This week we look at a third party utility which displays information and statistics from the CIA World Factbook, and Channel Ten's neglected iPhone app.
The CIA World Factbook
As simple as the online community has made accessing facts and figures from all around the world within seconds, the internet is hardly known as a beacon of accuracy and properly researched information, so it's no surprise that some seek out official sources more readily than they search through Google. The CIA World Factbook, first published under its current name in 1981
, is an annual publication from the US Government which compiles basic information and economic indicators about each country in an official document that can be used freely by anyone. For more than a decade, it has been available online and while no official app exists yet, several developers have created native applications which display all the Factbook's data in one place. The latest, from realazy, is one of the better looking options on the App Store.
Using the app isn't complicated, as each country has its own menu item accessible by a pull-out menu similar to the ones found in Facebook and Sparrow. There's a simple non-paginated text page with a list of bookmarks on the top right for each section for that country (Geography, Communications, Transport etc). There's a high resolution copy of the national flag, a somewhat lower resolution copy of the country's map and location, and an embedded view of the country with Apple Maps, the most useful of the three map options. Finally, a photo gallery is attached to most countries' articles with beautiful photos and captions of their best known landscapes and landmarks. These features are all implemented well, and the menu on the far right for searching within the page and reading a country's Wikipedia article is useful, except that its "Share" feature crashes the app every time. In fact, the "Share" features are broken completely in most sections of the app.
On the pull out menu a small flag icon representing each country to the left of its full name makes finding out more about countries easy and actually quite enjoyable, and the list of organisations/groups along with ranks for statistics such as population growth and reserves of foreign exchange, shows the app is full of relevant information that makes it worth purchasing as a powerful reference. The app can also show each country's position in those rankings by tapping on the blue links accompanying its article. Finally, as all text in the Factbook is public domain, text can be selected with Apple's standard UI controls, with buttons to search for any word on Google or Wikipedia.
Text display options are limited, with no font settings though size can be changed by pinch and zoom. Text looks great and displays at a decent size, but those who prefer another text style will be disappointed. Another welcome addition would be the ability to open web pages in Safari instead. And though the bright green app icon looks nice on the home screen, it represents 634MB (according to Usage information in Apple's Settings app) of used space. There's the obvious benefit of not needing to download maps, lists or other data over an internet connection, but an option to download countries as they are selected might be a better alternative for some users.
The CIA World Factbook is an excellent resource, in that it provides comprehensive and unbiased information to anyone in the world. Being able to access that information anywhere with an (unfortunately) large but quick download is incredible enough in itself, but to do it in a competently built universal iOS app that only costs two dollars from the App Store is even more impressive. Some features need adding to, and one important feature is buggy at best, but its a carefully designed app that puts the focus on displaying information efficiently to users. It's absolutely worth installing on a higher storage capacity device, like the one Apple just announced
Channel Ten had a worryingly poor 2012. While many television shows try to find the balance between high ratings and critical praise, Australia's "third-place" network lineup often found itself on the opposite side of both those goals, with expensive blunders like Breakfast and The Shire making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Frustratingly enough, even Channel Ten's well-received international programming (New Girl, Hawaii Five-0 and others) performed below expectations last year, so as the network tries to regain the respect of its viewers, it may want to consider looking at its mostly broken catch-up TV app.
Instead of offering real-time information on the most discussed shows or deep social media integration like the recently launched Zeebox, Channel Ten's official iPhone app is supposed to offer an experience similar to iView or PLUS7. Or, at least, that's the only reason to download this fairly messy collection of unappealing features. The home screen displays an on-air schedule, links to popular shows, a shortcut to full episodes of The Project (it's not the only show with full episodes available, but the only one featured) and the latest tweets from @channelten. Even if properly implemented, the last feature is best buried on another menu, but images and links in each tweet don't work at all, so it's really just a waste of space.
There are a few programs with full episodes but it's difficult to find a list of those which do, since selecting the Watch menu and ordering shows alphabetically only sporadically works. There's some good content and all of it ad-free: American Idol, The Graham Norton Show, Meet the Press and more, but each episode is cut into six or more segments for no particular reason, and it's all at a low resolution with no video quality settings. When each menu takes as long to load as it does, watching full episodes or even clips of shows can be a very drawn out and disappointing experience. It seems that the hardest part of making an app like this work is securing the rights to re-broadcast shows over the internet – something Ten has done for a reasonable portion of its lineup –*and yet it has faltered on execution where the ABC and Foxtel delivered.
There's a TV guide which works well enough but still displays a schedule for channels that don't exist anymore and doesn't match the current time. The third spot on the menu bar is reserved for "information" about Ten's shows, but there's no more than two or three sentences for each program against a drab grey background and a link to the channel's generic Facebook account. There's some interesting functionality like setting reminders and tapping the star button to send a show to favourites, but it's not compelling enough to warrant a download. On the far right, the app's "More" section includes some photo galleries (which display in portrait when rotating the phone to landscape and redirect to Ten's Sports app when tapped on), polls (from the Can of Worms program, but it takes a while to figure that out), competitions (there are none), reminder settings (the timer settings can't be changed, it just deletes them), and some legal information. Without wishing to labour the point, and with the exception of that legal information, there's a lot here that just doesn't work correctly.
Channel Ten's interface fails to improve on the overall user experience in any meaningful way. Menus do take a long time to load and sometimes just stop loading altogether, which makes quitting and restarting the app a common necessity. Assets have been updated to support the retina display but not for the iPhone 5, and it feels like the app has been ignored by Ten for quite some time: it uses a logo which Twitter actively discourages its partners from using, for example, and features shows like Being Lara Bingle which have been off-air for months.
This is how slideshows appear in portrait mode, but rotate back when the iPhone itself is placed in landscape.
Perhaps for so clearly being low on Ten's list of priorities last year, and as a free download, this app doesn't deserve to be hated. But it is supposed to an essential companion for regular viewers of the shows on Ten and the network itself. It's supposed to be an official representation of the brand Ten has built and spent a large advertising budget promoting. In its current form, it feels slow, clunky and uninspired, just like the shows that put it so behind in the ratings last year. Ten has plenty to smile about
: exclusives like Homeland and its Julian Assange tele-movie show that the network stills knows what its doing and can turn things around in 2013, like Nine in 2012. But a competitive iPhone app would help lure younger viewers back in more than Channel Ten seems to believes it would. With the right ideas and a decent update, Ten can be dominant in catch-up TV before the end of the year, but their app needs effort and attention. Seriously.
Network Ten Pty Ltd
Rémy Numa is a student living in Sydney who used to know a guy, who knows a guy, who had a sister, whose boyfriend worked for a guy, who knows a guy in America, who had a cousin, who was really good friends with a guy, who used to work at the CIA. So watch out.