“I can only assure you, I have all the zealotry and passion of a convert,” says Dan Snow over a crackly telephone line from Rome, where the TV historian is filming his next series. The passion, in this case, is for apps.
Snow is the frontman for Timeline World War 2 with Dan Snow, an iPad app that aims to provide an interactive spin on the second world war. But he was also heavily involved in its conception and production, working with publisher Ballista Media, developer Agant and British Pathé, which provided more than 100 archive videos.
The app is impressive, centred around a timeline of more than 2,000 events during the war, a dynamic map, and Snow’s own commentary on the Pathé videos. His enthusiasm for the medium is clear.
“If your desire is to give an encyclopaedic version of history, apps are simply a better vehicle than books and television programmes for doing it,” says Snow.
“That makes me sound heretical: I have a house full of books, and I love them. They’re wonderful for narrative history and fiction. But if you’re doing something encyclopaedic, compare trying to write about what a Spitfire looks and sounds like, versus showing some Pathé footage of it flying, side by side with my writing, and maps, and photographs, and a veteran talking about it…”
The development process of the app sounds interesting: history as metadata, with Snow admitting he spent three months “ready to kill myself” adding metatags to every key event from the second world war, in readiness for the different ways users might want to search the app.
He hopes the app will be successful enough to spawn more, as well as the chance to add in extra content to this one, including data packs for tanks, and more interviews with veterans of the war.
While the text in Timeline World War 2 was adapted from a pair of day-by-day books on the war, Snow thinks it’s important that the project wasn’t simply an attempt to port a print book onto iPad.
“This couldn’t be a book,” he says. “It’s not like we started by saying ‘Dan wrote a really good 20,000-word book, let’s stick it into an app…’ There aren’t bleeding great chunks of text that people have to get through. This began as an app, and we’ve tried to use the iPad for what it’s best at.”
Snow also thinks the potential for apps based on everything from history, archeology and astronomy – as well as tablet devices making their way into schools – has huge potential for education.
“It’s going to radically change the way we work in schools,” he says. “There have been arguments in the press about the way history is taught, with people saying kids don’t know when anything happened. Well, the timeline-based app is a pretty interesting way of getting around that, and developing more of an understanding.”
Snow is keen to stress that while these kind of apps let their users jump around and hone in on the events that interest them most, this doesn’t mean there’s less of a role for the historian’s voice.
In this case, that’s shown with his commentaries on the videos, as well as Snow’s summaries for each year during the war. He also points out that zooming out of the timeline to show the most important events is another reflection of his authorial voice – he’s chosen their importance.
For the future, Snow would like to get more historians involved to provide their perspectives, as well as the voices of veterans and evacuees. He’s also fascinated by the potential for user-generated content, to give people using the app a chance to contribute.
His passion is clear, but what about the TV industry that he works in? I ask Snow whether he sees more of an appetite from TV companies to build apps into new projects from the commissioning point, rather than at the marketing stage?
“I don’t see it, I’m sorry to say,” he says. “TV people are still very conservative, and while they’re still being paid to get viewing figures, that’s what they’re going to do. I haven’t seen much really innovative thinking about this beyond ‘we’ve got a nice series, let’s turn it into an app like we did in the old days with books’.”
Snow thinks this will have to change though. “Apps are going to be at the heart of commissioning, and that’s absolutely where they should be,” he says, expressing a desire for the kind of budget that would allow him to film original content for this kind of project.
If anything, book publishers have been quicker than TV companies to make these kinds of apps for subjects like history, literature and astronomy – witness Faber’s The Waste Land, Random House’s The Magic of Reality, HarperCollins’ Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe and others.
“The book guys are ahead,” agrees Snow. “The book industry has been staring annihilation in the face for quite a while, and they realise that apps are their salvation, potentially. I hope that TV changes: I’d love to find a way to marry them together, for example to look through the back catalogue of the BBC and release some of that through apps.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010