Review: World Factbook 2008 for iPhone

The CIA World Factbook is one of those indispensable reference books that journalists, students, and researchers love. I know I do. The Factbook provides detailed information on the geographies, economies, populations, and militaries of more than 250 nations and territories on this big blue ball of ours. If you need to research business opportunities on Navassa Island (economy: subsistence fishing), the top exports and trading partners of Slovakia (vehicles, machinery and electrical equipment; Germany and the Czech Republic), or the Persian name of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami), the World Factbook is where you turn for the answers.

Let Your Flag Fly: Thumbnails of each country’s flag help liven up a bland interface. But getting from A to Z involves a lot of scrolling.

So the appearance of the World Factbook 2008 in the form of an app for the iPhone or iPod Touch is certainly a welcome one.

I wouldn’t presume to suggest that Western ITS, the British-based developer of the World Factbook 2008 app, is a CIA front, but it’s awfully audacious to charge $5 for an application that repackages information already available online and in the public domain for free. (The print edition costs around $100 and is available from the Government Printing Office.) No way. Not a chance. That kind of gumption and entrepreneurial initiative are foreign concepts in Langley these days.

So is the app worth the money? Maybe the next edition.

Apps that optimize Web sites for the iPhone can be worth the price—especially when they’re free. The NYTimes app springs instantly to mind. Very simply, trying to read the Times on the iPhone’s browser is a chore; reading the morning paper through the Times’ well-designed app is a pleasure (at least, when it doesn’t crash).

Consulting the CIA World Factbook on an iPhone or iPod touch through Safari is something of a chore, though less of a chore than other sites. Using the World Factbook 2008 app is something less than a pleasure.

Most of the data on the CIA’s World Factbook page is replicated in the World Factbook app. Surprisingly, the appendices are missing, as are most of the regional reference maps. The Factbook app’s interface is functional, but not beautiful. With its bland serif-typeface and workmanlike graphics, the Factbook app looks like a government publication. And while the information is well organized and presented in a straightforward way, the app lacks a search function or any cross-referencing.

But the app’s biggest drawbacks are the graphics and lack of landscape support. Part of what makes the online Factbook so useful is the maps. Users can download large, detailed versions of the maps from the CIA’s Web site. The World Factbook 2008 app’s maps are small, distorted and sometimes difficult to read. Obviously, it’s impossible to compare a map viewed on a laptop screen versus a map on an iPhone. Having a horizontal view and a zoom option would be a big help. And at least you can zoom in on the text and images in landscape mode when you use the iPhone’s browser.

The app also desperately needs an A-Z scroll function. Why developers do not include this feature with any list longer than the length of a screen as a matter of course is a mystery. Right now, the only way to visit the Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe entries of the Factbook is to let your finger do the walking. The road to Zanzibar (part of the east African nation of Tanzania, a former British colony that achieved independence in the early 1960s with a population of more than 40 million…) is only slightly more treacherous.

I like the way the World Factbook 2008 app breaks out each entry’s categories into discrete sections—flag, map, introduction, geography, people, government, and so on. The breakdowns make for easier reading. I also like how World Factbook included icons of each country’s flag next to its entry, which makes for slightly more attractive browsing. And, of course, I like having so much information handy with just a few taps of my finger.

But the overall execution is bland and unrewarding. If Western ITS releases a 2009 version of the CIA World Factbook, it needs to produce a graphically appealing and complete edition worthy of the price tag.

World Factbook 2008 is compatible with any iPhone or iPod touch running the iPhone 2.x software update.

[Ben Boychuk is a writer and columnist in Rialto, Calif.]

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