Linger for iOS

I’m going to get right down to it: you should buy Linger for iOS (here’s an App Store link). The app lets you explore the Prelinger Archives, a collection of short movies, ads, PSAs and propaganda from the 20th century all on your iPad (it works great for iPhone too).

Even if you’ve never heard of the Prelinger Archives before, you’re probably still familiar with the style of videos you’ll find there, the old black and white movies, showing assorted clips with a wholesome-sounding narrator. Think “Duck and Cover” or “Reefer Madness”, and you’ll get the idea.

The app, which requires iOS 6, is a perfect display for the content. From the welcome tour to the multiple ways to browse content, you can tell the developer has put a lot of thought and care into the experience. It basically looks like what an iPad app from the nineteen-fifties would look like, replete with poster themes and the perfectly chosen fonts. This app nails the style for its content.

So once you pick a video to watch (the videos are usually short in length, but there are some longer ones in there, too) the presentation works just as you’d expect. Most of the videos are in black and white, although there are some colour films as well.

The app is fast, responsive, beautiful and clever. It’s a great way to learn about early film culture, and it’s a great contribution to the App Store, but I wanted to find out more about the motivation behind it, so I interviewed the man behind it, Chuck Shnider to find out more.

Jason: Where did the idea for Linger come from?

Chuck: Linger was really a classic “scratch an itch” software project. I’d spent time off-and-on watching ephemeral films on my iPad, but was always frustrated by how difficult it was to browse online to find good stuff to watch. Some of those difficulties are rooted in limitations of simple webpages, while others were related to inconsistencies with the films’ metadata. Sometimes it boiled down to something as basic as a film being split into multiple parts, but there being nothing obvious to tell you that there were multiple parts, and where they could be found.

The iPad itself is very well-suited for the task of one person exploring a series of short films. At some point I just got sick of the hassle of watching the films on the web and started looking at what sort of open data I could get from, and started coding up an app.

Jason: How was the app developed (and how long/when did you work on it, etc.)?

Chuck: The app was developed over a period of 9 months as a side-project. Along the way, I also wrote a Mac app to process and analyze the raw metadata from Prelinger Archives. I mentioned earlier about inconsitencies with the source metadata. By applying some love to the data, users of Linger are spared some of that. However, there are few shortcuts when it comes to cleaning up that data. I do what I can with automation, but many of the corrections I did were applied by hand based on errors that were discovered by hand.

Jason: Did you build on any existing 3rd party technologies or do anything exciting with Apple’s frameworks?

Chuck: Most of the third-party stuff I use is pretty mainstream: AFNetworking, mogenerator, TransformerKit, HockeySDK. Beyond the more common libraries, I use a third-party library called KSScreenshotManager to help automate production work for App Store screenshots, and also for images which form the basis of the app’s launch images.

The app requires iOS6, and makes heavy use of UICollectionView, Auto-Layout, and Storyboards.

For graphic assets, I’m using stuff from The Noun Project and Subtle Patterns. I also spent a considerable amount of time searching for suitable fonts which had licenses that permitted embedding within a mobile app.

These aren’t technologies per se, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the great support I’ve received from Rick Prelinger, plus the video and metadata hosting provided by the Internet Archives. For an individual developer to ship an app like this, it’s essential to find a way to host all the video content for little or no cost.

Jason: Why are you highlighting the Prelinger archives? Why are they important for people to see?

Chuck: The heyday of ephemeral films was really from the 1930s to 1960s. This was also the period where corporations and governments really learned to use moving images to influence public opinion through advertising, education, and propaganda. For anyone who is a student of media literacy, consumer society, or 20th century American history, I think there is much to learn from watching these films. If you like kitsch, of course there is tons of that. Watch a little longer, though, and it’s almost inevitable that deeper themes come to the surface.

There are a few large collections of ephemeral films online. Prelinger Archives was particularly suitable for making into an app because the collection is well-researched, and they have clear terms of use for both the films and associated metadata.

Jason: What do you imagine for the app in the future?

Chuck: In the near-term, I have a few features planned that are “creature comforts” for more habitual users. Beyond that, I plan to focus on helping new users find interesting films to watch. There is definitely a lot of room for improvement there, and I think it would help new users to become the sort of habitual users who end up recommending the app to friends, etc.

Jason: Do you have or plan to have any kind of analytics in the app to figure out what viewers are watching? It seems like that might help to fuel more people to discover new gems in the app.

Chuck: No formal plans, but if a large-enough community of viewers does form to make the numbers meaningful, then it is something worth looking into. I’d also want to feel like the extra value from “top viewed films” was worth it to users in exchange for the anonymized usage data they would need to provide. With an app like this, I think of the user experience as more like visiting a library than watching videos on YouTube. What films you are viewing should be considered private, unless you decide to share on-purpose.

On a related vein, I’m looking into creating a venue where I can write a bit about films I’ve personally found interesting. One side-effect of developing an app like this is you get to watch a lot of the films. I haven’t settled on a format yet, but it may start out as a blog, and in time also incorporate the blog content directly into the app as well.

You should check it out.

Speed of Light