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.