One of my least favorite kinds of iPhone App is the “web clone.” Typically these are little more than a mobile version of a web page kept within the skin of a downloadable App. The premise of a web clone is that encapsulating the website in the App will make it more convenient to the user. In reality, most of them exist because the owner of the web service (whether it be a site, a bank, or a social network) is too lazy to code up a “real” App but wants to benefit from the publicity of the App Store. On the other hand, there are a few exceptions to the rule. This week’s App appears to be a web clone of Wikipedia, but as it turns out, the developers did a great job and found new ways to navigate the site.
It’s a fairly unsurprising search bar, but I was impressed with the suggestions that popped up as I typed. The auto-populated results are so good that you’ll usually get out of typing your whole query. After selecting a search topic you’ll get an article pane:
One of the things that’s nice about the article pane is that as long as you stay within the Wikipedia domain, you won’t leave the App (and consequently have to juggle Safari as well). Instead, internal links stay in the pane you’re viewing. If you want multiple articles open, you’ll probably need to switch to Safari, but for general reference it’s quite sufficient.
Also, notice that the App supports horizontal viewing. This is kind of a no-brainer, but many Apps leave it out.
The buttons along the bottom are very handy in Wikipanion. They appear to be the same ones found in Safari, but their functions are quite different. The “bookmark” button actually opens up the table of contents. Longer articles (like this one on blogs) have significantly lengthy subsections and manually scrolling to the one you want can be a chore. I suggest definitely looking at the table of contents [seen below to the left] whenever you get to a new article.
External links have been grouped together in a similar way. Clicking the “send to” button (usually used to copy a link to email) will open up the external links [seen above at the right] that are normally found at the bottom of a Wikipedia article.
I’m guessing that the developer used these icons because they are already part of the iPhone SDK. They’re logical enough, but I fear someone who didn’t have the benefit of a wonderful article like this one (I joke) might not discover them immediately. Hopefully the next version of Wikipanion will use icons distinct from those of Safari.
Wikipanion really gives the entire experience of using Wikipedia on a mobile platform. Right now there is no editing function, but I think most users will find this acceptable. Editing a wiki page with all of the necessary syntax should really be done carefully. A tiny keyboard where mistakes are easily made might be the wrong environment for a Wikipedia contributor. Feel free to debate this in the comments.
Despite the fact that this is, in some sense, a “walled garden” because you can’t do more than view anything, this is a solid App and it’ll be sitting on my Home screen for quite a while to come.
As always, let us know what YOU think. There must be other Wikipedia Apps out there. Any you like better? What do you use to get your reference fix on the iPhone?