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© RIA Novosti. Alexander Utkin

Grammar apps a hit

The young programmer Stanislav Smagin has debuted in Apple’s App Store with the educational games Punktuatsia (Punctuation) and Orfografia (Spelling). Unexpectedly even for Smagin himself, the programs about the Russian language are ranking high on the top app chart.

You’re 27 years old, and you have launched your first applications for Apple mobile devices. Why did you want to do this?

Before, I was making Flash toys for social networks, but then some ideas came up to write programs for the App Store. In fact, this is like the Klondike: for several years already programmers have had some kind of “gold fever.” Everyone has heard of the successes of the fabled Angry Birds or of different niche developments – say, applications with shopping lists. In addition, it’s important that one is able to write a popular application by oneself.

What costs did the development entail?

Costs were only $99 for registering as a developer at the App Store. Nothing more was needed because I am a professional programmer and I can also draw a little bit, I once did web design. I didn’t study anything else.... The only detail that posed a problem was the payment for registration at the App Store: they did not take Visa cards from Russia. I had to send my card number by fax. I didn’t have any other difficulties in registration.

Why Russian?

Angry Birds is held up as one of the landmarks of App Store success being pursued by new designers and programmers

© RIA Novosti. / Peter Bystrov

Angry Birds is held up as one of the landmarks of App Store success being pursued by new designers and programmers

It all started when I saw the application Orfograf. There, the user is prompted to choose one of several options of the spelling of a word. I liked this – the theme of the Russian language was engaging. But in this program, not everything was the way I wanted it. I decided, that more often mistakes in Russian are tolerated in punctuation, and I set about writing the application of that name [Punktuatsia]. I worked on Punktuatsia for about three weeks.

You’re a techie. Did someone help you work out the intricacies of the rules?

I have a technical education, the Bauman Technical University, but I graduated from school with a medal. I love to read. It’s true, recently I have moved to audiobooks. My favorite writer is Bulgakov. To put it another way, I consider myself a more or less literate person. Nevertheless, I worked on Orfografia with the professional philologist Andrei Vostokov, but Punktuatsia I did practically on my own. I had to refresh my memory, His Highness [the linguist Ditmar] Rozental helped. And my girlfriend, she was the main person who tested the program, a huge thanks to her. At the same time, it was helpful for me to make the application.

You have a curious selection of writers whose work you use. I saw [Viktor] Pelevin, [Vladimir] Sorokin. Why such a selection?

In Punktuatsia there were Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. At the time, I was worried about copyrights, because I didn’t understand them much, and I selected those works that were already public-domain – “strict” classics that they force-fed us at school. Then people commented on the application, complaining: “What is all this arcane stuff? Why am I getting all of these complicated sentences that will never be needed in real life? I never speak like that!” Then, in Orfografia, we decided to vary the authors – we added Pelevin, and Sorokin, and Tatyana Tolstaya.

In your applications, you don’t kill zombies, you don’t chase cars. There are only letters and commas. Where has this sudden popularity come from?

I didn’t expect it! People are interested, apparently, that it’s not simply a toy, but a way to test oneself. Get a 5? Cool! A 3? They go back, read the rules. By design, the application came together cleanly and precisely. App Store users love it, and many comments noted the attractive look. In addition, there is integration with social networks: on Facebook and Twitter, you can post a card and ask your friends what punctuation or letters they would put in. Sometimes this kicks off whole discussions.

What do users argue about?

Often, they discuss authors’ punctuation. In general, this is a touchy subject on the application. I tried, where possible, to take out sentences with particular indicators of authors’ writing, but some things remained. For example, everyone writes “quick-quick” with a hyphen, but in Tolstoy, it has a comma. So everyone pounced on me, screamed, [but] I haven’t yet fully taken this card out of the application.

When users complained about the sentences in Punktuatsia, Smagin used examples from modern ones such as Viktor Pelevin in Orfografia

© RIA Novosti. / Iliya Pitalev

When users complained about the sentences in Punktuatsia, Smagin used examples from modern ones such as Viktor Pelevin in Orfografia

In addition, did I read another criticism of your application in the reviews at the App Store, where they’re basically abusing you?

They’re yelling at me, “This is an application for guest workers! It’s too easy!” Or, “To cash in on a great and powerful language is shameful!” But should it really be shameful for me? This is, in fact, my product, which I’ve put my time and skills into.

How do you plan to develop the applications?

I acknowledge that Orfografia came out easy. There are no conjugations, nor any complex dictionary words. So I will release a special selection of cards for the “hard-core” in the Russian language. In Punktuatsia, there will be an interesting thematic selection. It will be completely dedicated to fantasy literature. I will supplement the game’s rules in time.

Are you going to launch new programs?

I want to do something similar on literature. On a card will be a poem, and you’ll have to identify who its writer is. I had such a test when I enrolled at the Bauman. It is possible that I will add educational information, how to distinguish the authors. You can identify a poet not just through studying his work, but also through style and characteristic themes.... In the App Store there are many educational games for children, but few for adults. But adult customers also need to study, to be reminded what they learned at school.

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