, War in the Pacific ($4.99) – both among the best-selling book apps in the Apple store – were developed by video-game company Gameloft. While the latter was a straight digital conversion of an existing book, Warplanes was developed from scratch as an app and makes full use of the iPad's graphics to showcase 43 different planes.
Virtual History Roma. Mondadori. $9.99
The first in a series that now includes a similar interactive exploration of Florence, this app has elicited ecstatic reviews for its graphic magic, using what Italian book publisher Mondadori calls "bubble view" to recreate the look and feel of Ancient Rome. A typical comment: "This is the future of books." Another well-regarded title in the same series explores the creation, history and interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.
Al Gore – Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. Push Pop Press. $4.99
Based on a book originally published in physical form, this app turns former U.S. vice-president Al Gore's comprehensive call to environmental action into a showcase for the new medium. Whether all the slick interactive graphics and videos embedded in the app will help the cause remains to be seen, but even the most superficial encounter is bound to impress.
Scaredy Squirrel. Kids Can Press. $9.99
Illustrated children's books were the first to fill the virtual shelves of stores serving colour tablets, although most are still simple digitized versions of print editions. Among the more interactive offerings currently featured in the Apple store's Tap and Learn children's category is this title, based on the Canadian publishers' highly successful Scaredy Squirrel series by Mélanie Watt. So far, two titles and a game are available.