App Review: Forward Chess
NOTE: This review was done using Forward Chess version 1.3.3 on a Nexus 10 running Android 4.4.4.
NOTE: This review was based on my experiences with the ebook versions of Mating the Castled King by GM Danny Gormally and Techniques of Positional Play by Bronznik and Terekhin. To keep this article concise, my review of the books is posted separately.
Forward Chess is a chess ebook app available for Android and iOS. Forward Chess provides an ebook experience that is specifically tailored to chess books on mobile devices. Readers can toggle an analysis board on and off and play through the moves on the analysis board as they read through the book. This experience is seamless. Users simply need to tap any chess move in the book to instantly load the analysis board to that position. For chess readers used to setting up physical boards to play through a chess book, the experience is ecstasy. Playing through a well annotated game on a physical board is a slog; here one can easily whip through the main line and all the variations and feel that one has absorbed far more. The app also includes Stockfish 4 and one can easily toggle the engine on and off for any position.
Image from Gormally's Mating the Castled King
To my mind, an app review is different than a book review as the app has the ability to update and resolve simple issues. So long as the app is not bug-ridden, the most important thing is the concept and implementation and the business model. Consequently, I will try to focus on the larger application framework here.
The app itself is free, but the individual books range in value from 1.99 to 24.99. The vast majority seem to fall in a sweet spot between 11.99 and 19.99. The app comes with True Lies by Fabrega and On Life and Chess by Shipov. If you are interested in the app, you may as well download it for these books alone. Ebook samples are available for download for the vast majority of the books in the store.
Forward Chess currently has arrangements with 6 publishers (Quality Chess, New in Chess, Chess Informant, Mongoose Press, Russel Enterprises, and Chess Stars). At the time of this writing, they had over 50 books available. Some of these are quite acclaimed books that I can heartily recommend (e.g. Pump Up Your Rating, Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, and Tal-Botvinnik 1960). Others, such as Quick Kills: Alapin Sicilian, are rather less well known. Also, many of the books available are opening books; some of these are opening books are truly excellent, but by their very nature, opening books have a targeted audience, consequently, the book library feels smaller than the 50+ books.
Forward Chess app store
On the positive side, Forward Chess has plenty of new books in the pipeline (http://www.forwardchess.com/schedule.php). I am particularly interested to see more of Quality Chess’ excellent library made available. On the negative side, I am concerned that some of the most established chess publishers such as Gambit may never release their libraries to Forward Chess. Gambit has been aggressive about providing Kindle book versions of their books in recent years. Many publishers may, like Gambit, have their own mobile strategy and be uninterested in working with Forward Chess.
Positive User Experiences
In general, I can speak very positively to the user experience. The core functionality is very well designed. The analysis board, engine, and table of contents are quickly accessible and work well. It is a real pleasure to be able to tap a move or a diagram in the book and instantly have the board representation. The text design is also very good, the default settings are very legible and interactive. Users can also create Bookmarks and Notes. Finally, the library and store are fluid. The store is very navigable, and it is extremely simple to make in app book purchases.
Negative User Experiences
In general, my experience was quite positive, but there were definitely some issues. The primary frustration was that the built in engine would regularly crash the app. This is obviously quite frustrating. Without using the engine, Forward Chess still provides an excellent reading experience, but everytime I wanted to use the engine, I felt like I was playing Russian Roulette with app crashing. Fixing such crashes has to be priority number one for Forward Chess.
The following issues I observed in the app were relatively minor, I hope that these issues may be addressed soon, but they did not significantly detract from my enjoyment of the books. First, textual display can be improved. One can adjust the text font size, but it is not possible to adjust the text color, the background color, or the font. A personal pet peeve of mine is that the text is left aligned instead of justified. I cannot understand why the default alignment is not justified in this day and age. The app also does not support a rotation lock. It is easy to enable a device wide rotation lock in settings, but it would be nice to have a rotation lock in the app that only applied to the app. For instance, I almost always prefer to read in portrait mode, and I would gladly lock the rotation to prevent accidental rotation when reading in one of the various contorted couch positions I inevitably end up in.
On occasion, the app seemed to skip around in the chapter as I was navigating the analysis board. For instance, I might select a move and the board would load that position perfectly, but the book would jump back to the beginning of the chapter. Sometimes, it was also hard to select the right move, especially when the move I was selecting was next to a diagram; the diagram image seemed to interfere with the interactive links in its vicinity.
There were also occasional bugs in the analysis board. These were quite rare (perhaps 3 or 4 issues in a book), and they were almost more amusing than frustrating. Sometimes the analysis board position was not the same as the diagram position and sometimes illegal positions were generated. The below is a gif of one such problem that I came across in playing through a position.
Here is another peculiarity I came across. I flipped on the engine here to verify the study solution and I found that 0-0 was a recommended move. Rather surprising… I tried castling and sure enough, the app let me play it! It certainly is an excellent move; it gains 2 whole rooks!
Finally, I felt that the plentiful diagrams in the books were excessive when the digital board was so readily available. Ordinarily, plentiful diagrams are laudable. However, when one has an embedded analysis board at hand, they feel rather redundant, and they waste valuable screen real estate. In the long run, my suggestion would be to include a function to toggle book diagrams on and off.
My primary concern about Forward Chess is the long term viability of the company. Forward Chess is a startup, and sadly, many startups fail even when they do all the right things. Recently, an ebook app that I very much enjoyed called Readmill announced that they were folding. Readmill had a lot of excellent buzz surrounding their app, and a large user body. However, Readmill was unable to get publishers to work with them, and in the long run, their business simply wasn't sustainable. Readmill users are able to export all of their books and read them in other apps. Thus, Readmill readers retained ownership of their digital books.
Forward Chess books can only be read in the Forward Chess app. If Forward Chess should ever fold, readers may eventually lose access to their books as the app becomes obsolete. Forward Chess, despite the best of intentions, may not be able to allow users to export their books because of legal restrictions in their agreements with chess book publishers. In a sense, users are leasing digital copies of their books from Forward Chess; there is no tangible ownership of the books. With an established company such as Amazon, this is not a problem. The risk that Amazon will fold and users will lose their Kindle books is small. With Forward Chess, this risk is regrettable larger. I would feel much more secure in the digital ownership of books with Forward Chess if there was a clear policy from the company or if they had the backing of a larger player in the chess book market.
As a chess book reading experience, I can strongly recommend Forward Chess, with the caveat that engine crashing needs to be fixed ASAP, and I hope the other milder bugs I came across are ironed out in a timely fashion. If the concept appeals to you, I think you will find that Forward Chess is exactly what you are looking for. However, I believe there are legitimate concerns about the end user’s content ownership rights that are outside of Forward Chess’ control. Readers will need to make their own decisions about whether or not they are comfortable purchasing in such a system. On a personal note, I am very inspired by the innovation Forward Chess is bringing to the market, I am hopeful that they will continue to improve their app, their library, and their market share.