Bugger on the Inside: the Doctor Who Encyclopedia

Fresh from the BBC and developers Brandwidth comes an iPad version of Gary Russell’s Doctor Who Encyclopedia. ITunes have made it App of the Week and there are lots of delighted Whovians eagerly downloading it. This is what it looks like:

What we have here is, once again, an existing book that has been converted into an app. There’s no question marks over the original book – if you want an encyclopedia dedicated to 21st Century Doctor Who, then you’ll not be disappointed with this huge brick of a book. What concerns us more here is how the book has been converted.

There’s no extra content – no audio or video (bar links to previewing episodes in the iTunes store, and a few sound effects). What you have here is the text and photos of a searchable encyclopedia, plus a few visual tricks to arrange the most popular subjects (Daleks, Cybermen, Amy Pond etc) in little visual galleries. The default navigation of the ‘Doctor’ gallery, for example, requires you to move or tilt the iPad itself left or right to scroll through the characters. I switched it off immediately on the grounds that it’s totally unusable, but my 8 year old son thought it was great fun. Before switching it off a minute or two later on the grounds that it’s totally unusable.

Pricing is… interesting. The App costs £4.99 but only includes the 11th Doctor entries. Should you click on an entry related to earlier series, you get a beg page asking for more money. The entries for the 9th and 10th Doctors cost a further £4.99 each, bringing the total to £14.97, or noticeably more than the weighty physical edition (which is currently £12.50 on Amazon). Presumably this will also allow the app to download future updates about future series, which would be a big plus, but the idea of a virtual edition costing more than a physical one is always a knee-jerk issue – as anyone who has tried to buy ePub ebooks will testify. So does the experience of using the app edition offer anything more than the physical edition, to justify this extra cost?

The answer is yes – but only just.

We’re all familiar with falling into a Wikipedia hole – we start looking something up, follow another link, see something else interesting and get distracted… until suddenly an hour has past and we are far from where we started, and we know far more about the illnesses of dolphins and 18th Century politics than we did before.

This doesn’t happen with a standard encyclopedia. While they have an index and are all in neat alphabetical order (and searchable, in the case of the app), the act of looking something up is sufficiently more complex than just clicking the link in front of us – a link that guarentees that there’s an article on that subject, right there, just click and you’ll see it… Because of this seemingly small detail, we use these reference works in a completely different way.  We don’t follow trains of references but flick through the pages (or scroll down the index) instead, until we see something that takes our interest – something unrelated to the initial search. Which is all well and good, but Wikipedia is noticeably more of timesuck than physical encyclopedias.

So the simple act of adding hyperlinks makes an app reference work qualitatively different than a paper version. And they have been implemented here, but in an odd way.

The text of the entries is always restricted to a small narrow column, even when the app has nothing else to fill the screen with bar the book’s cover. The text is small and strangely devoid of paragraph breaks, and it doesn’t actually have hyperlinks in it.  Instead, you press a ‘connections’ tab at the bottom of the screen to call up a list of linked topics, which have (a little pointlessly) been put into categories. You can’t leave this ‘Connections’ list up permanently, because once you click on an entry that comes with a photograph, it goes away again.

It may seem a small thing, for all the functionality of a hyperlinked reference work is there, but the implementation stops you using it like one. If they had added the hyperlinks to the text – along with a few paragraph breaks – then it would be a lot easier to spend hours getting lost in there. The scrolling parallax galleries are all well and good, but in a reference work like this, getting the presentation of the text right should have been more important.

Still – that gripe aside – ultimately content is king and this encyclopedia is crazily detailed.  And if they release an update for 20th Century Doctor Who as well, I’ll even forgive them about the paragraph breaks.

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