Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dublin's Ideal Binary Living the Fairy Tale

Among the many interesting things about app-land is that businesses can pop up anywhere you can imagine: a loft in downtown Chicago, a yurt in outer Mongolia. When we read about Dublin-based Ideal Binary and their award-winning adaptations of Grimm's fairytales for the iPad and iPhone, we wanted to find out more about this Irish business (not to mention we have fantasies about moving to the old sod someday). So we contacted Aidan Doolan, who started Ideal Binary with his twin brother, Kevin Doolan. 

DotMomming: Who is Ideal Binary and why did you decide to enter the app business? Do you produce books for kids exclusively? Or are you game developers as well? Why Dublin?

Aidan Doolan: Ideal Binary was founded by my twin brother and me in 2008. We were born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, and that's where we live with our wives and families. Location isn't so much of a barrier to doing business globally any more.

We have a long background in the games industry, and have worked on many games titles for companies like Sony, Disney, Konami, and others in the past, and our chairman, Barry O'Neill, also brings extensive commercial experience to the business from companies like Bandai Namco.

We decided to enter the app business because we could see an opportunity to create something no one else had created before - and we set about building the technology platform PopIris to allow us to realise this goal. Our experience in the games industry building high-performance 3D graphics engines and 3D physics engines, along with our experience as artists and animators, has given us a technological advantage over others in this space.

We are currently focused on family-friendly book apps, and we see this as continuing to be the focus of the business - but as we grow we'll expand our products, targeting into different family interest areas aimed at a wider age base.

DM: The picture book app market has changed dramatically since you entered the scene in 2010 with Grimm's Rumpelstiltskin. While there were just a handful of app producers then, it's a very different ballgame now. More and even bigger publishing houses are putting books out there now (Scholastic and other heavyweights). How can a small house like Ideal Binary compete?

AD: It's true, there seems to be an ever growing gold rush with numerous small and large book app producers entering the market every day. Survival rates are very low, however, with many of these (even some of the large ones) under-performing or even generating losses for their publishers. All of our apps so far have been highly profitable. One of the reasons for this is that we focus on producing unique, high-quality book apps that provide a significant wow factor. It's the wow factor that gets people talking about our apps. This helps us tackle the problem of app discovery to a large degree, and it means we have a competitive advantage. Our technology allows us deliver the "wow factor" at a reasonable production cost.

DM: How do you reach parents about your books? When I slog through the App Store, I have a hard time deciding on what books to consider for my kids. Do you have suggestions for weary parents trying to connect their kids to quality picture book apps?

AD: Thankfully, we have built a very large satisfied customer base for our interactive book apps. When we release a new product, we are able to get the word our very quickly to an audience that knows and trusts our work.

The problem of app discovery for parents is a difficult one. First and foremost, I would recommend that parents talk to their friends about what book apps have impressed them. There are also numerous review sites and blogs, such as this one, that offer good information. This will help provide parents with all the information they need to make good, informed decisions about which kids book apps to purchase and which ones to avoid.

DM: When I was reading your apps with my kids, I was pleased to see my 6-year-old taking his time with the text pages in between the pop-up activity pages. I thought it was a great balance and was pleased that I didn't have to compete with his little fingers tap-tap-tapping on clouds and stars, etc., when he was supposed to be reading. Can you talk about what goes into your decision-making in producing books. How do you strike a balance between whistles and bells vs. literary content?

AD: Above all, the most important component of any kids book app is the story, and the entertainment and educational value that can be drawn from it. We only add interactivity at key points in the story where there is an opportunity to weave the reader into the story itself. We avoid adding bells and whistles interactivity to the text pages because it simply distracts the reader from the story. There are exceptions to this, of course. You may see some examples of this in our upcoming book apps. Again, the interactivity is only added where it can enhance and not distract from the story. We see a lot of apps that try to achieve too much onscreen and overwhelm the user. Design of these aspects is key.

The interactivity we add to the pop-up scenes is largely drawn from experience with my own kids. For example, my youngest daughter initially had problems carrying out lists of instructions in the correct order. To help her with this, my wife and I would walk her through simple tasks and get her to repeat them. One task was to first plant some flower seeds and only then water them to help them grow. This of course became the first pop-up scene in Grimm's Rapunzel. After she completed a task correctly, we praised her to help positively reinforce what she had learned. She no longer has any problems with sequencing. This is how we try to present all of the interactivity in our kids book apps.

DM: The lines between "book" apps and games and movies are blurring. What is your take on picture book apps and early literacy? What do you see as the impact these new beasts will have on kids who are born into an iPad world?

AD: While we see a degree of crossover between the different mediums, in reality there's less blurring of the boundaries than some might believe. In the mid-1990s when CD-ROMs started to take off, the media started talking about exactly the same thing. It was forecast that games and movies in particular would merge. Actors like Mark Hammel started lending their talent to game/movie hybrids like the Wing Commander series. Yet here we are almost two decades later, and movies are still movies and games are still games.

We do believe there is a revolution taking place right now with book apps, and that's what we're trying to take the lead on. People (and kids in particular) learn most when they are immersed in engaging experiences they can enjoy. You've heard the Confucius quote, "Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life." The same is true of learning. If you can find a learning experience that isn't a chore for your child, they stand to learn so much more from it without feeling like it's a boring process. It's these kinds of experiences that we try to embody in our interactive children's books. These experiences can enhance skills like literacy (for more than one language), sequencing, understanding the benefits of a healthy diet, obedience, and kindness.

The impact of this type of learning on children will ultimately mean they can acquire these skills sooner. That means they have the potential for a richer, healthier life. As a parent, that means a lot to me, as I'm sure it does to most parents.

DM: You've made a splash with your pop-up Grimm books, which also include Red Riding Hood. What's ahead? Will you continue to put your own spin on classic fairy tales? Or do you plan to take on new authors and original stories? Do you feel that there is money to be made off new talent -- there is risk involved there in taking on unknowns -- is it worth your time and money?

AD: We're delighted with the success of our book apps so far, and we'll be accelerating our development and publishing outputs. We plan on continuing the Grimm's series. We have the next book app well under way, and we're very excited about this one. We also have a second line of book apps under way which focus more on early learning. We plan to continue innovating with new approaches to engaging our growing audience. We'll also be enhancing our technology with new interactive features with each new book release.

We will likely be partnering with established brand holders at some point in the future. We're not opposed to working with new authors, but as you say, the risks are higher with unproven brands and stories.

DM: What's the biggest lesson learned so far in the past year of this rapidly changing business?

AD: The biggest lesson we've learned so far is the realisation that to succeed in this market, a fine balance needs to be struck between features and production efforts and costs. Too many people have entered the book app market dreaming of Angry Birds style success and have over invested in products that have underperformed. There are 58,000 apps in the Books category vs. 73,000 in Games. But Games represents more than 60 percent of app downloads, whereas Books is probably less than 5 percent. That's a massively competitive environment, and you need to scale your efforts and expectations accordingly. We're happy that the approach we're taking to interactive kid's books works and is proving highly profitable even with that huge amount of growing competition in this space.

DM: What's your biggest goal for the next year?

AD: Our biggest goal for the next year is to scale our business while continuing to innovate. We've had a wonderful time making our interactive kids books, and we're very excited about the road ahead. We hope our customers are too.

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