February 26 2010

Great writeup from Paul Biba based on a TOC talk by Peter Meyers. A list of easy ways that reading on an active screen can be an enhancement over a static page:

  • touch a characters name for a quick summary (or a word for definition)
  • highlighting and note taking, and then finding them later
  • interactive table of contents that draws you in
  • mini books and continuing sitcom type fiction
  • integrated and active foot notes (I hate having to go to the back of the book for footnotes)
  • And finally ‘Shiny, happy poems’

Obviously this latter could refer to Poem Flow! I’d like to think that flowing text can be another standard enhancement in reading on an active screen…

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February 08 2010

Launching Valentines Day Poem Flow!

Today we’re launching a new TextFlows app. Check out http://poemflow.com/valentines to create a unique and moving Valentines day message. Choose from a selection of poems, add your own dedication with text and image, and we’ll send it to your Valentine.

This is our first step toward opening up Flow creation. Its a small step on a long road but it feels like an important one!

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October 16 2009

While people have been reading on screens for decades, we are only a very few years into the use of handheld reading devices, and only a year along the improvement curve that kicks in with mass market adoption. Within a few years ereaders will match or exceed paper in resolution and size (think something that opens to newspaper size but folds down to an iPhone). At that point, and with purchased content on a dedicated reading device not an ad-filled web page, most of the panels objections disappear.
Rather than Professor Wolf’s comparison to ancient Greece, I think the more recent comparison can be seen in the migration of most writing to word processors. With the ability to spell check, erase or re-organize text on the fly, and leverage advanced typography, I doubt many writers would go back to their typewriters, or even less, quill and ink! The same thing will happen with reading. E-Books will give the ability to get word definitions, link to relevant sources, update material in real time, access recommendations and critique from your social network, *and* have all the worlds libraries with you wherever you go. No one will want to go back.
The article is titled ‘Does the brain like E-Books’. I think our brains will. As Dr Wolf also points out, reading is a learned, not a natural, trait. What *is* natural for our brains is to think and memorize in an associative manner - exactly the kind of model that can be supported with hypertext and an ereader.
The generation born a few years hence may experience their first books in fold-able plastic form printed with e-ink on electric screens. Thats when we’ll get our first glimmer of where this revolution is really heading…

Does the Brain Like E-Books? - Readers’ Comments - NYTimes.com

Interesting discussion on the NYTimes, worth reading. I’m copying over my comment.

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October 06 2009

One Ring to Rule them All?

Is Adobe closing in on the one, common, cross-platform, development solution?

Yesterday they announced updates to the Flash toolkit to allow for cross compilation and output of native iPhone applications. This means that the million plus Flash/Actionscript developers can now use Adobe tools to create and publish apps to Apples app store.

A nice piece by Hank Williams got me thinking about this. Seems like its a win win for Adobe and Apple. Apple gets a ton of new developers, and a potential deluge of new apps as those developers port existing Flash games to the iPhone/iTouch. Adobe gets to extend its reach and add credence to its Open Screen project .

There’s another aspect to it however. For the last couple of weekends I’ve been working on a little side project that my son Nick requested. I’m using Adobe Air to compile Actionscript code into a cross platform desktop executable that runs on his PC and my Mac. There are some annoying glitches (like I can’t get the program icon to show on his machine), but in general its a really nice way to develop a rich desktop app - local database, file access and windowing control included - without having to mess with the Apple and/or Microsoft stacks or development environments.

But as of today, that same tool-set and skill-set that I’ve been using to build web apps like TextFlows, and desktop apps like Mood Maestro, can also be used to build iPhone apps, and soon maybe apps for any smart phone. Thats pretty sweet!

Has Adobe squared the circle?

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October 05 2009

Neats vs Scruffies, Duct Tape vs Clean Code

There’s been an interesting back and forth recently (the latest of many) between Joel Spolsky, author of the popular Joel On Software blog, and Bob Martin (aka Uncle Bob). Joel writes in praise of The Duct Tape Programmer, Uncle Bob defends Clean Code.

This is an eternal debate in the software community - the ‘just get it done and ship the code' folks, verses the 'do it right or you’ll spend more time fixing bugs and shipping updates' folks. Or 'hack it with the tools you know' verses 'investigate new technologies and invest in your infrastructure’.

At Stanford, back in my day, the AI community was broken down into the ‘Neats’ and the ‘Scruffies’. The Neats were all about first-order predicate calculus and provability, the Scruffies popularized the term ‘heuristic’ and just used whatever approach was necessary to get the job done. I was never smart enough to be a Neat, but nonetheless always felt that Scruffy was the right approach - it just felt better to get something working and iterate from there.

Conversely later, when I was at GTE Labs we ‘CS’ folks always drew a distinction between our work and that of the many ‘EE’ team members. The EE folks were great at churning out code, but boy did you have to hold your noise when you needed to wade into it later (and you always did need to wade into it later). In this context I was on the cleaner side of the spectrum - there are times when it’s easier to make sure the job is done right the first time (even under schedule pressure).

So, I think Joel is over simplifying - there are many cases where learning and using a newer tool, or investing in some infrastructure, is going to be the shorter path to shipping quality code, no matter who you are. Like most things, there are shades of gray. Being able to assess the situation and apply the right shade is whats distinguishes the craftsman. Like Bob says, you need to ship, just don’t ship shit!

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October 01 2009

Literary Mashups

A couple of interesting recent news articles point to the ways in which physical- and e-books; and text and other media, are increasingly converging. Today’s NYTimes has a front page article describing book-video and physical-online hybrids being released by several publishers. And lest week my friend Jeff at Harvard Bookstore was highlighted in Wired for his ability to publish books on demand from the Google Book Search catalog.

So we have physical books with collaborative authoring and online communities, ebooks with embedded sound and video, whole libraries on your phone and in your pocket, ebooks that can be turned physical on-demand, and how-to books that include video demonstrations. Not to mention TextFlows - a whole new way to interact with text (watch for our iPhone app coming soon).

Sure there are still a lot of issues to address but I can’t help but believe that the potential advantages are compelling, and that maybe 2010 will be the year of the ebook…

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April 29 2009

A Dispatch from the Publishing Frontier

As part of my research into the positioning of TextFlows in the world of authoring and publishing, I’ve been tracking a number of sources from the publishing world.

While there’s been a lot of talk recently about the demise of newspapers, its pretty clear that the publishing world as a whole is bracing itself for the digital onslaught. In large part this is coming to a head because of the massive recent success of the Kindle and the creation of reading titles on the iPhone.

I’ve posted from a WSJ journal article below but heres another good one from the Publishing Frontier blog: At the Apex by John Warren. While a passionate advocate for the beauty and value of books and the printed word, John sees the value of an interactive and evolving form of publication. Here’s a (longish) quote:

Jumping just a bit into the future, let’s grab our podkinfliptop, with its color touch screen and multimedia capabilities, and run. Placing the cursor next to an unfamiliar term in Cunliffe’s book, like Bosphorus, brings up its definition. Clicking on the place-name of Tyre deploys Google Earth. Maps of migrations or empires, instead of static, depict the spread and flow over time. Instead of a single picture depicting the ancient city of Miletos, or a bronze warrior god from the 12th century, a gallery of photos is embedded in the e-text. Links lead to further scholarship or modules about topics of particular interest to the reader. Cunliffe’s tome is a big book, nearly too hefty to curl up in bed with comfortably for a nice reading session, but in its e-format it poses no problem on the podkinfliptop, which you read while touring the Aegean region with your family. At the ruins of the Byzantine fortress in Anadolu Kavagi, you take a striking photo and instantly upload the photo to the book’s gallery.”

Its going to be very interesting to see how things evolve.

Clearly aesthetics are important in these new formats. The business model is the big stumper. Beyond that however, exposing the ‘dark matter’ of the printed word to the digital, indexed, social and hyperlinked world seems to me to hold great promise.

At TextFlows we are currently focusing on poetry as our content matter - it fits most appealingly with the initial versions of our tools. We can leverage the visual beauty (IMO) of a Flow, to help expose the cerebral beauty of a poem, and present it in stark simplicity on a handheld device, like the iPhone. (Check out some Frost).

Both of my cited authors (above and below) note the potential for texts to be broken apart, and to be sold or consumed in smaller chunks. This seems to me to be particularly applicable to poetry. I’m hoping this might be rich enough soil in which to plant our first commercial seedlings…

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Excellent article from the WSJ (maybe subscription access only?) on the migratation of books to digital formats. The author describes his ‘aha’ moment of ordering a novel to read while having dinner alone on a business trip. Besides the spontaneity he also explores the upcoming social aspects of reading, the additions of search and hyperlinking, and the potential (good and bad) for fragmentation of written works.

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March 14 2009

Clay Shirky and the State of Publishing

Clay Shirky has a great blog post up about the state of the publishing industry, particularly newspapers. No answers but a brilliant summation of the dynamics. Anyone interested in whats going on in publishing should give it a read.


With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

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February 26 2009

Interesting thoughts (as always) from Seth on the Kindle and how it could be made more useful. I’ve been discussing it in an email thread with Kevin and some other Sonus friends. In particular I love the idea of sharing margin notes on books. If nowhere else this would be great in a corporate setting - while reading the latest business howto or tech books see what your colleagues thought about how it relates to your specific business.

The question does get raised of the longer term trend and how value is being squeezed out of the publishing industry. Interestingly I had meetings yesterday both at E Ink (the makers of the screen technology behind the Kindle and similar products), and at the classic Harvard Bookstore. On the one hand the eInk folks paint a picture of a wonderful world with foldable plastic screens automatically updated with todays news complete with active animations (think newpapers like in Harry Potter). On the other there’s just a different kind of magic to the feel and heft of a book, and to being surrounded by them like in Jeff’s store. I’m just an old fashioned boy from Ireland, but I’d hate to trade the latter for the former…

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I'm Tony Confrey, CTO and co-founder of Text Television.

We produce TextFlows, a completely new way to experience text.

Originally from Ireland, I'm now living with my wife, two sons, and a dog, in Concord MA.




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