Developer profile: Behind the scenes
of Sam's Interactive Reader

by Mike Johnston

I am what most people would call a career entrepreneur. I am an avid Mac user and a start-up junkie. I have been programming and developing for more than 20 years. My first computer was a Commodore Vic 20. My core competencies include W3C XHTML, PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, Ajax, Flash, ActionScript 3, the Facebook platform, and, of course, Adobe AIR.

In 1997, I was a founding member of The About Time Group, which grew from a small start-up to a $5 million revenue generator in just under two years. In 2000, I cofounded Soholaunch and developed the first browser-based website builder and content management system leveraging PHP and MySQL. The product is still selling today as the basis of the free site builder for many web-hosting companies.

In May 2006, I started a company called MajikWidget — an online service that enabled bloggers to create customized polling and ranking widgets — that was sold to a private company in December 2007. We started Storybook Anytime in May 2007.

Storybook Anytime

I currently work as a freelance designer and developer for my company, MikeJSolutions, providing application design, development, and consulting services and focusing much of my energy on Storybook Anytime

The story behind Storybook Anytime

Storybook Anytime was born the day our daughter came home from preschool upset. Her class had read a book that day about brothers and sisters, and she is an only child. It was hard for her to understand why some of her friends had siblings yet she did not. What do you tell a four year old?

My wife searched for books that were written specifically for an only child. While she found hundreds of books written for parents, there were only two written for an only child. One book was out of print, and the other book was available by special order only.

We started talking with teachers and school officials about the situation and discovered that the books available in schools today are essentially the same books we grew up reading. That's not a bad thing; some represent great literature. But the themes and subject matter have not progressed with the times. There just aren't many contemporary stories available for children that focus on modern families.

My wife Angie had just left a production job with Cartoon Network after working there six years. We decided we both wanted to create a product that focused on children and allowed us to spend more time with our daughter. Her background and my technical expertise provided a perfect opportunity.

Character sketches

To start the company, we brought on two key partners. Senior Creative Director Mariano Vidal has an impressive animation portfolio that includes work for Coca-Cola, Disney, and Nickelodeon. He uses traditional drawing techniques to illustrate each story. Then he scans the artwork, does all the coloring, lighting, and texturing in Adobe Photoshop. My mother-in-law, Jane Jennings, has been working in broadcast television for more than 20 years. She oversees administration, partnership, and licensing. My wife, Angie Johnston, runs the day-to-day operations as our production manager and I serve as lead developer and technology advisor.

Although not officially part of the production team, our daughter remains our number-one fan and champions our content QA department. She reviews every story and provides feedback regarding our characters and the reading comprehension questions.

In the preplanning phase, we knew we needed a mascot — a central character within the application. We spent quite a bit of time tossing around names, but in the end, we decided on Sam (which stands for Storybook Anytime Mascot).

Concept art

Developing Sam's Interactive Reader

It took a little more than a year to complete the first ten stories that were included in our initial product release. Our first instinct was to develop an online service that would make money from a subscription model. We worked on these plans in parallel with story development and launched the first Storybook Anytime website in June 2008. We received a lot of feedback from users and discovered quickly that the subscription model was not popular because users didn't necessarily want to be connected to the Internet to view our content.

Internally, we discussed creating a downloadable application (for children's content) that would access new stories from the Internet and could function offline. Since the website didn't encompass the original vision we had for the company, we decided to switch the service to a transaction-based model. The application now known as Sam's Interactive Reader became our answer to this request.

The hardest part of making this decision was the frightening prospect of starting over and scrapping everything we had built online up to that point. We were hesitant to abandon more than a year of development work.

We began looking into options for developing a desktop product that could leverage the core code components from the current site. After doing some research, we determined that Adobe AIR was the only viable platform that would allow us to achieve our goal in a reasonable timeframe. If I could build a working prototype of the functionality in a short period of time, then we knew we could release a real product.

I began building the basic structure of the code. Within 30 days (working only nights and weekends), I developed a fully functional prototype of what would eventually become Sam's Interactive Reader.

Our team was excited about the AIR prototype. For the first time since the inception of the company, we had created something that resembled our original vision of the Storybook Anytime product.

As we prepared to release this new prototype to the public as a beta, it was important for us to realize that this was a new platform and a new model for Storybook Anytime. From experience, I've learned that the most important part of getting up to speed on a new platform is a solid understanding of prototyping and having the ability to throw away the first version.

Using the prototype as a functional model, we started carefully crafting the user interface and illustrations that would become Sam's Interactive Reader. I completely rebuilt the application from the ground up and spent another 45 days (working nights and weekends) ensuring that Sam's Interactive Reader was ready for prime time. We launched the new business model and the AIR application in October 2008.

Scamper and Nut nut

Sam's Interactive Reader is composed of standards-based XHTML, JavaScript, FLV, and ActionScript 3 components for the front end. It uses Ajax to communicate with a MySQL database system via PHP on the back end.

This project was my first AIR application, although I had experimented with the platform when it was in early alpha release. Getting up to speed with AIR was actually very easy. Most of my experience in developing with JavaScript and ActionScript helped offset the learning curve.

Getting my arms around the nuances of local processing was probably the most challenging. With web applications, the network is always on, but with local applications, that is not always the case.

I also encountered some issues with the initial integration of Flash content (SWF). By default, the Flash security model is designed for Internet applications. This poses some issues when working with an open file system locally. The bridge works well, but it is limited when it comes to deep interaction with the file system and Adobe AIR itself.

A successful launch

Adobe AIR Marketplace has been instrumental to our launch plan and marketing strategy for Sam's Interactive Reader (see Figure 1). We have seen about 7,800 downloads directly from Adobe AIR Marketplace, and that number is growing incrementally daily.

AIR Marketplace
Figure 1. Sam's Interactive Reader is one of the most popular applications on Adobe AIR Marketplace.

To popularize Storybook Anytime and create brand impression, my background in social media and marketing led me to develop a Facebook application called Sam's Fish Bowl (see Figure 2). This interactive Flash application enables users to adopt, customize, and feed their fish. When users interact with the Facebook application, they earn feeder points, which can be used in upcoming releases to personalize your experience.

Sam’s Fish Bowl — a free Facebook application
Figure 2. Sam's Fish Bowl — a free Facebook application — promotes Sam's Interactive Reader and lets users earn points to download new stories.

We launched Sam's Fish Bowl in December 2008. Since Sam's Interactive Reader is built with Adobe AIR, it can be downloaded directly from the Sam's Fish Bowl application on Facebook. We are already seeing trends that indicate users of Sam's Fish Bowl are downloading Sam's Interactive Reader and then purchasing stories.

Submit your content

Since much of the literature available in schools is outdated, we're focused on presenting high-quality, contemporary content that is relevant and engaging to kids. That's why we recently launched the Creative Submission site to enable content creators to submit and sell their stories, games, videos, and songs in FLV, QuickTime, and MP3 formats.

We hope to discover new authors and content creators who share our commitment to distributing timely, entertaining content to kids. If you have stories or content that you'd like to submit, please visit our Creative Submission site.


We are excited to be part of the Adobe AIR development community, to help schools with literacy programs (for free), and to provide environmentally friendly reading materials. In the immediate future, we are focused on the release of Storybook Anytime 2.0. We currently have about 40 new stories in production, and the new version of the application, which is slated for June 2009, includes many new features and activities.

Download Sam's Interactive Reader

Visit the Adobe AIR Marketplace

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Mike Johnston is a creative and passionate evangelist for user-centric websites and applications. He has been in the business for over 20 years and is focused on Storybook Anytime's overall product and marketing strategy. He has worked with clients such as Sony, Warner Brothers, Nike, Google, Turner Broadcasting, and ADP.