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Building a Tablet App In-House - 7/9/2013 -

A publishing team from the Academy of Model Aeronautics maintains that anyone can create an app given the right amount of curiosity and persistence.

By Steve Ford

When we consider apps of any sort, not just magazine apps, most of us take it on faith that these media marvels are the creations of those who earn their livelihoods from cybercraft. While this may be true to a great extent, what is not well known is that anyone can create an app given the right amount of curiosity and persistence.

At the recent 2013 Association Media & Publishing Annual Meeting Pre-Conference, Chad Budreau, multimedia manager of publications, discussed how he and his team have successfully created multimedia apps at the Academy of Model Aeronautics. App creation is not easy, and Budreau made that point within the first several minutes. Depending on how one approaches the task, it might require learning how to write HTML code, or grappling with the intricacies of ePub formatting. Even so, the chief advantage to undertaking such an exercise is the amount of control the app creator has over the final product.

Without going into exhaustive detail, Budreau offered examples of apps created through raw HTML coding. As would be expected, many eyes in the audience glazed over within seconds. However, Budreau soon skipped ahead to somewhat "friendlier" methods, such as creating layouts in InDesign and then exporting the results as ePub files that would later become apps. According to Budreau, apps created in this fashion were best for text-heavy publications since controlling the final positions of graphic elements can be unpredictable at best.

Next in line was Adobe DPS, which Budreau's group had used initially. However, he found the software to be an expensive and overly complicated tool for app creation. Despite being an Adobe product, Budreau emphasized that it wasn't possible to simply convert existing Adobe print publishing PDFs to apps. One must still build the magazine app from the ground up.

Because of the ongoing issues with Adobe DPS, Budreau stated that the AMA was investigating alternatives. Two he mentioned were Mags+ and Twixel, both of which are InDesign plugins.

Budreau cautioned several times that app creation was far from being plug-and-play, at least for the time being. He drew a few gasps when he stated that his team often spent as long as 60 hours creating a single app for just one issue of a magazine.

Considering the various app platforms in the market today, Budreau warned that the AMA had the most difficulty with Android apps. "One size fits all" does not apply uniformly in this environment. Budreau illustrated the point by describing how easy it was to get their apps included in the Google app store. "Compared to the pain of working with Apple, it was a breeze. But later we realized that the reason it was easy was because Google didn't care whether our apps functioned well or not. In contrast, Apple cared very much. Apple put us through the wringer, but the result was a better product."

In closing, Budreau offered the following advice for anyone considering DIY app development:

Think long term. That is, consider the needs of your readers and the functionality of your app years into the future, and design accordingly.

Treat apps as new, stand-alone publications in their own right, not as simple replications of your current flagship magazines.

Spread the app development workload among your staff. Many are happy to learn new skills.

Test your apps extensively among your members. Reward those who participate with free memberships, etc.

Cross-promote the existence of your apps between the apps themselves and your print publications.

Make use of XML to help streamline the production process.

Tailor your apps for your readers. For example, if the average age of your audience is over 60, use larger type and large icons for easier viewing.

Steve Ford editor in chief, QST Magazine, at ARRL The National Association for Amateur Radio. Association Media & Publishing thanks him for covering this Annual Meeting event for our members who were unable to attend.


 

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