Coming full circle: eBooks to eBooks

I’m watching the eBook revolution with tremendous excitement and enthusiasm but I have a strong sense of deja vu. I’m not new to eBooks; essentially I began my career with eBooks and many of the discussions today are part of my road well traveled.

My second job, just two years out of school, took me to the role of Manager of Technical Publications, but not your traditional Tech Pubs role. This company, later acquired by Unisys, had designed an educational microcomputer with a graphical user interface a year before the Macintosh came into existence. Like the Macintosh its design was based on the research on graphical user interfaces from Xerox PARC. I had two major roles: figure out how to provide effective user materials for teachers (not computer science teachers, but English, History etc. teachers that had little or no knowledge of computers and were frankly terrified of the concept) and students (grade 4-12), and work with developers of educational software to develop software that took advantage of the power of the system, the GUI, and multimedia; no small task when the average software was command line oriented and monochromatic with no images – let alone multimedia. A challenging task for sure, but tremendously exciting! I began with the user content. There was a HELP key on the keyboard but nothing happened when it was pushed so I set out to create the “first” GUI online documentation four years before WinHelp came into existence. It was context sensitive Help designed in the same vein as the GUI. I worked with academia to develop guidelines for the development of educational software. So began my lifelong passion for online content, and instructional design. I desperately wanted a Macintosh when it came out to publish our print-based content but our company couldn’t afford it, so instead I picked a Unix-based system running troff and started my journey in markup-based publishing.

When we were bought by Unisys and I was told to convert my user-friendly wire-o manuals with lots of pictures and readable type to the “new standard” 10 pt Times New Roman, 3 hole-punch content in black binders with scarlet interiors (vampires, anyone?), I was incredibly frustrated. They gave me six months to convert the content to the new standard, and doubted that it could be done in that time.

I had it done in a week (mark-up languages let you change the appearance of content very quickly with the application of a new stylesheet.) With the offer of a new job elsewhere, I got a bonus and promptly quit.

A headhunter had recruited me to Apple Canada as Manager of Instructional Design. I was fortunate to start working with Apple just before they released HyperCard, an easy-to-use software that allowed you to create a stack of “cards” (screens) that when the stack was run, ran like a multimedia program. I was responsible for working with the Cupertino office to develop training materials and hypercard design guidelines. We did some really exciting educational stacks and interactive online content. One of the most fascinating projects was with a car manufacturer. I designed a stack that allowed a service technician to troubleshoot problems with the car using text, sound and video. If the car was making a “funny” sound they could run through a library of sounds until they matched the sound then follow the service guidelines. They could read the text or if desired (e.g., when their head was buried in the bowels of the engine) they could have it talk them through the procedure. These were eBooks in the true sense of the word! This experience brought me into the “hypertext revolution” and in-depth exposure to multimedia. Out of this came my first paper “Hypermedia—A Web of Thought” presented at the STC Conference in 1988 and I went on to present “Writing for Hypermedia” at the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in 1989. I loved my job at Apple, but when the recession hit in 1989 I was laid off.

Not to be deterred, I began to consult in online content, content management, multimedia, instructional design, structured content and multichannel publishing. I’ve given 100’s of presentations, contributing chapters to books and writing books on these subjects. Along the way I felt the need to do some more learning of my own and got my Master of Information Science in 1997. True to my passion, my thesis was on “Impact of Multimedia in Online Content.”

It is strange to think that over 20 years have passed since Apple first introduced HyperCard and their vision for a tablet, but it wasn’t until the technology was in place that these concepts could really flourish, beginning first with the Kindle and exploding with the iPad. All I can say is FINALLY!

Aside from the “battle of the platforms” and the different formats, certainly not new in the world of disruptive technologies, it is the discussions that are beginning again on the effectiveness of reading online, the issues of hyperlinks in content, the value of interactive content in learning and comprehension, and whether online will replace paper. It is here that you’ll find me and my team bringing structure, methodology and sanity to content strategies for eBook design. I’m really looking forward to it!

3 Responses to Coming full circle: eBooks to eBooks

  1. Techquestioner August 10, 2010 at 6:53 pm #

    Some excellent ideas do not take off until technology catches up. I worked for a company developing interactive shopping using telephone and cable TV, which never got off the ground, about 10 years before Netscape launched the internet beyond text bulletin boards and forums.

    The first time I saw HTML, I was amazed at how much it resembled U. of Waterloo Script, and Unix nroff and troff. Ideas that work come back in new guises to be hailed as brand new by new audiences.

    Good luck in your new e-book endeavors, and I’ll look forward to the ideas you bring back to the rest of us.


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