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Building Books for Mobile

fixing the firewire port of an iPod 1G

Mobile devices and tablets are at the center of new debates on interactive textbooks and educational applications–and, thanks to the growing interest, there are many options for development tools. As Jason Farman described last week, there are lots of exciting ways to integrate mobile devices and tablets in the classroom. Developing your own mobile resources, or inviting your students to try it, is possible even without coding experience and is a great way to see for yourself the possibilities and limitations in these applications.

Fundamentally, building in HTML5–with the Canvas, JavaScript and JQuery Mobile–allows for development across devices. HTML5 can replace proprietary extensions, and avoid the native environments of any of these devices. But there are some tools to consider across some popular platforms, particularly for easily building interactive books:

Android: When Google Labs shut down, the student-friendly mobile development tool was taken over by MIT’s Center for Mobile Learning. While they’re still working on a full release of their own hosted App Inventor service, the entire project is now open-source and it’s already possible to deploy the service privately, including for classroom use. As App Inventor uses a visual programming language, it’s both a tool for simple mobile application building and learning code basics. And an added bonus–because Android is a (relatively) open platform, it’s a lot easier to see those applications make it to the device.

Apple: The new iBooks Author, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick reported on from the Apple Education event, offers Mac users a free tool for experimenting with interactive books, and it doesn’t require any programming skills to use. It can also be a great platform for informal publications, as right now it’s possible to offer books authored in the tool for free in Apple’s iBooks store. However, it’s not at all easy to port the finished work over to another ebook format, although the end-user license agreement has been updated to clarify that authors using the platform still own their content. The widgets feature also makes the platform easier to extend, with tools like Class Widgets offering a glimpse of the possibilities, as Sherman Dorn wrote about in his blog post on some of the possibilities for iBooks Author textbooks.

EPUB: True open-access ebook projects are best supported by the EPUB format, which has ebook editor solutions of its own including the relatively user-friendly open source tool Sigil. Sigil also offers WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) editing, although it currently lends itself more to traditional projects and doesn’t support the latest integration. is also a good choice for enhanced conference proceedings and other potential works that would be severely limited in their audience if they were only deployed to a single device. The just-announced Project Readium, with the goal of accelerating support for EPUB 3.0′s HTML5 compatible format, might open the doorway to more interactive projects in the format soon. There’s also the newly-released Booktype, an open source platform with an elegant editing interface that supports most formats.

Windows Phone: While a relatively new player, Windows Phone had already made a strong push towards opening its development environment. The Windows App Hub offers the development tools along with “quick start” tutorials for basic development.  The reliance on Silverlight or XNA makes these tools less beginner friendly, but it’s a remarkably powerful environment available for free experimentation.

Have you explored mobile development tools for any device? Share your favorites in the comments!

[Creative Commons Licensed Photo by Flickr User purecanesugar]

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