By Daniel Kalder
Read Forward (ReadFwd for short) was established in Bucharest in March 2012 by two entrepreneurs, Cristian Dinu and Paul Balogh. The two men have very different backgrounds: Dinu had worked for IBM, where he wrote high performance software for the company, while Balogh is a veteran of the Romanian publishing industry who in 2011 became the director of the first company dedicated entirely to publishing ebooks for one of the most prestigious publishers in Eastern Europe. After working together for several years on large e-commerce projects, they decided to found their own company and Read Forward was born- its mission? “Teaching old dogs new tricks,” says Paul Balogh, Managing Partner of Read Forward.
“…i.e. bringing technology in the cultural world and culture in the technology world. There is a huge gap between the two worlds, because technology advanced exponentially in the last decades while culture continued to evolve mainly in disregard of these advances.”
In the year and a half since it was founded, Read Forward has been active in creating new products that seek to fulfill this goal of fusing technology and culture. Among them is Lectia Verde (The Green Lesson), which the company launched in March 2013. Balogh describes it as “…the first Romanian digital textbook: a massive ecology textbook (350+ pages) used in schools all over the country, full with gorgeous graphics, widgets, animations and videos. We did the digital version, first for iPad. We hope we’ll soon finish the html version.”
“Luxury” Digital Editions of Public Domain Classics
Another interesting project is a luxury, illustrated English language digital edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Balogh explains:
“We aimed to bring the beauty of a printed illustrated book in a pure digital format. We think we succeeded to create the best reading experience anyone can have when it comes to this Fitzgerald work. We made it available to iPads and Kindles everywhere where the copyright permitted (i.e. the world minus US). Apple featured us heavily. For us this has been a real compliment and an acknowledgement of the quality of our work.”
The Great Gatsby was just the pilot, however. Following its successful reception, Read Forward plans to issue illustrated luxury editions in the Read Forward Enhanced Editions series. Next on the slate are The Picture of Dorian Gray and Moby Dick.
A related project is the Read Forward Editions series, which Balogh says the company started as a means to encourage “quality e-reading.” Balogh explains the genesis of the project lay in a frustration with which anybody who rushed to download a bunch of free books to his e-reader will be familiar: “Most of the classics are available for free but the EPUBs are carelessly produced and the overall reading experience is damaged. We are working on bringing carefully selected public-domain titles to the general public but we take good care to present the content in the best way we can. The almost 40 titles we have published so far are extremely well-received. We usually rank first worldwide when someone searches for one of the authors we published. Try F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
Read Forward has also produced book apps for children, but the company’s latest project, one that was promoted heavily in Frankfurt, is LearnFwd, and which has just been launched. Balogh is excited about this new product aimed at the educational market, which he describes as “a cutting-edge learning management system” before adding rather impishly: “What a boring name for such a wonderful piece of software…”
Balogh explains that LearnFwd is a web-based software that allows the user to have real-time interaction starting from a HTML5 textbook: “Think Facebook for education,” he says. The main features are that it is web-based which means that unlike most learning management systems, schools will not need expensive servers, system administrators or even particularly powerful for students to access the software:
“We took all this pain away: our system is web-based. Nothing to install, nothing to maintain, no need for local servers, storage, or any of the ‘classical’ pains. Do you have a browser and an internet connection? Good, you are ready to use our software. Mac, Windows, Linux, iPhone, iPad, Android, everyone is invited.”
LearnFwd also supports HTML5 textbooks, parting with Flash (the previous choice for educational software) and opening its gates for what Balogh describes as “…a mobile, interconnected world, very modern and appealing to the students we are trying to teach. There is nowadays a massive migration of educational resources towards HTML-based solutions. EPUB3 — it’s HTML. Apple’s iBooks — it’s also HTML. EPUB3 has not yet succeeded to catch the frontline in HTML5 textbooks format war. Why we say this: there’s no established reader, the specifications are not out yet from the draft mode, etc. Overall it is too complicated.
Balogh points to Inkling as a good example of a company utilizing HTML5: “They chose the same path as we did, with the technology they had two years ago. Just build simple HTML5 textbooks that all web developers can understand and all teachers and students can use. However we also provide a platform to read these textbooks on and, more importantly, a platform that allows real-time interaction.”
Real Time Learning Akin to Facebook
Balogh compares this “real time” aspect of LearnFwd to Facebook. “You know how Facebook instantly announces you (without refreshing the page) that a friend posted something noteworthy? Wouldn’t that be a neat feature for an educational platform built specifically for the ‘Facebook generation?’ We did away with the necessity to refresh pages, to submit forms or to save information.”
LearnFwd, says Balogh is a web platform that behaves like an app. Teachers’ and other students’ input is instantly delivered to the user’s page without needing to refresh; nothing needs to be sent: “Everything you write down, your answers to quizzes, etc. are sent directly to the server and distributed to its intended recipient (teacher, students or just your own private account).” The users progress is saved automatically in real time, so nothing can be lost. Meanwhile, teachers can control directly what a student does and sees on his or her device. Says Balogh: “No more “turn to page nr. 17” — you, as a teacher, can sync everybody to where you are right now within the textbook and… be in control of what the students see and do.”
Read Forward has a permanent staff of five and “and several close collaborators.” Programming, content and project management takes place in Bucharest, although for design and illustration the firm collaborates with artists “everywhere.” Meanwhile Balogh adds: Our software is used world-wide. Apps are usually both in Romanian and English and all ebooks are in English. LearnFwd, the educational platform, is already used in Romania and Bulgaria, so we localized the interface. But the main language is English always and as a consequence it is used and accessed from everywhere.”
Currently, Balogh has two goals: “Our product is already used in two countries, both in high-schools and universities. We are looking for two types of contacts: 1. to implement pilot projects in any school, high-school or university interested in our product and 2. to get HTML content for our platform. People can use our free open-source authoring tool to produce content for this platform. So, we are looking for publishers interested in exploring the HTML5 solution to digital textbooks. Our authoring tool produces both content for the platform and stand-alone HTML5 textbooks. And it will soon be available for everybody.”
Read Forward is looking to discuss opportunities with any and all. For appointments please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.