There’s an app for that…

This evening I was horrified to pick up my phone and discover that during today’s long car journey home from Northumberland, one of my ever-helpful (ever-optimistic) teenagers had loaded the McDonald’s Finder app. A bridge too far in so many ways.

But at the same time, I was amused. I’ve been thinking about apps a lot recently, for many reasons and from many angles. This evening’s horrible discovery brought a recurring thought into sharp focus: I’m coming to the view that the notion of  ”Book apps” is simultaneously tautology and an oxymoron. Paradoxical? Maybe. But let me explain…

“App” is shorthand for “application”. Although many of us think of “apps” as things we buy from Apple through the app store – Apple don’t have a trademark on the word “app” (although they did apply for one on the phrase “there’s an app for that”). I like Wikipedia’s opening paragraph on apps:

Application software is all the computer software that causes a computer to perform useful tasks beyond the running of the computer itself. A specific instance of such software is called a software applicationapplication or app.

And their introduction to Mobile Apps:

mobile application (or mobile app) is a software application designed to run on smartphonestablet computers and other mobile devices. …The term “app” has become popular, and in 2010 was listed as “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society… Mobile apps were originally offered for general productivity and information retrieval, including email, calendar, contacts, and stock market and weather information. However, public demand and the availability of developer tools drove rapid expansion into other categories, such as mobile games, factory automation, GPS and location-based servicesbanking, order-tracking, and ticket purchases.

Wikipedia is also quite good on the definition of a book:

book is a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of inkpaperparchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is called a leaf, and each side of a leaf is called a page. A set of text-filled or illustrated pages produced in electronic format is known as an electronic book (e-book).

Books may also refer to works of literature, or a main division of such a work. In library and information science, a book is called a monograph, to distinguish it from serial periodicals such as magazinesjournals or newspapers.

It seems to me that the notion of a “book app” is tautologous because apps exist to perform useful tasks. In a pre-digital world the print book was the app – and the useful task it performed was to act as a vehicle to house and convey words, ideas, stories and information separately from the act of speaking those words. And “book app” is also an oxymoron, because digitally speaking, a book is not an app (and never will be) and an app is not a book (although there are apps whose task is to mimic print books).

Apps perform useful tasks, and many of the best apps perform useful tasks that maximise the functions available on the device via which they are consumed (apps that mimic paper books seem to me to reject the functionality of the device, rather than to embrace it). The National Rail app permits me to use my phone to plan rail travel, and I use it most days of my working life. It marries real-time information with geolocation, and in doing so makes my travelling life much less frustrating than it used to be. My teenagers evidently believe that the existence of the McDonald’s app on my phone will increase the effectiveness of their pester power (who knows, they may be right).

I think that for traditional print publishers, telling ourselves that books are not apps and apps are not books (and that “book app” is a singularly unhelpful label) could be a useful mantra. Repeat it daily and we might start realising that apps are not a threat or a blind alley. They’re an opportunity to create experiences that enable people do useful things with content, beyond just reading it. That experience may be entertainment, or learning something new (like a language, how to knit or service a car engine) or planning a journey. Once you start thinking this way, the possibilities are endless.

For those of us with appropriate content, thinking about what useful tasks and experiences our content might play a part in (or be revealed through) is an opportunity to diversify our businesses and our revenue streams by devising apps that, in the context of our overall businesses, add to the sum of the parts. McDonalds and National Rail have done it. Why can’t we?

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