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French dip or char-grilled veggies with couscous? For Bowdoin students, there's an app for that

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French dip or char-grilled veggies with couscous? For Bowdoin students, there's an app for that

BRUNSWICK — When asked to develop a Bowdoin College-themed application for the iPhone, junior Ben Johnson decided to create one that would help solve one of the most persistent campus dilemmas.

Moulton Union or Thorne Hall?

Choosing between Bowdoin's highly touted dining halls is, as Johnson put it, "a somewhat nagging frustration" – so much so that the college's Internet technology team last year developed a desktop widget for Apple computers that gives complete menus and schedules for the college's two main cafeterias, as well as those for the campus cafe and grill pub. 

Last July, after winning a technology grant, Johnson began developing a similar application for Apple's iPhone. After learning an entirely new programming language and navigating Apple's complex licensing requirements, Johnson, a 20-year-old computer science major, has put the finishing touches on a program he hopes will be useful to Bowdoin's iPhone users.

"The experience translates a lot to my studies," Johnson said. "It was a fun process."

And a difficult one. 

Johnson began creating the application in July. He started from scratch, learning Apple's Xcode software by trawling user Web forums for instructions and tips. 

"There was a lot of trial and error and troubleshooting with people who had developed applications before," Johnson said.

While Apple gives out its Xcode software for development, Johnson said the company is particular about licensing and restricting permissions to guard against the so-called jail-breaking of the iPhone, a process that opens the device to unlicensed software, and potentially, makes it more suspectible to hackers. 

Johnson said adhering to Apple's development rules was just part of the challenge.

"I basically taught myself," Johnson said. "I spent about a month working out the bugs in the program."

Johnson released his first version of the program three weeks ago. A branding issue prompted Apple to reject the first submission. The company accepted the second submission, but Johnson discovered a glitch that forced him to pull the program from Apple's iTunes "app store."

Johnson said he hopes version 1.0.1 will be available by the end of this week.

The application provides hours of operation for all four dining facilities, as well as real-time notifications telling users when meals are about to end. Johnson said the menus are stored on the phone in the event a user loses their Internet connection. Students can also use the application to phone in meal orders. 

Johnson said between 15 and 20 people have tested the application. The response, he said, has been positive.

Johnson said he wants to create another iPhone application that allows students to get real-time scores from Bowdoin sports events.

"It would be much more complex," he said. "But it's possible now that I have this experience under my belt."

For now, Johnson said he'll settle for the satisfaction that a fellow diner at Moulton or Thorne will know what's on the menu.  

"They probably will never know that they're sitting next to the person who created the app," he said. 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net