Video: What Electronic-Book Interfaces Looked Like 20 Years Ago

Video: What Electronic-Book Interfaces Looked Like 20 Years Ago

March 17, 2013

An early pioneer of electronic books and interactive CD-ROMs, The Voyager Company had the misfortune of being many years ahead of the curve — and then, all of a sudden, a few years behind it.

When I joined Voyager as an editorial assistant in early 1994, the company was using its proprietary software toolkit to publish expanded digital editions of best-selling and classic books, as well as interactive CD-ROMs of films like A Hard Day’s Night and graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The company’s Expanded Books Toolkit was built on top of Apple’s HyperCard and served as the engine for dozens of electronic books, including officially licensed digital versions of print best-sellers such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, A Wrinkle in Time, and Jurassic Park. Expanded Books were distributed on floppy disks and were intended for reading on Mac desktops (and, a little later, laptops); the increased storage capacity of CD-ROMs enabled Voyager to be more ambitious with video, audio, and other extras.

One of Voyager’s co-founders was a guy named Bob Stein, and he’s still deeply engaged with the future of books in the digital age. His Vimeo account contains 28 vintage promo videos for Voyager CD-ROMs, ranging from A Hard Day’s Night and Maus to works by Shakespeare and Stephen Jay Gould. The videos in Stein’s account are a real trove for user-interface nerds and digitally inclined book lovers. Hey, that’s me! (Note, however, that I still prefer to read my books on paper.)

Here’s the promo for the CD-ROM of Macbeth, which includes an interactive feature called “Macbeth Karaoke”:

Here’s the promo for Spiegelman’s amazing Maus:

And here’s the promo for A Hard Day’s Night, which isn’t a book, but hey, it’s the Beatles, and in fact it was this CD-ROM that made me search out a job at Voyager in the first place:

Yes, that’s right: The movie itself was displayed at postage-stamp size, perhaps 160 pixels by 120 pixels. But as Stein points out in a comment on the video, “the post-it sized video window was the state of the art at the time.” And it was.

Alas, once the web came along, closed experiences like CD-ROMs lost much of their appeal, and Voyager floundered. This essay by Henrik Ahlen is a good overview of the reasons why Voyager’s vision ultimately failed in the 1990s marketplace. (The lead image for this post is from Ahlen’s essay.)