Touchpress at five

Touchpress at five

"A significant milestone in the marriage of text, photos and deep interactivity." Mac Slocum's interview from August 2010 with Theodore Gray is well worth revisiting. Months later, in February 2011 at O'Reilly Media's Tools of Change, we all saw the revolving, gleaming images of The Elements, luminous on the big screens in Gray's presentation. Objective-C programming and Wolfram's Mathematica were behind it, but, as Gray told Slocum, warming the hearts of Books in Browsers fans, "both the print and ebook versions started out as a website." With Touchpress now five years old and the maker of many apps, its founder Gray reminds us: "The common thread is that these technologies must be approached with the eye of an artist and a dreamer." -- Porter Anderson

Touchpress started life because I was terribly annoyed with the world for not having a platform on which I could publish the interactive electronic edition of my print book, The Elements (which existed fully formed in my little mind, and nowhere else).

The book had been well-received in print form, but I was always a little sad that not everyone could come to my office and see the objects in person, hold them, turn them around, and just appreciate their physical presence. What I wanted for these people was really quite simple: I wanted them to have Harry Potter’s edition of The Elements. You know, the one where all the objects pop up off the page and start spinning around in front of your eyes. There was just no platform on which I could build and sell such a thing, because, sadly, Harry Potter is fiction.

Fortunately Steve Jobs delivered unto us all the necessary platform when he announced the iPad a few months later. He even gave us a generous eight-week period between the announcement of the device and when it would actually start shipping. This was the time available to realize that an app of The Elements was possible (14 seconds), and that I desperately wanted to do it (3 seconds). Then I needed to call my friend Max (5 minutes), get him also to drop everything (2 minutes), and put together a team (that would be John, 1 day). From there we needed to invent a new style of ebook (1 week), create tools to make that kind of ebook (2 weeks), use those tools to lay out the app (2 weeks), decide that it really needed a theme song and build the music video (1 week), refine and finalize the product (1 week), create and execute a marketing plan for it (1 week), and finally, invent Touchpress to be the publisher of it (1 week – thank you Stephen for pointing out how important this bit was).

We submitted the app six days before the ship date of the iPad. Three days later it was included on the handful of iPads shipped to journalists just prior to the public release.

The most pleasing result of this was Stephen Fry tweeting “Alone worth the price of an iPad” about this thing that just two months earlier had been an irritatingly nonexistent thing. I’ll never forget those two months (to the extent that I remember any of it), and it has been immensely satisfying to see continue to live and even sell five years later, having been in TV commercials and billboards all over the world.

So, wow, Touchpress is five years old!

In that time the iPad and iPhone have been machines on which many dreams have come true, not just mine. This has always been true of computers. More so than in almost any other field, if a programmer has a dream, they have a pretty good chance of making it come true, limited only by their skill and dedication (and a few irritating practicalities of CPU speed and someone to pay the bills).

In this way programmers are not unlike artists and musicians, who also work in a field of limitless possibility, able to go anywhere their imagination takes them (within their technical skill and the need to put food on the table).

Our guiding principle at Touchpress has always been to bring together our passion as artists, writers, musicians, film makers, and programmers, and use it to explore and expand the power of the app medium to communicate. The world is full of wonder, and we want to tell people about it.

Our first non-science app, The Waste Land (image right), made even me think that poetry was interesting. Our first music app, The Orchestra (image below right with Esa-Pekka Solonen), remains to this day, I think, the most beautiful piece of software ever created by anyone, about anything, on any platform. Beethoven’s 9th blows away even professional musicians (especially professional musicians, who realize just exactly how impossible it is what we achieved with that product’s synchronized performance switching).

In these apps and the others we’ve made, the heart is always in an engine designed to help people understand, to broaden their horizons, to reach out to them. We reject ornament and distractions. We concentrate on power, clarity, and ultimate simplicity. We allow the subject to stand out front and center.

Companies grow and change, like all living things. In the past they grew like trees, over times measured in decades. Not so anymore! There may be no area of business more fast-paced than apps, where titanic shifts in the market are measured in months, not retirements. Many app companies act more like annual flowers than trees, regrowing from the tiny seeds that are all that is left of last year’s incarnation.

So in its five years in the app business, Touchpress has become both an elder statesman, and an ever-changing forest tableau. We’ve put out some of the world’s best apps (at least according to Apple, which called one of our apps the best of 2013, another one of the five best of all time, and many others as best of the week, best new, and so on). But resting on laurels isn’t an option in this world, so we’ve also changed with the times, moving towards free apps, subscriptions, and other things to come.

Looking to the future, it is clear that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what these dream machines are capable of. Whether the future is in flat things you hold in your hand, or nearly invisible things that inject three-dimensional worlds directly into your eyes and ears, the common thread is that these technologies must be approached with the eye of an artist and a dreamer.

Merely thinking about what the world wants gets you nowhere: You have to think about what the world ought to want, and just doesn’t know yet that it can’t live without. This is how all true innovation happens, and it is the core passion of the outstanding team of dreamers and doers that lies at the heart of Touchpress.

Image of Theodore Gray from his author page

Images of Touchpress apps from