Photo: OverDrive's Jeff Sterling speaking at the Rakuten Technology Conference 2017 in Tokyo.

For Rakuten OverDrive, consistency has always been key. The service, which allows schools and public libraries to lend out digital copies of books as they would physical books, has facilitated almost a billion digital checkouts to date, and since day one, the company’s focus on creating a world enlightened by reading has been steadfast.

But that doesn’t mean they’re afraid of a little change. With the introduction of their new eReading and audiobook app, Libby, in June 2017, the Cleveland-based company has taken a radical new approach to achieving their mission.

“Basically, we started over,” said Jeff Sterling, Chief Technology Officer of Rakuten OverDrive. “Libby is the result of us taking a fresh look at everything we had done: removing things we didn’t think users needed and adding things they do—it’s a whole new way of looking at our product.”

“If we can leverage cutting edge technologies to empower our users, that’s something we’re going to do.”

Libby has been earning rave reviews from readers and librarians. On the user experience-side, the app is designed simply to get library users checking out eBooks as quickly and easily as possible. All the user needs is a library card. The app then scans for the closest public library and prompts the user to search its catalogs for their desired book or browse librarian-curated lists. The app also includes a host of new and improved features, such as:

  • The ability to download eBooks and audiobooks for offline reading, or stream them to save space
  • The ability to sign in to multiple libraries, with one or more cards for each library
  • Tracking of a reader’s place in a book as well as what notes and bookmarks were created across all devices, allowing for a synced reading experience
  • Reading history tracking in the activity tab

It is the back-end design however, that marks a true departure for Rakuten OverDrive. Libby, which Sterling refers to as an “augmented hybrid app,” is a single-page web app that “feels like a native app.” Users download a native app from Google Play or the App store, but the native app operates largely as a shell for the web app, which processes all user requests and houses information regarding their account. And because the web app is based on one “single-page,” it feels as smooth to operate as a desktop application, with a single “page” being constantly overwritten, as opposed to having new pages constantly loaded, as they are when navigating through a regular website.

When a user downloads an eBook through the web app, the native shell downloads data packets from the web and then caches them locally so the book can be accessed offline later. From a processing perspective, it’s the web app that does the heavy lifting.

Released in September 2017, Libby has been earning rave reviews from readers and librarians.

Released in June 2017, Libby has been earning rave reviews from readers and librarians.

As a result of this unique architecture, Libby is easier to deploy in production and, from a user perspective, easier to upgrade over time. Users can also save space on their mobile devices as the majority of the data from the eBook is stored online.

To rethink their approach to e-reading apps, Sterling and team took on the role of disruptive startup. “Trying to erase what you know about our current app was key,” explained Sterling. “If we were a startup and we weren’t OverDrive and we were trying to displace OverDrive, what would we create? That’s how we started it.”

The early success of Libby already has Sterling looking forward to his next big technological challenge.

“We are very interested in providing friendly, personal chatbot support in Libby,” he said. “If a user needs help, a little box will pop up and enable you to ask your question. That question would then be examined by some AI routines and if it’s a common question, we’ll answer it instantly in a friendly Libby style.”

Rakuten OverDrive is also looking at leveraging machine learning to offer better recommendations.

“We’d love to help assisting end users to find a book to read. At a library you can get great advice from a knowledgeable librarian. Trying to replicate that in Libby is something we’re very interested in. If we can leverage cutting edge technologies to empower our users, that’s something we’re going to do.”