Purvi Shah, mother of two, was not comfortable with technology and e-books. She preferred reading out stories from books to her children. When an iPad arrived at the Shah household, Purvi's husband downloaded the ‘Annual Haircut Day app' for their three-year-old son. “Annual Haircut Day is one of my son's all-time favourite books. Although I was anti-gadgets, I showed the book to him on the iPad. That was his first brush with gadgets.” Purvi was taken aback at how comfortable her son was with the iPad. “He started flipping the pages and navigating the screen. He figured it all out on his own. Since it was an audio book app, he didn't need me to read out stories to him anymore.” This app, created by Fliplog, is just one among the many storybook apps created for smartphones and tablet computers based on Indian content. While apps based on classics such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Green Eggs and Ham, Rapunzel, Alice in Wonderland, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit are out in the Western market, the Indian ones are slowly catching on.
Naavica Systems is a Bangalore-based company that develops apps for iPhones and iPads. Its founder and director Ramesh Mahalingam observed that kids handled iPads the most in a household. “When I noticed that trend, we decided to focus on developing children's books apps,” says Ramesh, whose first app titled ‘Selected Tales' has e-versions of books such as Jataka Tales and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Ramesh also created a vernacular e-book reader app called ‘Tamil Tales 1-5' based on Bharathi Publications' Puthaga Poongoththu series for children. “At that time, Apple did not lay down restrictions on what an app had to do. We pre-built our apps with the books. Once you downloaded it, you could read the books on your iPad. Subsequently with the launch of iBooks, we had to add extra features to an e-book for it to be featured in the apps store online.” That is when Ramesh created an app that allows users to read, listen to and record stories. When he came to know about Pratham Books and their Creative Commons licensed titles, he chose a few of their books and developed the ‘Speak-A-Book' app.
Gautam John, projects manager at Pratham Books, says their content can be copied, distributed and built upon by anyone. That's how a number of their titles have been used to create apps across multiple platforms, by companies such as NineApp, MeMe Tales and Fliplog. Tulika Publishers were one of the first publishing houses to work with content developers to produce digital books and apps across digital storytelling devices and portals. Niveditha Subramaniam, assistant editor, Tulika Publishers, points out that the content for these apps have to be tailored differently. “Content is key whether in the printed or e-versions of a book. The stronger and more imaginative the content, the more nourishing it is for the child. And that is the challenge for publishers like us.”
Developing an app
Developing an app is expensive and it involves a lot of resources, says Ramesh. “If you want to jazz up your app, you need to record music and video in a professional way. In India, I personally haven't seen such jazzy apps. The ones being produced are more basic in nature because the returns are not very high.” Children's writer Sowmya Rajendran, who has had the experience of working with a digital education company, feels we do not have the technical know-how and the originality to develop apps such as Bartleby's Book of Buttons, like our counterparts. She says, “We try to ape whatever is hitting the A-list in the U.S.”
Both Gautam and Niveditha have found it challenging to find portals that support multilingual digital content. “We are known as multilingual publishers in the print medium. We're particular about retaining this identity in the digital content we produce as well,” says Niveditha. “There are technical issues while working with languages, so this too has been a concern.” Gautam adds that very few multilingual publishers publish in Unicode (a standard that enables multilingual computing) and that hinders multilingual publishing on digital platforms. Ramesh, who developed the ‘Tamil Tales' app, says, “There is not much sales with respect to multilingual iPad content. People prefer downloading apps in English.”