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A Brief History of The Elements

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Aaron Tunney is a Software Engineer at Touch Press, and was part of the core team who made our latest release of The Elements for OS X possible. Here Aaron takes us through a brief history of The Elements and the process of developing for the Mac App Store.

All apps written by Touch Press are special but The Elements is particularly special; The Elements is the app that launched Touch Press.

Way back in the distant past of 2010, the founders of Touch Press heard rumours that Apple was developing a whole new kind of computing device. A device that would revolutionise how people interact with content. Theodore Gray had already written the wonderful print edition of The Elements and the founders of Touch Press decided that it would make a fantastic iPad app. With only a couple of months until the launch of Apple’s mysterious new tablet and without a test device to hand, John Cromie set about building The Elements for iPad. The plan was not just to replicate the print edition but to take the book to the next level.

After more than a few late days, The Elements made it into the App Store ready for the iPad’s launch and really captured the spirit of what Apple was trying to achieve with the iPad. The app was featured heavily in Apple’s television and print adverts for the original iPad and its success gave rise to Touch Press Ltd. Without The Elements, none of the other wonderful Touch Press apps would have been possible.

Fast forward a couple of years and I join Touch Press as a software developer. I had already been working in the smartphone industry for around eight years at this point but I was writing fairly unglamorous operating system software. What I don’t know – and a lot of what I do know – about SMS isn’t worth knowing. Now was my chance to do something fun and something easier to explain to friends down the pub.

The first project that I got to work on was a major update to The Elements for iPad. I remember feeling daunted by being handed the crown jewels of Touch Press on my first day. It was both a big honour and a big responsibility! After the update was released, The Elements was again used in Apple’s adverts and to get that level of recognition was really pleasing. Seeing The Elements plastered all over the London Underground never stopped putting a smile on my face.

And now comes the next edition of The Elements – The Elements for OS X!

The Elements is our first title to be remade for Apple’s desktop operating system, OS X. It’s been an interesting and, at times, challenging project to work on. Under the hood, iOS and OS X share a lot in common. However, there are enough differences to ensure that I was kept on my toes throughout the project.

The most immediately obvious difference is in screen size and resolution. The iPad supports just two resolutions – 1024×768 pixels (iPad 1, 2 and mini) and 2048×1536 (iPad 3 and 4). On Mac, we have to support everything from 800×600 pixels (a basic projector) up to a whopping 2880×1800 (the newest and shiniest retina MacBook Pro). Creating an app that works well on any screen size is an interesting challenge but definitely something worth spending time on. The Elements for iPad (and the iPad in general) is a fantastic personal experience. Meanwhile, The Elements for OS X is perfect for sharing, either with friends or in a classroom.

The original version of the The Elements was released in one language. This grew quickly to five, then 14 and now the Mac edition is available in an incredible 18 languages. This new edition includes translations for Polish, Russian, Swedish and Turkish for the first time ever. This is particularly exciting from a chemistry perspective as a couple of the new languages have strong connections with the periodic table. Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the periodic table whilst an amazing seven elements can trace their discovery back to the Swedish village of Ytterby (can you name them all without resorting to Google?).

However, the biggest and best new feature in The Elements is the demonstration videos. Our very own Theo, Max, and Fiona and a whole host of guest stars have recorded videos demonstrating the properties of the elements. If you’re a fan of Theo’s videos on YouTube, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a predictable number of explosions, sparks and flames included in the app. My personal favourite is watching magnesium burn inside a block of dry ice, creating a flaming snowman!

Testing Mac apps is particularly challenging compared to iOS. There are five iPad models but an almost infinite number of processor, graphics, memory and operating system combinations on MacOS. We had a team of two testers (Matteo and Mari) working almost full time on The Elements for OS X. Their ability to find even the most obscure bug was both irritating (more work for me) and very welcome (a better app for you).

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