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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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