Paper’s great for some things, but when it comes to reading and taking notes, the traditional medium is mediocre at best. And when iPad apps try to replicate paper, things get even worse.
“It doesn’t work,” said Craig Tashman, developer of the LiquidText PDF Reader app, which Apple showcased in an iPad ad this week. “They end up inheriting the deficiencies of paper without really inheriting the things that make it work.”
Tashman talked with Cult of Mac about his quest to reinvent paper, and the massive benefit of having a $945 billion tech giant giving an indie developer some props.
LiquidText PDF Read: An iPad app worthy of a stylus
LiquidText is part of a new generation of iPad apps that highlight the tablet’s versatility and make the most of Apple Pencil. It’s a smart PDF markup tool designed for reviewing and annotating PDF files, web pages, and Word and PowerPoint documents.
Steve Jobs famously said that if Apple customers ever saw the company releasing a stylus, something had gone seriously wrong. However, when the innovative Apple Pencil debuted in 2015, it underlined the iPad’s status as a great productivity tool.
Lots of stylus-based apps borrow the paper metaphor by letting you scribble words onto a document, much as you might write in the margins of a book. In some cases, that’s enough. Signing a PDF version of a contract is now easier than ever, for example.
However, in other situations you need to go further. You might want to link ideas in different sections of the same document, combine information from different documents while retaining links to the originals, or pull off other feats that just aren’t possible with regular dumb paper.
“Things like organizing your thoughts, gathering knowledge spanning different documents, finding connections, taking notes without losing their context — which are all hard to do on paper — are generally all hard to do in digital as well,” Tashman said. “LiquidText makes this easy. It’s designed around the way you think, not around paper.”
LiquidText PDF Reader works beautifully, precisely because Tashman scrapped the paper concept. His powerful app lets you add in-depth annotations and edits that simply can’t be done using the regular “comment” features found on the likes of Google Docs.
Apple support gives LiquidText a boost
LiquidText PDF Reader started out as Tashman’s graduate thesis at Georgia Tech, where he studied human-computer interaction. After realizing that paper is “actually a pretty mediocre reading medium,” Tashman coded up a prototype. Soon, people began asking him to buy it.
After he graduated, Tashman and a team of colleagues launched the app into the App Store. So far, more than a million people have downloaded LiquidText PDF Reader.
The latest iPad ad isn’t the only support the team has gotten from Cupertino. In 2015, Apple named an early version of LiquidText the year’s most innovative iPad app. In just two weeks, iPad owners downloaded it an extra 100,000 times.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a really broad user base,” Tashman said. “We have everyone from airline pilots using it for taking notes on flight manuals, to scientists using it for research, analysts using it for going over SEC filings, all the way to lawyers.”
Get LiquidText for free
Tashman won’t spill the beans on when Apple approached him about his app’s appearance in the “Paperless Paperwork” iPad ad. The 15-second spot contrasts office drones riffling through messy piles of papers with a LiquidText user breezily annotating a document with an Apple Pencil.
Although the iPad ad never mentions LiquidText PDF Reader by name, Tashman said he’s immensely happy with the portrayal of his app. “We’re thrilled,” he said. “The ad brilliantly captures the problem of paper, and recognizes that digital should not be about imitating paper.”
As for a sales boost? It’s too early to tell how big the ad’s impact will be. Nonetheless, things are looking good. “We did have a very strong day today, especially among students,” Tashman said.
If you want to experience the power of going beyond paper, you can download LiquidText PDF Reader from the App Store for free. You can unlock premium features through an in-app purchase.