Sean's Technology and Writing Blog

The Beatles Yellow Submarine iPad ebook signals the future of iBooks publishing

09 December 2011

Apple is promoting a free ebook of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, which shows the capabilities of the new version of its iBooks app. It's fantastic fun for younger readers, and a showcase for what the concept of a book might become for everybody.

There have been lots of apps that modernise the concept of the pop-up book. My friend Chris Stevens created the Alice for the iPad app, which is one of my recommended iPad apps. It uses clever physics simulation for the reader's interaction with the pictures, so that the characters move as if on springs, or respond realistically to you shaking the iPad. He shared the code to do this in his book Designing for the iPad. There are lots of other people who have created apps for their books too, so that readers can interact with them in memorable and engaging ways.

The interesting development here is that the Yellow Submarine app works within the iBooks app, which further blurs the lines around what defines a book. The iBooks app is great. I was really impressed with the user experience iBooks offers with my own books (including iPad for the Older and Wiser), but so far it's been mainly about reflowing text, searching text and viewing images. It hasn't offered a huge amount of interaction. Maybe that's because I don't usually read children's books, but in any case, I haven't seen anything like the Beatles app working as iBooks content, and the fact I had to upgrade iBooks to get it to work suggests this type of interaction is new to iBooks.

The Yellow Submarine book is everything you would expect: colourful, surreal, and interactive. The animations are quite subtle: it's not a video, but small parts of the image move, such as a waving hand or a waggling tongue. You can tap pictures to make them perform other moves and can sometimes drag pictures (such as butterflies) around. The Sea of Holes is fun, with The Beatles popping up and down like a whack-a-mole game. There's an option to have the book read aloud to you, with the words lit up as each one is spoken. The app includes embedded videos you can play within the page, and short bursts of music that are played when you tap some of the characters. The only disappointment is that the music bursts are quite short. I haven't bought the Yellow Submarine album from iTunes, but I do have many of the songs from albums I've bought on CD and it might have been nice for there to be a way to integrate playback of those.

There's still some work to be done on refining the user interface. The problem is that there can be a conflict between the book's content and the iBooks controls. For example, you can often touch a character to make them sing or move. Indeed, the whole point of the book is that you touch things to see what they might do. If you touch a character that doesn't have an action assigned to it, though, iBooks is likely to interpret that as a tap on the app, and turn the page or show/hide the iBooks controls. It feels broken when you touch a character to see what they might do, and it turns the page, or when the controls keep popping in and out of view as you try to explore the book.

These new iBooks capabilities create fantastic opportunities for book authors and publishers: it's easy to think of educational content that would benefit from simple animations, embedded videos or interactive elements (such as lifting the flap to reveal an answer). It's also a nice way to add value to written content. Authors often have access to audio recordings or other research materials which would be considered bonus features on DVDs, but which don't really have an outlet in book publishing.

To get the app working, you'll need to update your iBooks app (tap the App Store icon on your iPad, then tap Updates at the bottom, then find iBooks in the list, and then tap Free). Then go into the iBooks store and download the Yellow Submarine iBook. If you put the book into the app before you upgrade the app, it won't work unless you've previously upgraded to iBooks 1.5. Here's a direct link to download the Yellow Submarine ebook. There's more information on updating apps and downloading ebooks in iPad for the Older and Wiser.

Now I have the urge to check in with Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and catch up with Henry the Horse, Lovely Rita and all the other surreal characters there. Cue the music!

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Do you happen to know how they created the ebook? What tools were used to author it?

Kathleen Marie
Creator of Little Robot
Hi Kathleen. Thanks for your comment. I don't know how they authored it. It functions like an app in many ways, in which case they might have programmed it using Objective-C. However, it's fully integrated with the iBooks interface, and iBooks recognises where the pages are, so perhaps there is an authoring tool for creating this kind of content for reading in iBooks. It would be great if there was something relatively simple we could all use to create content like this.
JavaScript is probably how this iBook adds interactivity. ePub supports JavaScript for basic interactivity and embedded media for video and music. I was hoping iBooks Author would make creating a book like this easier, but it doesn't seem to support all the animations.
Hi Michael. Thanks for your comment. Yes, Javascript seems to be likely underlying the format, although I guess Apple wants to shield people from having to write Javascript code, so the tool might be more limited than the format itself. The Register has an interesting article about the different current ebook formats here:
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