Friday 7 August 2009

iPhone the Edinburgh Festival

The iPhone is a work of genius. If you disagree with that statement, odds are you should probably stop reading now. It's by far the best, most intuitive and functional phone I've ever owned; it's a joy to use and it never stops improving thanks to a regular stream of applications I keep downloaded (the last few weeks it has been stealing my time and rekindling my love for chess). I never leave home without.

The Edinburgh Festival, in all its flavours, is a dizzying spectacle, in scale and nature unlike anything else. An iPhone application to help us pick our way through it was, therefore, highly desirable. And, given that everyone and his sister now seems to have one (ah, how I remember when it was moderately unusual), it was inevitable.

Indeed, there are no fewer than three and half. Just for you, I've downloaded every single one of them. Okay, mainly for myself, but since they're here now, I may as well review them.

First up is iFringe. As the name implies, it limits itself to the Festival Fringe, the largest and most sprawling part of the festival, the part with the hundreds of venues (often including some bloke's care or your living room) and thousands of shows.

First to the market, it has a lot going for it. It will detect your location and list venues nearby. Each venue is given a brief review (certainly in the case of my own venue, Venue 40, The Quaker Meeting House, it seems pretty fair and informative). It also has a useful section for hints and tips, for example, the Queen's Hall page informs the unsuspecting visitor that the box office is actually in the building next door. (Though the logical extension of allowing users to submit these doesn't seem to exist.) It also gives information about food options, both at the venue and nearby (something Urbanspoon will also do, and free). Press a link and it will bring it up on the phone's built in maps application. Press another icon to dial up the box office.

What it doesn't do, however, is then give you a handy list of everything that's on there. In other words, it doesn't replace the fringe brochure, and given that runs over 200 pages, that's a shame. Rather, this application is about collating reviews from Fringe Guru, Fringe Review and Broadway Baby and Three Weeks. Of course, fringe aficionados will immediately note that such notables as The Scotsman, The Herald and The List aren't there so it won't save you your copies of those. This is a pity.

At £2.99 it's not especially cheap (and titled iFringe 2009, I have a strong suspicion we'll be asked to pay again next year, which would make it a pretty price app in the long run - if that is the case it should be explicitly stated), though being well designed and user friendly it's probably worth it.

Of course, there is a free version, but it's much more limited. You can't do any of the planning ahead that the paid version allows and it only gives the 'latest reviews' (so it may well become useless in week three for shows that have long since had their review). You don't get the venue hints and tips either.

An alternative is on offer in the form of Edinburgh Festivals Guide. This is an official app, and official to all the festivals. This is great for someone like me who goes to several flavours of the festival. It's also cheaper, at £1.79.

The app was only released this week and, in comparison to iFringe, it does look less polished. One can't help but feel it's been rushed out in order to meet the deadline (the Fringe started this week and the Jazz Festival has been in full swing for a week now). The Fringe, rushing out software before it was quite ready, that could never happen!

That said, I don't want to be too unfair, since it is fairly usable and their support team have been reasonably responsive and clearly rushed off their feet getting it up and running this week.

The main screen presents you with a series of genres, click on any one and brings a chronological list of upcoming shows (you can sort by distance if you prefer).

If you're only interesting in the International Festival or the Fringe, it appears there is no way to restrict your search. In fact, confusingly, clicking on 'All' in the main menu brings up the option to browse by festival which is insanely counter-intuitive (I actually only discovered this in exploring for the review just to see what it did). However, this only brings up events a day ahead. True, you can use search (though searching for Mackerras, who I know is coming to conduct, brings nothing), but what I'd like is something browseable that allows me to leave multiple programmes behind me. For the EIF, you need a search that does for more than just title (some things do works - Runnicles, for example).

Bringing up a given show does similar things to iFringe (e.g. the box office number, venue details, map link). There is also a link to reviews (though it is not clear whether these are just Fringe website reviews that anyone can post or whether they will link to third party content).

You can search by venue too, though this is inferior to iFringe, which makes use of the iPhone's intuitive touch/scroll interface, while Edinburgh Festivals Guide forces you to type a name, hit search and is consequently slower more cumbersome.

It gives venue details briefly (and, after a couple of tweets, correctly in our case) and will tell you what shows are on there. It also detects your location and will bring up nearby venues - but this too is unintuitive (you have to search for nothing).

I think this an app with great potential, but it just isn't quite ready for prime time yet. They had surely looked at iFringe, and seeing that, knew how well they had to do. I'll be interested to see what they make of it next year.

There's one final app: Edinburgh Fringe Venues. This is free, which is nice. Essentially a searchable directory of venues (with an interface midway between iFringe and Festivals Guide). It gives only very basic info such as address, phone number, and website links. I suppose it could be useful as a companion to the Fringe brochure, saving you the hassle of flicking back and forth to the map and the box office phone numbers. And, given it's free, one can't really complain. Still, iFringe does this too, and better, in its free version.

Verdict. The free iFringe is a must. Both paid apps are probably worth it for the serious festival goer. However, with both I feel, for different reasons, we're not quite where we could be. Maybe next year.


Richard Stamp said...

Hi there

Thank you so much for posting such a detailed and, I think, fair review. All of the apps have strengths and weaknesses. But on behalf of iFringe, perhaps I could give a thoughtful response to a couple of your thoughtful comments.

The first point - and this is something a few people have said - is that iFringe doesn't contain full listings. To be completely honest, given where we're standing at the moment, it can't. The Fringe Society owns their database of listings and they've licensed it to the other app. Considering the support we've now got from the major venues, it's not impossible we'll get our own database together in future years, but that's a big step with potential big implications and it's not something I'd do lightly.

There's a rather more conceptual point, though, which is that iFringe was never supposed to be comprehensive in that way. It's always been designed to cut through the great mass of detail that's already out there, and point you straight at the best of the Fringe. For every person who's asked me why we don't have full listings, there's another who's said they just love the way it replaces the overwhelming Fringe programme with a shortlist of recommendations - while still giving you more than just one reviewer's view. It's a delicate balance.

Incidentally, the "who owns the data?" issue is the reason why we don't have access to the Half Price Hut listings the official app is using, but what we can tell you about are the 2-for-1 and half-price deals that you can get from the venue box offices themselves. We'll be rolling that out for participating venues once the Fringe 2-for-1s finish after the weekend.

The second point I wanted to comment on was your query about how it'll be priced in future years. Again, I'll be completely honest on this one: I don't know.

This year, we're trying out the simplest commercial model of all: you, the user, pay for it, and in exchange you know that we work only for you. There are other ways of doing it, of course - it could be advertising-supported, or we could charge venues to be listed.

I'm secretly hoping the user-pays model works, because the ambiguity of publishing reviews while also showing ads would worry me. So I'm hugely reassured by your comment that it's worth £2.99. But if the world doesn't agree, we'll do something different next year.

For the record, there's no stream of cash being shovelled into a Swiss bank account. But it's important to find a way of doing this which is sustainable: I don't want it to be a hobbyist project which dies in a couple of years because we don't have the time for it any more. I think it's got too much potential to let that happen.

Thanks again for your comments, and perhaps I'll see you - in my other role as editor of FringeGuru - at Venue 40.


Tam Pollard said...

Hi Richard,

Thanks for your very interesting comments. In particular, I wasn't aware of the licensing issue (it's a shame it isn't opened up to everyone - there are parallels with the situation over the rail enquiries app, though that was seriously outrageous).

You're right, though, that an app that is either all encompassing or selective is a conceptual point, and I do think, and the comments you've had seem to confirm, that there's room for both.

With regard to price, I don't know how possible this is, but if you could get Scotsman and Herald content in as well, a £2.99 or so a year price wouldn't seem to excessive as you'd effectively have a one stop shop for reviews.

I do feel that you've 'got' the iPhone and how an app should feel better than the others

With regard for 2-for-1s - what's the mechanism for venues letting you know these (though, actually, after the opening Monday, we don't often have them). I know you did send us an e-mail which I'm afraid we haven't got round to responding to, being almost all volunteer and not having a press person just now, it got put on hold, but it is something I want to look at in more detail in the run up to next year.

Tam Pollard said...

Hope to see you at the venue at some point with my other hat on!

Sam Collins said...

Hi Tam,
Firstly can I apologise for the ridiculous delay in responding to this post, but thanks for the balanced review of the apps. I read it after you posted it but like you mentioned, we have been rushed off our feet getting everything ready and up to standard. You identified a bunch of issues with the app that we were already aware of and keen to get updated and ready as soon as possible. If you have been continually using the app, you’ll have noticed that every couple of days new back end and aesthetic updates have been released to address each of these issues and V1.5 just got released on the app store on Monday.

Full listings are certainly enjoyable for people wishing to taste different festivals, but processing that volume of data on the device is a challenge so we went for a server infrastructure. This affects the responsiveness of the app, especially on 2G networks. Next year we will be looking at storing the database on the device and this will enable us to give it a more “iPhone” feel to the app, it can’t be remedied in time this year as Apple’s turnaround time would take us up the end of the festival. Hopefully some of the other issues you have pointed out here are now remedied and I’d be happy to hear your feedback on some of the work we have done.

Richard has clearly pointed out that there is a huge opportunity for this sort of technology and I would certainly agree. Making the technology sustainable and appealing to all, is another issue! I enjoy the two approaches taken by iFringe and Edinburgh Festivals Guide, both apps are very useful albeit for different use cases, both are young and can be expected to grow a lot by next year in terms of functionality and integration into the festivals.

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