What four stars really means

The reason I stopped being a TV critic – well, it’s because I got kicked out of Radio Times. But there was also the very big pull that I wanted to make drama rather than analyse other people’s. And unfortunately there was also the pretty big push that I was getting ever more unhappy with how reviews and reviewers worked.

When you write for one magazine you obviously read all of them and this was my thing, this is what I enjoyed, this was drama, so I read them all with gusto. Except I’d keep reading a competitor’s review of a show and realise that out of the two of us, only I had actually watched the drama.

Then, too, in researching various books and looking back across archives, I would see that some reviewers were writing at best what they thought the reader wanted to have and at worst what the drama producers insisted. The same reviewer would praise a series to the heavens and then next year in the archive he or she would be praising the show’s second series by saying how much better it was than the rubbish first one.

You get the idea. I got kicked out for unrelated crimes (aka budget cuts) and reviewing is one thing I’ve not looked back at once. Except that it has tickled me how over the last couple of years I’ve done a great deal of reviewing of software.

And I love it. There is some tremendous work being done in software and the tools I’ve relished the most have become part of my daily work. I wouldn’t be producing what I’m producing if it weren’t for this stuff.

I’ve just not seen this enjoyment of reviewing as being incompatible with my previous fretting. An app says it is for X and that it does Y. You use it and find out. I’m not saying it’s easy but the nuances of drama aren’t there: I do think about why I like and enjoy one app over another and that’s important. It’s also as indefinable as reviewing drama: if you can explain to me why I enjoy writing in an app called Drafts and I don’t enjoy writing in Word, well, I’ll be grateful.

But someone else’s review came out this week of a particular piece of software and between that reviewer and me, I am honestly wondering whether only I actually launched the app.

I won’t name the app or the reviewer for a combination of reasons from how this is about the overall issue instead of one specific case, and also because of legality.

But I filed my review the other day and before it came out, there was this other website covering this same thing. I read it to see if I’d missed anything, I read it from curiosity. This other reviewer gives this app four stars. Understand this: it’s not an issue of opinion, this thing factually does not do what it says.

Nothing in this is opinion, it’s straight reporting so you report it. Or I did, anyway.

This particular software is free and these days no software is expensive but your time is valuable to me. I wouldn’t recommend an hour-long episode of a show if I didn’t mean it; equally I won’t recommend a tool that will take you a time to discover it doesn’t do what it claims. Or rather that maybe yes, strictly speaking, it’s possible to get a feature to do a thing if you’re of an engineering persuasion and aren’t actually trying to use it to do something. Oh, that’s why I don’t like Word.

I know I sound like I think I’m a paragon here and I can remember reviews where I’ve been wrong or later changed my mind so radically that I was effectively wrong. But reviewers have one job and one advantage: they’ve used the software or they’ve watched the show before you.

We can’t tell you not to buy or not to watch but we can give you our opinion and present a case for you to judge. And I say ‘we’ there because this is more than about one review. Maybe that four-star reviewer is a very technical German speaker and the bugs I found were peculiar to my Mac. I don’t mind stopping reading a site or a magazine because I’ve found that the reviews just aren’t for me, but when you stop because you can’t trust them, that makes me doubt all reviews.

There’s a big element here that as a reviewer I might think my reviewing is a small thing yet I don’t like it being undermined or not taken seriously. There’s a big element here that I use an awful lot of software and I have relied on reviews to help me find the tools I need.

So if I’m a paragon, I’m an unhappy one. Besides, I can’t claim to be virtuous because I also used four stars in my review of this app, although only to cover up an unpublishable word.

Appy anniversary

This week is the sixth anniversary of the original App Store: the iPhone app store that is now responsible for how I spend a significant portion of every working day. Before then, apps were known as applications and not really that well known at all, not per se. Your mother didn’t ask you what an application was. Mine has asked me what an app is.

Mind you, before then, phones were known for being phones. And for being hard to use. I remember trying to read the manual in a theatre: I had a small production on and guests were coming, I needed to have the phone on but muted. Never worked it out.

Now it’s preposterously easy to do with an iPhone but actually calls must be the least thing I use it for. Because I run my life through the apps on it. The iPhone came with apps – the Phone is an app, but there was also an email one, music, calendar – and there are ones from that set that I have used every day since 2007 when I got my first iPhone. Right this minute my phone’s front screen has 20 very, very well-worn apps of which 10 are Apple’s.

That’s more than I expected. Look at the other 10, though:

OmniFocus – my beloved To Do manager
Fantastical 2 – my newly beloved calendar
Pocket – for reading saved articles from the web
Drafts – for jotting down text and then deciding what to do with it, whether to send a text or save to Evernote
Evernote – speak of the devil
Reeder 2 – for reading a lot, I mean a lot, of news every day
Wordpress – for doing some twiddles with this site
HulloMail – a replacement for iPhone voicemail since I’m on 3 that doesn’t support this naturally
LocalScope – for finding restaurants, companies, ATMs, bookshops, anything nearby
1Password – all my passwords and logins at a tap
AwesomeClock – my bedside clock
Concise Oxford English Dictionary (with audio) – what the words mean and how to pronounce them

There probably hasn’t been an hour of daylight in six years that I haven’t used one or more of those.

But.

Six years.

It’s a long time.

I wanted to know what the first was.

The first app I ever bought.

If you want to do this, the quickest way is to open iTunes on your Mac or PC, go to the App Store and check Purchased. You can’t tell a date from that, unfortunately, but the apps are stored in order. If you have more patience and a steady hand, you can get approximately the right date by going through your Accounts section and slogging, slogging, slogging back through the listings there. Very slow, very long. And the date is the invoice date, not the download one. So it can be the same day, it can be the day after. But as near as you will ever be able to determine, that’s when you got each app. Including your first.

My first ever app was… actually, it was two, I bought two at the same time and can’t tell which was first. But the two were NYTimes – Breaking National & World News and Yulan Mahjong Solitaire. I bough them on 11 July 2008, so that’s six years ago today, and together they cost me £2.99. I’ve just checked and the New York Times one is free, Yulan Mahjong is now £1.19.

They’re both fine but neither lasted on my home screen and I know this for certain because of this. This is what my iPhone home screen has looked like for the last six years.

The music there is “Last Week” from Green Wing’s soundtrack by Trellis.

There is one advantage to slogging, slogging, slogging through your iTunes Store account: you get to find out when you bought everything.

So I can tell you that the first book I ever bought through Apple’s iBooks Store was a free copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The first one I paid for appears to be some psychology thing called 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. I bought those both on 28 May 2010 and have only read the Austen. The first paid-for iBook I bought and read – and loved, incidentally – is Mapping the Edge by Sarah Dunant, bought on 29 May 2010.

The first TV episode was the free pilot to Damages: never watched it. The first paid one was The Mighty Boosh’s The Nightmare of Milky Joe, which I’d stumbled across on TV and it silenced the room, we all got so engrossed. I bought that on 2 March 2008 and I must go watch it again.

Films came to the iTunes Store before TV but my first wasn’t until 7 June 2008 and The Paper Chase. It cost me £6.99 and I’ve not watched it. I’m feeling bad about all this now. But the second film, the first paid for and also watched, was Searching for Bobby Fischer, aka Innocent Moves aka the subject of this blog by Ken Armstrong.

And all this buying from the iTunes stores started with music. On 15 June 2004, I spent £3.16 buying In Between Days by The Cure, Always the Last to Know and Be My Downfall by Del Amitri, and Jokerman by Bob Dylan. The first album, two days later, was Greatest Radio Hits by Bruce Hornsby.

None of which has had the impact that the apps I’ve bought this way did, but all part of this peculiar sea change that saw me move away from CDs, move to phones that work, move to actually the life and the career that I have right now. I like telling you that my working life would not be recognisable to me if all this hadn’t happened but I don’t like wondering what I’d have ended up doing.