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Tarzan of the Apps

No matter what it is that you want to do, the switched on twenty-first century person will inform you loftily that "There's an app for that". Generally speaking, they are quite right – the craziest of ideas are bound to be embodied in an app somewhere, and to take advantage of this lunacy, all you have to do is install the app on your phone. Perhaps the most ridiculous app I have ever encountered is one that you can access when you go to the cinema. You tell the app what movie you are watching, and your phone will vibrate when you can safely go for a pee without missing anything significant in the plot...

In my experience, most apps are heavily over-engineered. Indeed, sometimes the bells, the whistles and the chromium-plated dancing girls are so overwhelming that it almost appears as if the designer of the app has completely lost sight of the original idea that the app was implemented to address in the first place!

I went looking for an app that would record how many steps I took on my daily walks with Jake the Dog. I also wanted the app to inform me about the number of kilometres that Jake and I had trudged through together – the action of converting steps to kilometres is a task far beyond my feeble mental arithmetic skills. Perhaps I should write an app to do it for me...

The app I eventually downloaded certainly provides me with all the basic information that I need, but it also has a huge number of other functions, none of which I have any interest whatsoever in using. If I let it, the app will send a text message to all my friends at the end of the day so that I can boast about how far I've walked. It actively encourages me to join groups of like-minded people and compete against them. It really, really wants me to upload all my data to a cloud server so that total strangers can compare their own efforts to mine, and it wants to draw complicated graphs that will attempt to define my progress in several arbitrary and statistically dubious ways.

The app requires me to set a goal for the day, and every 5000 steps or so it displays a congratulatory progress message on the phone's screen along with a little reminder of how far I still have to go before I reach my goal. When I do actually reach my goal the screen explodes in a hysterical paroxysm of delight! Fireworks erupt from the charging socket and triumphal music pours out of the speakers at full eardrum-exploding volume. A jubilant and very detailed email is sent directly to the Queen, along with a Blind Carbon Copy to the Prime Minister, so that they can both stop worrying about me and start getting on with their day.

Once I get home from my walk, all I want to do is rest my tired feet. If I set the phone on vibrate, the app will give me a very satisfying and restful foot massage while at the same time taking surreptitious photographs of my bunions which it transmits to MI5 when I'm not looking. I might be exaggerating a little here (only a tiny bit!), but I really can't be sure about that because the app has endless menus full of options that I don't understand, together with a series of utterly illiterate help screens all of which inform me that selecting option A will let me do A, without ever defining exactly what A might actually be or why on Earth I might want to do it in the first place...

But as a side effect of all this nonsense, at least I get to confirm that I really do achieve a minimum of 10,000 steps a day. Actually, most days, it's usually closer to 15,000 steps. And since, as any fule kno, 1 step equals 0.0006577878837095988305993178496020789345 kilometres (or thereabouts) I am managing to walk somewhere between six and half and nine and three-quarter kilometres a day. To a first approximation. So look upon my works, ye couch potatoes, and despair!

A very popular kind of app is one that will play your music for you. Effectively it turns your phone into a fruity mp3 pod person (Invasion of the Body Snatchers anyone?). I have very simple requirements for such a music player. All my music is arranged in a hierarchy, alphabetically by artist. Within each artist is an alphabetical list of albums and within each album I have a numeric list of tracks. All I want to do is browse around this structure, choose a particular album by a particular artist and then have the app play all the tracks on the album one by one. What could be simpler?

But that's not how music playing apps work.

One and all, they refuse to play any music for me until they have "scanned" my music files. This means that they completely ignore the nice structure I have already set up for them. Instead, they read through each music file in turn and then build exactly the same structure as mine in an internal database of their own. In order to play my music, I have to select it from the internal database rather than from my own files.

The apps obtain the information for their internal database from metadata stored in the actual music files themselves. Very few people ever have this metadata set up properly – personally, I am quite conscientious about trying to get it correct, but it's a rather hard job to do. Generally speaking, you need special software in order to do it properly and the software is often quite complex and difficult to use. Consequently I am painfully aware that much of my metadata is incorrect. As a result, entire albums vanish from my view once they are sucked into the app's database. I can see them quite clearly in my local hierarchy, but because the metadata is of dubious quality, the music player app insists they don't exist and therefore they cannot be played.

Then we have the knotty problem of playlists. Many music player apps refuse to let you simply play an album. They will only play items on a playlist. I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in constructing playlists – the thought of browsing slowly through all my umpteen thousand music files and adding them to arbitrary playlists fills me with a feeling of existential dread. All I ever want to do is play a selected album. But because of the nature of the app I must first go through the utterly unnecessary step of adding the album to a playlist before I can finally relax and enjoy the music.

Music apps too are not immune from the kitchen sink syndrome of feeping creaturism. There's all the usual nonsense of automatically telling my friends what music I'm currently listening to (as if they cared – I suspect that if I implemented this feature, everyone I know would quickly blacklist me because of all the spam I was sending them).  In addition I have the option of storing all my music in the cloud so that I can listen to it anywhere until the music goes away when the cloud provider has an oopsy and/or goes spectacularly bankrupt – at the moment my music is stored on a disk that is plugged in to my home network so I can only listen to it when I'm actually at home. This suits me fine because actually that's the only place where I listen to music anyway.

Then there are all the hidden features that cannot be accessed from the app menus and which are not discussed at all in the primitive and badly spelled documentation. I'm fairly certain, for example, that my current music app is routinely reporting me to the Society for the Persecution of Morris Dancing because every so often my Morris Dancing music starts to play backwards instead of forwards. Mind you, that's not really much of a problem because only the trained ear of an expert can actually tell the difference. It only becomes a significant problem when you dance along with the music and attempt to perform a Reverse Double Arkwright with Counter Clockwise Lunge... You can easily break all three of your legs when you try doing that to a backwards tune!

Apps apply (so to speak) in a lot of unusual situations. Not so very long ago, the village where I live was struck by a campylobacter infection in the water supply and several thousand people became rather ill as a result. Many of the people who live here are retirees, some of them quite feeble, and so the illness was potentially very serious. At a public meeting held with the council to discuss how the problem could have been better handled, and how the council could have better communicated inportant information to the people of the village, the Mayor extolled the virtue of an app. Most of his elderly audience stared at him with blank incomprehension. An app?

I installed the app on my phone. It proved to be very keen to inform me about any disasters that it thought were heading my way, and it told me what I needed to do to avoid them. It spent several days telling me of the potential for gale force winds which it claimed were due to arrive any minute now. These generally manifested themselves as light breezes that scarcely ruffled the fur on Jake's tail when we went for our walks. The app seemed to be utterly obsessed with wind to the point of monomania. It never sent me notifications about any other potential disasters. It seemed to be quite uninterested in storms and tempests, and it remained completely silent on the day when every drop of water on the planet fell out the sky over my village. All the gardens turned into primeval swamps and raging torrents of water surged through the storm drains. Roads became rivers, rivers became lakes and lakes became seas. The app couldn't have cared less. There wasn't any wind that day...

To while away the time between wind warnings, the app regaled me with tedious lectures that told me how to prepare myself to cope with a natural disaster. All this information about preparedness has been publicly available for half a century or more and the app contained no new insights. Bored, I deleted it.

The next day a series of gale force winds took me completely by surprise. They were so strong that they toppled some trees in the park where Jake and I go walking. As a great twentieth century philosopher once said: So it goes...

In place of the app recommended by the Mayor, I installed an app from GeoNet, an organisation charged with monitoring earthquakes. This app is really very useful indeed. When I wake up in the middle of the night to find that the bed is bouncing up and down, the walls of the house are flexing in and out, crockery is falling out of cupboards and smashing on the floor, and a terrified dog is burrowing under the blankets, the app sends me a notification which tells me that an earthquake is taking place – just in case I hadn't realised. It is strangely comforting to have your suspicions confirmed in this way.

Uniquely among apps, the GeoNet app seems quite uncluttered. There is no mechanism for sharing my favourite earthquakes with my friends and I don't have the ability to rate the strength of my earthquakes against the feebleness of theirs. The app never suggests that I register my earthquakes in the cloud and, as far as I can tell, it doesn't contact the earthquake police and accuse me of fracking whenever I dig a hole in my garden. I fully expect that these oversights will be addressed in the next release of the app.

Another major app that occupies far too much of my time is one that lets me read electronic books. Whenever I have a spare few minutes, such as when I'm standing in a queue or sitting on the bus, I make sure to whip out my gadget and read a few words. I greatly enjoy the ability to carry an entire library around in my pocket and I always make the most of it.

However, just like all the other apps on my phone, the electronic book reading apps do have their annoyances. Whenever I read a sexy bit my phone glows pink and plays "The Stripper" at low volume so that passers by can point at me and snigger knowingly. Particularly salacious scenes are automatically forwarded to the nunnery of my choice.

At random intervals, generally when the digits that display the time form a prime number, the app pops up a screen that threatens to tell me how the story ends unless I immediately rate the app highly in the play store. I always succumb to this threat. I really don't like spoilers.

Electronic books appeal greatly to my innate baby-boomer desire for instant gratification. We are the generation that went on protest marches and chanted:

"What do we want?"


"When do we want it?"


And I've never quite outgrown that desire. So, of course, I simply cannot resist the urge to click on a link and, just like that, bingo! There's another new book in my library. As a result of my complete inability to resist buying just one more book, I have so many volumes sitting in my virtual to-be-read pile that I no longer have enough time left in my life to read them all. Clearly what I urgently need now is something that will read all those books for me so that I don't have to do it myself. I wonder if there's an app for that?

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