Wednesday, November 24, 2010

iPhone apps

I've been an iPhone user since the first generation unit was released - in fact I'm still using the same one. I love it, despite the fact that it's made by Apple and forces you to use iTunes to do anything. It's probably the handiest gadget I've ever owned; a phone, camera, map, notepad and web browser all in one package.

One of the selling points of the phone is its extensibility through dedicated utilities and games; it's such a huge market that there are even TV commercials for iPhone apps. The wine world is no different; there are dedicated winery apps; Ridge has one which has details of current releases, photos, events and a link to the store. Then there's which offers an alternate interface to Cellar Tracker's inventory management and tasting note database.

I recently got an email announcing a new free app covering the wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains, so thought I should try it and see how it compares to the competition. I already have a review copy of Winery Quest Pro.

I thought that I'd reviewed the Winery Quest app in the past, but it doesn't appear to be on the site. Not sure what happened there. There are two versions; a 'basic' version costing $4 and a 'pro' version costing $8. It's effectively an interface into the Wine Questers web site, showing the same winery data in an easier to read format. This means that if you're in a cellphone blackspot - such as large parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains - then it can't get any data. The interface opens up with a scrollable list of over 20 regions, from Mendocino to Temecula. The Santa Clara Valley wineries are classified as "Gilroy - Morgan Hill", so wineries outside that area such as J Lohr, Coterie Cellars or Casa de Fruta aren't counted. Overall the interface is a little confusing, but after a while you start to get used to it.

Winery Quest's key selling point is the accuracy of its maps - the developer visits each winery with a GPS rather than relying on Google's address mapping software; if the winery hasn't been visited then it's not on the list. Unfortunately the choice of icons results in a map that looks rather cluttered. The data is further limited to tasting rooms that are regularly open to the public, which means that many smaller wineries that are appointment only or only open at certain times aren't listed.

There are a number of 'just because we can' features, such as a 'spin the bottle' game that randomly selects a winery for you to visit. Overall it's a tool for someone who wants to plan a trip to a wine region for the first time and visit a few tasting rooms; it's not intended to be a guide for the serious geek looking to discover new hidden gems. The price may seem a little high for what you get, but it's less than a typical tasting room fee.

The new app, which bears the unwieldy title of Santa Cruz Mountains Winery Directory (though given the title of this blog I have very little room to talk), seems to target a similar audience. The main screen follows a more traditional grid layout of icons with functions at the bottom. Since it's a free app they've saved costs by using stock clip-art, so the differing icon styles look a little odd. Unlike Winery Quest the data seems to be stored locally, which means that it works offline. There's also elements of 'because we can' to it; for example in the list of wineries each entry has a picture next to it that's too small to be useful, is of varying size, and takes a while to load on my old phone.

The app uses the phone's location facility and groups the wineries by proximity. That would be fine if you were looking for the nearest winery to wherever you are, but if you're planning a trip it would be more useful to specify the start point, or to find wineries that are close to each other. It also doesn't help that the data isn't entirely accurate; last time I checked Ridge was still on Monte Bello Road, not at Stevens Creek and De Anza. The Google map is a little easier to read than the Winery Quest version, although the same colour pin is used for wineries and other locations which can be a little confusing.

Speaking of the maps, there's a rather unfortunate bug here; once you enter the map screen the button to go back doesn't work; the only solution is to quit and restart.

The free app has a different set of wineries to Winery Quest. For the most part they overlap, but not entirely; for example Windy Oaks is included but not Zayante. The set also includes around half of the Santa Clara Valley wineries. Once again, if there's a selection criteria it's unclear; with Fernwood and Martin Ranch included but J Lohr, Creekview and Jason/Stephens missing.

Overall for a free application it's hard to be too critical; it's worth the 2Mb or so of space that it consumes and presumably will continue to be updated since it must intend to somehow derive revenue from advertising.

Looking on the app store I see that there's also another app called Wineries Locator. It costs $5 but the reviews look terrible.

Maybe I should learn how to write iPhone apps.