Thursday, 15 April 2010

Battle of the beer apps!

Enjoy this guest post from Black Lagoon blogger and TV industry legend Matt Nida. You may remember him from the optimisitically titled Cambridge pub guide video Pubcast #1. This copy was written before CAMRA very recently changed its pricing policy on its GBG app - I've published the original review plus a footnote to demonstrate how wrong it was before and how much better the situation is now.

Demographically speaking, the smartphone crowd is probably more at home in an All Bar One than a traditional pub. But whilst Apple's much-hyped iPhone might now be the archetypal accessory of the Modern London Media Tosser, few people who've actually bought one would deny that having that level of fast, easy, ubiquitous access to the internet is incredibly useful - never more so than when trying to locate a good place to drink in unfamiliar surroundings. To this end, two new applications recently turned up in the iPhone's App Store with the sole purpose of connecting drinkers to watering holes.

CaskFinder is a free app that pulls its data from two different sources: the Cask Marque Trust's pub quality inspection scheme and the Cyclops beer database. This gives you two different ways to find a new pub. Click on the Cask Marque Pubs button and you'll immediately be taken to a map showing your current location (courtesy of the iPhone's handy built-in GPS) with all the nearby Cask Marque-accredited pubs marked clearly with quaint little pint icons. Tapping on a pub takes you to a page which gives you the address and telephone number of the pub (tap again to ring the pub directly), a link to the pub's website and a list of beers currently on offer. These are divided into those tested by Cask Marque and those that haven't been; tapping on one of the tested beers takes you to a page giving you some basic facts about the brew in question, such as alcohol content, colour, taste and smell. From here, you can add your own rating which will be reflected in the average star rating at the top of the page.

Back on the main menu, there's also a Beers button, which takes you to a database of beers that you can view either by name or by brewery. Tapping on a beer will take you to its stats page, at the top of which there's a "Where to Drink?" button. Tap this and you'll be taken to a map showing all the pubs in the surrounding area serving this particular beer (as results are likely to be sparse for most beers listed, you can zoom out to increase the range and thus the likelihood of a pub serving your beer). This is potentially a killer feature, but annoyingly the list of beers itself is somewhat patchy; for example, there are no Harvey's or Timothy Taylor's beers listed at all. Still, it's a neat idea, and Cyclops claim to update the database daily, so hopefully it'll become more useful over time. There's also a couple of other fun features in the form of a "beer of the week", a beer festival calendar and a beer blog by Pete Brown.

Where CaskFinder falls down somewhat is the interface. Whilst I admire the developer's courage in shunning Apple's attempts to standardise all UIs to the same conventions, the rather sickly yellows and Tellytubby-ish icons and typefaces aren't particular polished or pleasant to use, whilst the background, although clearly intended to be a foaming pint of ale, looks rather like a pale blue Aero. Moreover, the lack of any overt curation or comment about the pubs in question ultimately limits the app's usefulness; beyond their certification, there's little indication what a pub might be like to drink in once you get there. Still, if you trust Cask Marque's standards then there's no doubt that CaskFinder will speed up the process of finding a decent pint, and once it's a bit more comprehensive the beer location feature could well prove incredibly useful.

Elsewhere on the App Store is CAMRA's own Good Beer Guide Mobile, an iPhone version of the organisation's hugely successful annual book/bible. CAMRA are by no means infallible, and I could probably argue some of the finer details about their criteria for what makes a good pub, but there's no denying that the GBG is an authoritative and on the whole reliable guide, so you could be forgiven for approaching the app with high expectations. Its premium heritage is reflected in the price - a princely £1.19 - and upon launching you're immediately presented with a much classier, Apple-ish menu than CaskFinder's. The main menu offers you several ways to search for a pub; once again you can use the GPS to look for GBG-listed pubs in your immediate vicinity, or you can search by address, postcode or (neatly) London tube station. Search results are presented in a listed sorted by distance in miles, with a range of icons indicating amenities at each venue. Alternatively, they can be viewed on a map. Tapping on the pub takes you contact details, and tabs at the bottom of the page allow you to pull up a beer menu (with comments on each beer from the GBG), a list of features, a map and the all-important Good Beer Guide review. Tapping a star button at the top of the page let you save the pub to a list of favourites for quick access later on.

And... that's it. There's no access to any of the other editorial features of the GBG, no beer or brewery index, no user ratings, no ability to search for pubs via beers available or indeed using any criteria other than location. It's an unbelievable own goal. Given that the app pulls its data from one of the most comprehensive critical drinking resources on the market, it's incredibly limited in terms of how one can interface with this data. Even a simple full text search would have been nice, but that's too much to ask for. Essentially, unless you're using the GPS feature, it's actually quicker to find a pub that piques your interest by flicking through the paper copy than using the app.

And then there's the pricing. Your up-front £1.19 isn't the only cost. Once you've downloaded the app, you can use it for thirty days, after which time you'll be asked to pay a further £8.99 (!) for another year's access. If you're a CAMRA member this actually makes the app more expensive than a physical copy of the book, despite being significantly less functional and despite the distribution and material costs of the app being a fraction of those behind publishing a book. If you already own the book, you've got no choice other than to pay for it again. In the past I've been critical of the aggressive race-to-the-bottom price wars in the App Store, and am happy to pay a fair price for a decent app, but there's no excuse for the Murdochian "PROTECT THE PRINT REVENUE!!" pricing of digital goods this way.

Ultimately, CAMRA could have sewn up the market here, but in classic foreheard-slapping CAMRA fashion they've dropped the ball badly. The Good Beer Guide text remains useful and dependable, but the really limited interface indicates that no-one really thought through how users might actually want to use this app. The hugely unrealistic pricing is the final nail in the coffin, suggesting that CAMRA developed this app because someone told them they ought to do one in order to keep up - shovelware of the worst kind. CaskFinder, on the other hand, is ugly and patchy in places, but makes a few gestures at dynamic content and has some fun features that give the user a few different options for tracking down a good pint quickly. Plus it's free, so you can use the money that CAMRA would otherwise gouge you for and spend it on, say, some beer.

STOP PRESS!! It seems CAMRA decided very recently to adopt a different pricing model, slashing the £8.99 cost to just £4.99 and allowing users to download the data. This means you still have access to the 2010 Guide on your iPhone if you decide not to renew the subscription in 2011 - fair dos and a big improvement. Good job. Having spoken to Matt, he confirms, however, that his review of the app as an app remains the same.

Finally, take a look at this debate on the Guardian's excellent Word of Mouth blog about which pub guide is best. The comments promise to be entertaining.