Inside Menestrello — Part 1: Motivation

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This is Part 1 of a "behind the scenes" tour of Menestrello app. In this post, I cover the motivation behind developing Menestrello.

What is Menestrello?

Menestrello is an app, developed by my company ReadBeyond, designed for reading+listening Audio-eBooks in EPUB 3 reflowable format.

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Menestrello is available for Android and iOS. If you want to see the app in action, watch this video.

(Appropriately, "Menestrello" is the Italian word for "minstrel".)


EPUB 3 Audio-eBooks are reflowable eBooks with synchronized audio narration. The synchronization information allows functions like the highlighting of the text while the pre-recorded narration is played back, or the tap-text-to-play-it navigation of the story.

Audio-eBooks are a great example of the still not expressed potential of eBooks. I do not want to discuss here the reasons for this bold statement. I will write another post about the delusional current state of "enhanced" eBooks, well beyond the technical reasons usually cited, but I do not want to digress now. Suffice it to say that you can read here why I think that Audio-eBooks play in a different league.

In September 2013, we surveyed the landscape and noticed that no reading app on mobile devices provided a good user experience on reflowable EPUB 3 eBooks with Media Overlays (MO). Many apps supported MO for Fixed Layout eBooks only, for example Apple iBooks. Other apps, while supporting the basic features of MO on reflowable eBooks, like tap-to-play and the synchronous highlighting, were clearly not designed with Audio-eBooks in mind, resulting in a suboptimal user experience (UX).

Hence, we decided to take action, developing an app to demonstrate:

  • the "value" of the "product" Audio-eBook itself, by letting users actually try them out on their mobile phones and tablets;
  • the importance of carefully designing the reading system, optimizing it for Audio-eBooks to create a natural, immersive UX.

I mention just an example: an Audio-eBook allows the user to enjoy the story by reading and listening at the same time. However sometimes the user might switch on just one of the two channels (visual or aural). Let's say she wants to just listen to the audio because she is commuting: in that case, the app must offer a progress bar, and play/pause/stop buttons, and a playlist, to navigate the Audio-eBook, exactly like any audio player does when playing a "regular" audiobook.

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Another non-obvious feature: the audio playback must run even when the app is backgrounded and the display is off, and, upon resuming, the text must be displayed at the correct point. Even better: let the user decide if the audio should continue or must be paused when the app is backgrounded. Menestrello let you choose this and similar options:

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Interestingly, after 9 months, the support for Media Overlays in reflowable EPUB 3 eBooks has not changed much. Apple iBooks still does not support MO on reflowable eBooks, Gitden is still buggy (especially on Android), a couple of new apps appeared (e.g., txtr), powered by pre-1.0 Readium SDK, but they all suffer from the "not good Audio-eBook UX" problem, etc.

As far as I know, Menestrello still offers the best support and UX for EPUB 3 reflowable Audio-eBooks (please let me know if you think otherwise), hence I think it is worth discussing.

High level goals and choices

So, let's go back to September 2013 for a moment. We wanted to create an app:

  • for both iOS and Android,
  • allowing the user to side load her DRM-free EPUB files,
  • providing a great UX for reflowable EPUB 3 with Media Overlays,
  • empowering the user, allowing her to fine tune the "book experience",
  • able to work offline,
  • to be developed fast and cheaply, allowing us to release it for free.

To move fast, we ruled out:

  • reading DRM-ed eBooks,
  • integrating an online store or our Web site,
  • officially supporting EPUB 2 or EPUB 3 Fixed Layout,
  • covering the entire EPUB 3 specification.

Let me remark that we put anonimity and privacy at the core of our app:

  • No registration or login is required to use the app.
  • You can anonimously side load your own EPUB files, including our free English Short Stories.
  • There is no phoning home code — check with Wireshark, if you rightly do not want to take my word for it.
  • No advertising is shown. The resources to develop and maintain the app are entirely on ReadBeyond.

Currently, Menestrello is freeware but it is not open source/free software, although I do not exclude that this might change in the future. (Actually, it would be awesome if we could do that!)

In the next episode

In Part 2 I will explain the architecture of the app, and why we chose to develop Menestrello as a hybrid (= mainly HTML5+CSS+JS) app, and what issues we faced/solved in the process.