Where is IMDB’s API?

Internet Movie Database

Internet Movie Database

I really like the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). It is the largest freely available database of movie related data. I use it mainly for two things:

  1. Whenever I see an actor or actress in a movie and cannot remember in which movie I have seen that person before. IMDB list all the actors/actresses in the movie and allows you to click on the name of each person. On the page of the person it will then show you all the movies in which they played a role.
  2. Whenever I am in video store and need to know whether the movieĀ  that I am about to rent is any good. IMDB has a ratings systems that can give you a good general idea of the quality of the movie.

This post will be about the second use case. In the video store I use the Internet connection of my mobile phone. This is a tedious and often infuriating process, especially when you want to look up multiple titles. IMDB’s pages are huge (they have many images and ads), and this makes them load very slowly. In case of an ambiguous title two pages need to load before you can see the rating. Let’s look at an example. If I search for “pulp fiction” I get the following page:

IMDB results page (click to enlarge)

IMDB results page (click to enlarge)

I then have to click on theĀ  “Pulp Fiction” link to see the IMDB page which has the rating:

Pulp Fiction at IMDB (click to enlarge)

Pulp Fiction at IMDB (click to enlarge)

After another angry session at the video store, I decided to do something about it. First I looked for a mobile version of the IMDB website. There are some available options (see here and here), but they are geared towards iPhones and don’t really work well.

Next I decided to write my own small web application and tried to find the IMDB API. It doesn’t exist! Unfortunately there is no way to easily use and re-purpose IMDB’s data. I don’t understand why some web companies (in this case Amazon) still don’t realise that this actually inhibits the building of their brands.

Luckily there is always one last option: screen scraping. I was actually willing to try and write my own parser for this (would be great practise), but found Izzysoft‘s IMDBPHP class which makes this easy work. This class allows you to get a lot of data about each movie.

After about two hours of programming I now have the following result. I call it Rent it?:

Rent it? The results for "Pulp Fiction"

Rent it? The results for "Pulp Fiction"

I tried to design it to be as fast as possible and made it fit for purpose using the following design considerations:

  • I used a big input field at the top of the screen, with a big button underneath. This input field is also shown on the results pages, so that it is always easy to start a new query. The field gets automatic focus as soon as the page finishes loading.
  • Only relevant information about each movie is shown: rating, title, year, director, run time in minutes and a user generated plot outline. The title links to the original IMDB page which will open in a new window.
  • The standard IMDB score is converted to a percentage and gets a background colour on the basis of the height of the rating. Red has a rating of less than 60% (not worth watching), whereas movies with green ratings are above 70% and could be interesting.
  • The pages are very light: no ads or images. All the processing is done on the server. If a search has many results, then this processing can still take a while. That is why the number of results are capped at five and results are cached for a week (also on the server to benefit everybody).

I hope you are willing to try it out and look forward to any of your feedback!

Try “Rent it?

Rent it? is also accessible through my mobile start page.

A SnapAsk Widget for Symbian S60

Answers in a snap

Answers in a snap

My favourite gadget of all time is the Psion 5MX. EPOC, its operating system, was sheer genius. It had a great interface and was a joy to use. EPOC became Symbian S80 and when the lack of Internet functionality of the Psion became too bothersome I decided to switch to a Nokia 9500, then to a Nokia E90 and now I own a Nokia E71 with Symbian S60 3rd edition.

Suddenly I find myself stuck with a smartphone that has an operating system which doesn’t leverage the keyboard of the device and is in many ways quite clunky (some options are hidden more than five layers deep). However I much prefer Symbian to the other available platforms: the iPhone is extremely nice but married to iTunes and locked down, Palm hasn’t been resurrected yet, Windows Mobile is a joke (using a pen is ridiculous in this day and age), the Neo Freerunner is too experimental, Maemo doesn’t allow me to use a SIM card and all the phones running Android that currently exist have no battery life.

I like to get the maximum potential out of all the technology that I use. I have spent quite a bit of time setting up my phone exactly the way I like it, so that I have quick access to information on the go (see for example the custom mobile start page that I created). In due time I will write a post about the programs that I use on my phone. In this post I want to focus on a small widget that I developed yesterday evening.

A couple of months ago I read a post on Lifehacker about a great service for people who own a mobile device with email capabilities: SnapAsk allows you to send an email to ask – at – snapask -dot- com with a keyword and a query in the subject line. SnapAsk will then reply to your email with an answer to your query. So “wiki Symbian” will return the Wikipedia page for Symbian and “news economic crisis” will return an email with relevant news articles. Some of the keywords are a bit US centric and don’t return proper results for me in the Netherlands (e.g. weather, traffic or flight), others are quite innovative: Know some words of a song, but can’t remember the name or who sang it? Send an email with the subject “lyrics A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of” to Snapask and you will be textually Rickrolled.

Using SnapAsk on my phone proved more difficult than I had hoped. I had to either type in the email address in the To: field or select it from my contacts, remember (the hardest part!) and type the keyword I wanted to use and finally type the query. I also learnt the other day that Nokia has decided to support widget development on their Symbian platform. So I gave in to my tinkering spirit and committed to trying to write a little widget which would make it easier to use SnapAsk on my phone.

I set the following criteria for the widget:

  • It should require the least amount of possible clicks
  • It should be as close to self explanatory as possible
  • I would have to be done with it in a couple of hours
The UI of the widget

The UI of the widget

At first I thought I would create links for each keyword and an input field for the query. The user would first click on the link with the keyword, then write the query and finally click on a link or press a button to start the email application. Later I realised that I could eliminate one step by making the keywords buttons. This way the user would only have to type in the query and select the correct keyword.

This idea required some Javascript. I have been wanting to try jQuery, so I wrote the initial implementation using that library. When I tried loading the page on my phone I learnt that jQuery seemingly was not supported by Nokia’s built-in browser. I then decided to try and write it with normal Javascript code and this worked perfect. With some CSS I managed to get the input field to be the full width of the top of the page (where the cursor is likely to be). I also made the field higher by increasing the font-size property, so that it is easy to get your cursor on it, in case it isn’t. The only thing I couldn’t manage to do was get the field to auto-focus on load. It seems that Nokia doesn’t want to support that function.

All I had to do, after finishing the HTML file (with inline CSS and Javascript), was create an XML file called info.plist with the name of the widget and its version number and an icon.png file of 88×88 pixels. I then put these three files into a folder, zipped it and changed the extension to .wgz.

The widget as an installed app

The widget as an installed app

The great thing about these widgets is that they install like any other Symbian program and can, by default, be found in the Installations directory on your phone. Ajax can be used and apparently some Javascript methods exist that allow you to map certain functions to the softkeys of the phone.

I really like how standardised web technology is becoming. This widget should run on any other device with a standards based browser and if you keep the structure of the page simple and clean you can expect each individual mobile browser to display the page optimally.

My employer has standardised on Symbian smartphones for all their consultants. It should be relatively easy for them to develop a highly relevant widget that will enable me to do my work better and more efficiently. I have to say I am bit puzzled about the fact that Nokia is not pushing this concept a bit harder. Where is the Nokia Widget Store?

I would love for people to use the widget and give me some feedback on whether they like it:

Download the Widget
(or try in your browser if you don’t have a Symbian phone)

If you know of any other interesting widgets for Symbian please let me know!