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Free TidBITS News iPhone App

It gives us great pleasure to ring in the new year by announcing the availability of the free TidBITS News app for the iPhone and iPod touch! This app, our first official foray into the brave new world of iPhone OS development, was truly a team effort (a positive spin on "Too many cooks make even the simplest app take forever to write"), involving Cocoa code wrangling from Matt Neuburg, a special behind-the-scenes RSS feed created by Glenn Fleishman, icons by Jeff Carlson, and design assistance and input (a positive spin on "nagging") from the rest of the staff. Now it's ready for you to download from the App Store. And did we mention it's free?

Our primary goal with this first version of the TidBITS News app was to create a simple, elegant app that provides access to the full text of the most recent TidBITS articles while taking full advantage of the elegant conventions of the iPhone OS platform.

To that end, the TidBITS News app has just two screens. On the first, it displays the headlines and summaries of our 60 most recent articles. Tap any item on the headline screen to see the second screen, where you can read the full text of the article.

In the article display screen, tapping a link within an article loads the associated Web page in Safari. Tapping an article's title loads the associated TidBITS Web page; if the item is an external link article, however, it loads the original article that the external link refers to. If there's an embedded YouTube video in the article, tap it to watch the movie; clicking Done returns you to the article. For articles we've recorded as a podcast, tap the Listen button at the top to listen to the recording as streaming audio from our Web site.

Everything listed in the preceding paragraph requires an active Internet connection, of course. But the TidBITS News app can also be used without an Internet connection, because the articles themselves are cached on your iPhone or iPod touch. So, for example, you might launch the app in the morning, causing it to cache the latest articles automatically, and then quit it; later on, you can launch it again, even when offline, to read the articles that interest you on the subway ride to work, or on an iPod touch that's out of range of a Wi-Fi network.

The app contains only three buttons. One, on the first screen, is a Refresh button, which causes the app to go out to the Internet and update the cache of articles. The cache is updated automatically when you launch the app, but only if you were on the headline screen when you last quit the app; if you quit the app while you were reading an article, then when you launch the app again, you are naturally returned to that screen so you can continue reading that article, but the cache is not updated. So you need a manual way to update the cache, and the Refresh button is it. When you tap the Refresh button, it disables itself, because we don't want users thrashing the RSS feed unnecessarily; one refresh per run of the app is sufficient.

The second button, on the article display screen, governs the article font size. Tap it to cycle through five font sizes; after you get to the largest one, it returns to the smallest, so you can easily stop at the size that works best for your eyes. The third button, also on the article screen, provides up and down arrows that, when tapped, display the previous article or the next article without forcing you to return to the headline screen.

The app has no other buttons and no other options, which was a deliberate choice. We wanted to keep things simple, and we wanted to avoid wasting space on the iPhone's tiny screen. After all, this an app in which you read text, so we wanted each screenful to hold as much text as possible. By limiting ourselves to just one or two buttons on each screen, we were able to place those buttons in the navigation bar at the top, leaving the remainder of the screen free for legible content.

So if you have an iPhone or iPod touch, please give the TidBITS News app a try. It's free, it's easy to use, and it's a great way to keep up-to-date with everything we publish in TidBITS, on your schedule. Those of us on the TidBITS team who have been testing the app for some time have already found it an excellent way to read TidBITS (for some, it has become our favorite way!); we hope you'll like it too. If so, a kind rating and review on the App Store would be extremely welcome, since we'd hope that the TidBITS News app might attract new readers to TidBITS as well, and good ratings and reviews in the App Store significantly improve app discoverability.

Lastly, remember that this is only a 1.0 release. It's always possible for us to create updates, and one of the nice things about the App Store distribution system is that anyone who has downloaded an app is automatically notified of any updates. So we'd like to hear your ideas for ways we could improve and extend the app in future versions. We have our own list, of course, but interest from readers will make a difference in where we invest time and effort. We're thinking about indicating an article's read/unread status, providing access to comments, displaying linked articles within the app instead of switching to Safari, tying into our full-text search engine, and more. But do let us know in the comments what you'd like to see!


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Comments about Free TidBITS News iPhone App
(Comments are closed.)

Aldo Bergamini  2010-01-04 08:50
Unless you are using some specific OS 3.1 features it would be nice if you could relax the minimum OS requirement (to 3.0, for example).
I do have a 1st Gen iPod Touch, running OS 3.0. I will not upgrade it to the latest&greatest OS as this would mean loosing the access to the external MacAlly mic (useful for Skype and Voip)...
BTW, many iPods are running even lower OS releases, according to news.
So a lower OS req could mean a broader access to iPod Touch readers, too!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-04 08:55
Interesting - I'll have to ask Matt if there's any reason to require 3.1 instead of 3.0. Do you have any numbers as to what percentage of people have not upgraded? And what prevents the MacAlly people, for instance, from supporting 3.1 as one would expect they should?
Ahem. I have a secondhand, first-generation, jailbroken one (so that I could use it in a different country from the original) that, I'm told, will not work if I go from 3.0.1 to 3.1.2. So I would also be interested in it working on 3.0!
Aldo Bergamini  2010-01-05 01:34
Hi Adam,

according to this post ( it's about 55% of upgraded iPod Touch.

As to the microphone I read that it's actually more a choice (or a bug) of Apple to close the compatibility with OS 3.1; which -if true- would be really a pity.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 06:34
A good point, and I'll ask Matt if the next version needs the latest version of the OS.
Aldo Bergamini  2010-01-06 01:28

I'll keep an eye on the news about the app (just in case it's feasible to have it on my iPod!)...
Chris  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2010-01-04 18:05
Seconded! Actually it requires 3.1.2. I'm at 3.1, and could upgrade just for this one app, but TidBITS has always been so accessible to users with older hardware and system software, why not continue this on the iPhone platform?
Happy New Year!
Please add the capability to rotate the article. Additonally a little bit larger on the font size would help some of us OLD eyes.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-04 10:17
Rotation is a good idea, and we can certainly add a larger font size to the selection (it started with eight choices, but that felt like too many).
Andreas Schwarz  2010-01-04 15:29
Just wrote the first review for the german app-store and gave 4 stars to the app. (A good 1.0 version that delivers quality news out of the Apple-universe to the iPhone).

For the next version, I would vote for an read/unread status.


- Andreas Schwarz -

Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 06:36
Read/unread status is something we're looking into, for sure, and the trick is figuring out how implement it as cleanly as possible. For instance, is an article read when you look at the top of it, or only after you scroll to the bottom? Or after you start scrolling (in case you decide not to finish it)?
I'd like to see the article dates added to the listings.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 06:37
We thought about that, but the headline list screen is really short on space, and very little of our content has date-relevant information. So we limited ourselves to the Updated Date at the top of the headline screen, and to the datestamp within the actual articles.
Anton Rang  2010-01-04 20:53
Read/unread is crucial, I think. An embedded link browser would be nice; I'd suggest an "open in Safari" button for ease of bookmarking or sharing links, too.

I'm not sure if it's easy, but having an option to play the audio while keeping the text displayed would be nice for those learning English who'd like to follow along.

Tapping an image brings up Safari, which allows the image to be enlarged, but it'd be nicer to do this in an inline fashion, or at least without leaving the app.

I expected tapping on the header to scroll the list of articles back to the top, but it appears to treat any tap there as a refresh attempt, even if it's not on the button. [Oh -- the rightmost 1/3 counts as a refresh; taps elsewehre are ignored.]

Any chance of correct quotation marks (left/right) and apostrophes appearing? :-) [I presume all of the article text is in ASCII, but just applying a simple smart-quote algorithm would result in much better looking articles 99% of the time.]
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 06:45
Let's see:

Read/unread and an internal browser are both on the list; the question is just how hard they are to do well.

I doubt we'd have the audio play while showing the text; the audio playback is currently "free" from the iPhone OS, and I can't see putting a lot of effort into simultaneous reading/playing since I can't see hardly anyone needing it.

Image zoom may require some changes to our feed, as well as to the code.

Tapping the header to scroll to top is a good idea.

Smart quotes is something we'd have to do either editorially or programmatically in the feed; looking into it.
David Stone  2010-01-04 22:10
I still read Tidbits via email because when a new email arrives that is a trusted reminder that there are new TidBITS articles, so that I'm not having to remember to check. The Tidbits App would be helpful if it allowed a similar reminder by showing the number of unread (or new since last launch) articles by putting a little red number in the icon like programs such as mail, app store and ping do.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 06:46
A good idea, if we have read/unread status. Although, at least one other person noted that it's a bit of a trap sometimes, since then you have to mark everything read to get the badge to go away, which is a pain.
Maarten Hazewinkel  2010-01-05 00:16
Besides the already mentioned Read/Unread feature, there are three more features that I'd like to submit for your consideration.

- Allow articles to be marked for long term local storage, to keep especially interesting in your pocket indefinitely.

- Allow sending an article by email as either a link or with the full text.

- Allow reading and posting of comments.

It's already good as is however, and I'm enjoying the improved layout and readability over the email version.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 06:49
Let's see...

Long-term storage is an interesting thought, though might require some relatively large changes to make it work well enough.

Sending articles via email is on the list.

Reading of comments is on the list; posting of comments may be harder (not the least because typing on the iPhone is so much harder).

Glad you're liking it as is, though!
xfin31  2010-01-05 01:10
Given the press about poor experiences getting applications approved in the AppStore, it would be interesting to get the TidBits experience documented - how was it for you?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 06:47
Honestly, it was completely smooth and, because of the time we submitted (very late December), extremely quick.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 10:40
We took the express route and traded Glenn Fleishman for fast app approval. We'll try to rescue him when we're in the bay area for Macworld Expo, but otherwise he seems to be happy with the deal.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-01-05 11:05
I, for one, welcome my new App Store overlords.
Ian Downie  2010-01-05 02:12
I've just given the app four stars on the UK app store. I didn't give it a fifth star because it doesn't have an inbuilt web browser. Even though the app remembers your place, Apple's insistence on no multitasking for outside apps means that the experience is often interrupted by having to switch to Safari and then restart the app, both of which involve delays on my iPhone 3G. If you make one change, this is it. While you are at it, it would be nice if your internal browser could cache pages too.

I'd press harder for rotation if the content included anything but text - for me, there is no problem in reading it in the standard font or even a bit smaller and in portrait format.

I like to select what I want to read based on the synopsis of the article. I don't want to have to click on an article I've decided not to read just to get rid of a little red number in a circle. If you include this feature, can you allow users the ability to disable it?

Ian Downie  2010-01-05 02:20
I used up my 1000 characters before finishing, so here is the last part.

Can you add the ability to make and read comments from within the app? This is probably related to the internal web browser issue but in the short term if that is a difficult job, just put in a link to the comments which the user can read in Safari.

Someone mentioned long term storage of articles, for which I use Evernote - any chance of including 'clip to Evernote' in the app?

I really like this app and look forward to seeing it develop. The price is right, too!
jacques  2010-01-05 04:42
Is it not possible to subscribe on Titbits with the program "Calibre"?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-05 06:57
As far as I can tell, Calibre is an ebook management and conversion application, and thus not something that would be at all related to TidBITS.

That said, it might be a useful way for people to store and catalog their Take Control ebooks (PDF), though I doubt the conversions would work all that well.
sitosi  2010-01-09 00:44
I'm receiving TidBITS Japanese edition. Please support articles translated into Japanese language too.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-09 07:38
Our long-term plan is to bring all the translations into our TidBITS Publishing System (homebrew content management system), at which point it would be easy to do enable the TidBITS News app to display articles in any supported language.

The main problem is that making the switch requires a major change in process for the volunteer translators, along with extra testing and tweaking on our side, so it just hasn't happened yet.
Eric Roller  2010-01-11 11:34
This is what I have been looking for for years. Thanks!

Instead of a read/unread status, it might be an idea to support an algorithm as used by Tweetie: Don't scroll automatically to the top when new articles arrive (but add some UI feedback that new articles are available); then let the user scroll by hand.

Tweetie also has a neat refresh function that is activated when the user scrolls beyond the top of the current list. (So you could have even fewer buttons ;-)
Michael Gibbs  2010-01-14 21:30
After just a brief time with the app, my suggestions are that the article list text size should be adjustable like that used for the articles themselves and, instead of a fixed number of sizes selected by a button, why not use pinch and stretch to change to any arbitrary text size?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-15 06:57
We talked about trying to increase the headline screen font size, but it turns out that it's really not easy (if possible at all). None of the other news apps that we looked at for precedents do that, for instance, and none of Apple's apps do either. The closest I can think of is something like Twitterrific, which has three entirely different views, changing font size at the same point.

Pinch and zoom for changing text size might work, although I'm not sure I've seen UI precedent for that either; font sizes change in steps, not smoothly, as is usually used with pinch and zoom.
How long will articles remain on my iPod? Is there a way to delete articles from a month ago?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-03-02 07:20
The TidBITS News app just reads the last 60 (I think) articles from our RSS feed, so it should always be dropping old articles off the bottom as new ones come out. There's no way to delete old ones; just don't read them again. :-)