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JFK Historymaker: an iOS biography app for the 35th President

JFK Historymaker (US$4.99) from MultiEducator, Inc. is an extensive and comprehensive multimedia biography app for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. The amount of information is massive and includes 250 photos, 200 full text documents and 25 videos chronicling the life of John F. Kennedy, the United States' 35th president. In structure, it's very similar to an earlier app from the same company about the Civil War. Both apps have many positive attributes, but also quite a few nagging problems.

The design of the app lets you easily get to and keep track of information. With its larger screen, viewing it on an iPad is far more satisfying since, in landscape mode, there is always a menu on the left side of the screen that shows the categories and sub-categories of information. On the right of the screen is the content. The menu isn't there in portrait mode, but tapping on a menu button makes it appear. In the iPhone version, all you see is the menu; tapping on an item brings up the content, making things more difficult to navigate. The menu items contain distinctive icons that let you know if the item contains a video, photo, audio file or text. A list of Recent places is kept, and anything can be marked as a Favorite so that you can build your own list of interests. Everything but videos can be sent to email as well. Text and photos can be pinched or stretched, which really comes in handy on a small screen.

Organization is important in this type of app, since there are around 35 topic-oriented categories that range from JFK's early life to his assassination. Within each category is a sub-menu that lists the content. Tapping on an item brings up the text, photo, video or audio. It sounds complicated, but after a few minutes of using it, I could easily get anywhere quite quickly, and saving Recents and Favorites made it even easier. There is a button letting you go back to the last category; in the unlikely event you did get lost, there is a Contents button that will bring you back to the main menu. On the iPad there is also a search box to get you to the right place.

Categories are grouped well and break everything down to bite-sized topics, such as Civil Rights, Bay of Pigs, The Navy and so on. Many categories start with an overview then drill down to an in-depth discussion of the topic. Under that are all the supporting items. A great deal of the text is comprised of transcripts of speeches, minutes of meetings and scanned documents, including JFK's report card from the Canterbury School in 1930. (He wasn't a terrific student.) When looking at anything other than a video, there is an Info button on the iPad or a tab on the iPhone to get specific information on what is being viewed.

The amount of information provided is encyclopedic. Since it contains so many videos, the app is quite large, weighing in at 444 MB, but even at that size, the videos are clips that top out at about three and a half minutes and don't provide the full speech or press conference. Full transcripts support most of the clips, so you can get a taste of video context while having the option of reading the full text. I thought this was a good trade-off since full videos, if they were available, would make the app many times the size. I don't think even the most picky completist could argue that anything significant was left out.

The app started 20 years ago as an interactive CD-ROM, and it has been updated to include analysis and information that has since been declassified to create a fuller picture of JFK's life. With everything being re-done and scrutinized, I didn't expect to find the problems in the app all stemming from sloppy proof-reading, as was the case in the first few versions of the Civil War app. There are quite a few errors, none of them factual. It was disheartening to read, right on the first menu under Intro to JFK, an item called "The Thougts of Author" (sic). A bunch of category names are problematic, such as "JFKReceives the Democratic Nomination" and "In charelston." Some item names are incorrectly duplicated. "Congressional Candidate" and "The Navy and PT-109," among others, have the same text for the summary and detail documents, when the app's convention was to use differing titles.

There are a lot of simple and obvious typos in text documents, and although the font and size used is pretty consistent, there are some that differ and could have been easily corrected. In at least one case, "State of the Union Address 1/11/62 1962," the date is a live link that if tapped brings up a dialog box asking if you want to Create New Contact or Add to Existing Contact, apparently using data detectors. These problems are flaws, but not terminal ones, and they shouldn't prevent you from buying the app. However, MultiEducator should have learned its lesson by now, and I really don't consider this acceptable.

Overall, the app is a treasure chest of information about JFK presented in an easy to navigate and well-organized manner. If you have a choice, use the iPad version since it's much easier to keep track of things. I was quite impressed with the completeness of the biography. I just wish MultiEducator would hire a proof-reader.

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