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Guest Post at AnscaMobile.com: If I Were a Rich Man

Here’s my guest blog post at Ansca Mobile’s Corona SDK blog:

I am a reluctant member of the app-making business, a recovering programmer/designer who has fallen off the wagon. This matters, because when I chose to base my ebook platform on Corona SDK, I chose it to minimize the programming involved.

See, if I were a rich man, I’d be in the jungles of Borneo reporting on the environmental and social destruction, gathering the sounds and photography and video and stories to make a book app. That’s where my passion is — shooting great pictures and telling important stories that have the chance to move people and change the world. Nice work if you can get it!

After a life of programming and design, I switched to photojournalism. I moved to Istanbul, Turkey, in 2001 and spent twelve years photographing in the mass graves of Kosovo, the wars in Macedonia and Iraq, the tsunami in Thailand, and the insurgency in eastern Turkey. I came back to the US in 2007 and photographed stories about wrongfully convicted people (see “Innocence Project”) and wildfires. Frankly, it’s been a lot of fun.

Here’s what I’m talking about: DavidGrossPhoto.com

So, if were a rich man, I’d hire a team of programmers and designers, some fancy San Francisco shop with an in-house pogo stick parking lot and a stuffed cow on the scrubbed, red-brick wall.

However, when you’re not rich, you just have to do things yourself. So, I built that ebook app myself. It’s been a long journey, but the platform is up and running. The latest apps built on the platform are “GG Bridge” (out now!) and “Ed Kashi” (out as soon as Apple finishes review). Even my book on Borneo is in progress because I was able to demonstrate to potential funders a working prototype.

It’s been a long slog.

About two years ago I started looking for a tool to build ebook apps. It took quite a while to find a system that worked for me. Adobe InDesign had some beta tools that looked promising — when they didn’t crash — but Adobe had prohibitively high publication fees. Apple’s Xcode looked great for an objective-C programmer, but years of PHP and CSS and Javascript work, I really didn’t want to learn another language and library, along with whatever huge set of quirks and bugs that would entail. Appcelerator and the other Javascript-based tools looked promising, but they turned out to be too slow (and often buggy) for the smooth user interaction a good ebook’s needs. I even tried the Baker Framework; in its early days, I successfully programmed sliding, cached pages in Javascript, inside of HTML 5, which was put into web-views. It almost worked, but was simply too unstable.

Many believe Corona is just a game platform, but I don’t agree. It turns out that if you want a smooth, fast, realistic user experience, you need a platform designed for speed. If you want clean graphics and animations, smooth and subtle, the kind that allow an ebook reader to NOT notice that she’s using a computer, then you need a platform which focuses on graphics and sound functionality.

I ended up reprogramming my Javascript ebook into Corona, and I had a working prototype in a week.

Lua is a bit of a joke on the other languages — compared even to PHP, it’s so easy to work with that you just want to laugh at the other guys. I can work PHP and Javascript and Perl, so I didn’t need to “learn” Lua. I just did it.

A year later, here’s what I’ve built: an ebook platform that lets you create an interactive ebook using XML code. I can export pictures and captions from Adobe Lightroom (using LR/Transporter) and create a photo ebook, with slide-up captions, in under 15 minutes.

My demo book is called “3 Stories,” built using InDesign for the layout, Lightroom for exporting, and the Corona platform for the app (free in the iTunes App Store).

For Ed Kashi, one of the world’s great photographers, I’ve built a book with text and zooming images, audio commentary, zooming contact sheets, and an interactive map (out soon, see “Ed Kashi” in the iTunes App Store).

For the California Historical Society, I used Corona to build “GG Bridge,” a visual history of the Golden Gate Bridge, just in time for the 75th Anniversary (this one is free on iTunes).

Now, I’m a step closer to spending less time programming, and more time making great ebooks. I’ve even turned apps into a side-business, making ebooks for other people.

Not bad for a platform commonly mistaken for a “game” system, right?

-David Gross

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