WWDC: The Evolution & Struggles of a Small Developer: Ecamm Network

| TMO Interview

Once again this year, TMO’s Dave Hamilton is at WWDC in San Francisco interviewing Apple developers. In this interview, Mr. Hamilton sat down with Glen Aspeslagh, founder of Ecamm network. They chatted about how Ecamm Network came to be, how the products evolved, some interesting product surprises and some developer issues these days with Apple.

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Dave Hamilton: I’m here with Glen Aspeslagh from Ecamm Network at WWDC. So, Glen, you’ve been developing apps for a long time for the Mac — and, as history goes, for a long time for iOS now too. And it seems like your niche is doing things that people wouldn’t otherwise think to do with apps…

Glen Aspeslagh: I would say … doing things that are difficult even for programmers, and if we can figure out something that only we can figure out how to do, that’ll give us a good position. Even if it doesn’t work as well. That’s been our business model all along.

We we first started out, our first big app was the iChatUSBcam plug-in. I don’t know if you remember that. It got third party cameras to show up in iChat. And it was jus a massive hack. But it saved a lot of people a lot of trouble.

TMO: Was that designed with the intention of selling and building as business on it? Or was is designed so that you could do it and then share it with others?

GA: A little background. I was writing and selling Palm software for years. Since 1999. An Ken [Aspeslagh] and I were both finishing up college, and Ken was working on a bunch of Mac OS 9 apps. And I was turning out the PalmOS apps. And selling them on pages like Palm Gear. Ken’s apps were churning along, and then Mac OS X came out. So he stopped working on those and switched to iChatUSBCam in his spare time. Then he did iGlasses for Mac OS X.

Glen Aspeslagh

TMO: Has iGlasses really been out for ten years?

GA: It’s been awhile. And it’s evolved. iGlasses is another one of those things that’s designed to solve a little problem. The original iSight camera, that metal tube, with a FireWire 400 connection, was an amazing camera. But, when you took it home and plugged it in, for whatever reason, the first thing you said was, “this is too dark.” I don’t know, maybe Apple only tested it with studio lighting.

TMO: Sure. Or fluorescent lighting on Apple’s campus.

GA: It’s an incredibly powerful camera, but the auto-brightness control just made everything dark. So, our plug-in tapped into the … plethora of adjustments that you could make to this camera that Apple just didn’t give you any ability to adjust. Apple should have given you this really big page of sliders with brightness and contrast and color balance and tint — and called it a day.

But it didn’t exist, so we added that. And it was extremely popular. Mostly because when you brought home your iSight, and then you Googled “why is my iSight so dark,” our eight dollar plug-on came up. And then we started to realize we could make a business out of this.

There’s so many Mac users, and they don’t mind getting a problem solved and paying eight dollars or ten dollars for it. So we were always coming it with these fairly inexpensive little solutions. Since then, iGlasses has evolved too and includes image enhancement, effects, and a lot of other neat stuff. But we’ve had to completely rewrite it to be compatible with [OS X] Lion and Mountain Lion.

TMO: Now, you’re not able to sell that in the Mac App Store. That goes too far outside the bounds, right

GA: Anywhere where we’re pretty much doing anything out of the mainstream, there will always be a reason why it’s not a candidate for the Mac App Store. As in the case of a lot of other apps, it’s just not an “app.” App Store apps need to be something you just double-click, and it’s [installed] in the Applications folder.

Apple will never have something like a video driver in the MAS. We at Ecamm need to install things in the Core Media IO folder and the QuickTime Components folder. You’re just not allowed to start throwing files into folders, the Library, and Applications Support. With good reason.

TMO: With good reason! It makes sense in their model.

GA: I mean, you’re not even allowed to ship a System Preference Pane. Which is kind of a shame, because those are managed quite nicely by the OS. It seems like they could pull that off. They’re essentially little app bundles. Our Printopia app is a System Pref, and if we ever wanted to finagle that into the App Store, we’d have to make it be an app, but it’s a shame. Because we get email from people out of the blue telling us, “you know, it’s really great that that’s a System Pref. That’s the perfect spot for it. I love the fact that it’s a System Pref.”

It would be just so sad to have to make it not be a System Pref. But we’ve been able to get along quite nicely without the [Mac] App Store..

TMO: Okay, that was going to be my next question. Have you felt any pain of not being there? I mean, not that you were ever there. So it’s not like you lost something.

GA: We have our card reader, photo recovery app, CardRaider, in the Apple Store. It’s one our less popular apps. But it’s a fun app because we’ll get customers who are so happy they’re able to recover their photos and videos from their camera cards. So it’s fun to have that in the App Store.

TMO: Am I correct in interpreting that you actually sell fewer copies of the app that’s in the App Store compared to things like iGlasses?

Glen AspeslaghGA: Yeah, CardRaider is not as popular. But one interesting thing with CardRaider is when we put it in the App Store, our direct sales stayed the same. And then our App Store sales were on top of that. Very interesting. I don’t know if that would be the case for other developers. But putting Cardraider in the App Store doubled its sales.

TMO: Interesting. So you didn’t cannibalize your own sales.

GA: It didn’t seem to do that. It just seems that there is a set of users that would look for a card reader on Google and there’s a set of users that would look for a photo recovery app in the App Store.

TMO: Right. And it’s not the same users. By and large.

GA: Yeah, we have competitors in that space, so I mean we just basically increased the potential people who could find our app.

TMO: That’s fascinating. I hadn’t heard that before. But I don’t know that I’ve ever asked that question specifically before. I mean you’re in a unique situation — you have the data points on both sides of it.

GA: We sold CardRaider for years before the App Store, so it was nice to just kinda toss it on there and get a sales boost.

TMO: Have you have any issues dealing with the App Store? Has it been pretty much smooth sailing? I mean, obviously, you’re not trying to put apps in that can’t go there.

GA: It’s a constant struggle, we feel. Because the Mac App Store is really a place for, with some exceptions, plain vanilla apps. And anything where you’re trying to do something the slightest bit out of the ordinary, you instantly run into trouble. There are some great exceptions … like Rogue Amoeba’s Piezo app, where they were able to brilliantly record audio from other apps without violating any guidelines or rules. It’s amazing that they could get that in the App Store. It’s inspiring for us.

TMO: That in and of itself is a hack. Figuring out how to keep it inside the lines.

GA: That’s inspiring for us. How cool is that? That they got that in the App Store. But then here’s an example of something we ran into fairly recently. And this may change as Mountain Lion progresses. App Store apps aren’t allowed to escalate permissions. They’re not allowed to bring up that screen that says, “Type in your administrator user name and password.” Which is necessary for certain operations. Now, Mountain Lion won’t let us do one of the things we were doing in CardRaider, without root access.

TMO: And that’s not the case in Lion?

GA: Right. This is something new in Mountain Lion. We just came across this a couple days ago. We can’t start recovering your photos without root access. It’s probably something they added for security. Maybe it’s something they will fix before Mountain Lion ships. If they don’t, we’ll have to pull that app from the App Store. It’s sad. Unless we can find some sort of workaround. So there’s that challenge of staying the App Store and keeping us on our toes.

We may find some way to read the disk in a different way.

TMO: Maybe that’s a good question for the [developer] lab here at WWDC.

GA: So here at WWDC we will track down the people responsible for this change and pick their brains. They’ll probably just tell us to file a Radar [bug report].

TMO: [Laughing] Yeah, but at least you can get person to person with them first. Maybe get them thinking about it.

GA: That’s one of the great things about WWDC. They have over a thousand engineers here, and one of them is your guy. If he’s not here today, he’ll be here on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. That’s why we keep coming back. It’s a great resource.

TMO: That, I hear a lot, and it makes sense. We’ve experienced that ourselves with minor things, Safari, we were having a problem… being able to sit down with the people who write that and fix it is good.

So you do a lot of apps that manipulate iOS devices but, correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t write many iOS apps, is that correct?

GA: Not right now, we don’t. We don’t have any of our apps under the Ecamm name in the iOS App Store. When the iOS App Store first came out, we did a partnership with another company, and we did File Magnet.

TMO: Oh, I didn’t realize that was you!

GA: It was a really fun project. We haven’t done anything since then. We’re really tempted to get in there now that the hardware is just so amazing. And the SDK has come so far. In 2007 it was just, by comparison to today, a rinky dink SDK, you know. It was just so limiting what you could do. And now with iOS 6, its mind boggling what you can do.

TMO: Yep. It seems like now there’s a lot more points of entry for folks like you to go in and find these niche little things that can be done.

Glen Aspeslagh

GA: There’s never been a better time for third parties to to build iPad and iPhone apps. Of course, [Apple is] still limiting what you can do, but they’re well of that and they’re constantly trying to add public APIs as fast as they can.

TMO: It sounds like your overall experience dealing with Apple, even with their limitations, is something you feel positive about. Like… they’re not against you. They’re looking to protect their customer, but going out of their way for you.

GA: Oh, yeah. Everything they do in terms of the Apple Store, app approval and sandboxing — usually the reason for it is pretty obvious.

TMO: So back to PhoneView. That’s got to be pretty one that’s one of your more popular apps. Is there are more fun stuff you can do with that?

GA: We’re constantly trying to figure that out. Right now, the most popular PhoneView feature is the ability to extract your messages and your voice mails from the phone. Because, at this point, Apple is not really giving you any way to do that. So, everything from legal proceedings to making some thoughtful book for your fiancée… There are lots of reasons why people want to save out text messages as, say, PDFs. So that’s a big feature there.

Lately, we’ve had a lot of developers using PhoneView, apps mode. It lets you basically, view the entire contents of your app bundles. When we designed it, we thought, we’re not quite sure what people are going to do with this feature. No one really ever intended people to have access to the app’s directories. But, sure enough, as few weeks later, someone figured out that you could transfer your Angry Birds high scores from your iPhone to your Mac — and vice versa. So we thought, maybe there is some cool stuff we can do with this. Developers have been using it to grab things out of their apps. A log file. Or grab an asset, or something like that. Just drag and drop, right to your Mac.

TMO: Yep. I’ve certainly used it for that. It’s just easy for troubleshooting and saving stuff out before you delete an app. It’s handy.

GA: What we’d like to do, going forward, is to provide some way to a full backup and restore on an app by app basis. We don’t want to get on Apple’s bad side, or anything. Foe example, we wouldn’t want to do it in a way that enabled app piracy or something like that.

What would be nice is to give people peace of mind, if they’re going to wipe their iPhone for some reason, like perhaps the Apple Store told them to wipe their iPhone, and they’re leery of iTunes’s ability to back up and restore the phone, they can pull all their data down using PhoneView and toss it right back once they get all their apps restored. One click. Or take a snapshot of an app, and then put it back the way it was.

TMO: I know. I have yet to do a full restore on my iPhone from the ground up because there are certain apps where I really don’t want to rebuild the data. But probably with ninety percent of my apps, I’m fine with losing my data. So if I knew that I could restore just those ten apps, that would be really handy.

GA: You can more or less do that now with PhoneView’s apps mode. But it’s a manual process.

TMO: Well cool. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about before we move on with our evenings? Any final insights?

GA: I’d like to mention our iGlasses 3 update. This is something that we’ve been working really hard on for a whole year. iGlasses is an all new app as of January. It’s fully compatible with Lion, Mountain Lion and Snow Leopard. It shows up as a camera source in any app that uses video. Including FaceTime, iChat, Photo Booth, iMovie and lets you apply effects to your iSight [FaceTime] camera. Make adjustments. We’re even able to pull in the Lion Photo Booth effects, like the birds flying around your head. So, say, you wanted to apply one of those 3D effects in an app that doesn’t support it, like in Skype or Flash Chat. iGlasses 3 will let you pull that in.

Another feature we put in is the ability to drag in a a video file. My brother and I use this all the time. I have a folder now of videos of people standing in front of a camera. So if I don’t want someone to see me, I just drag in a picture of a random stranger and a video camera, and when the chat starts, instead of seeing my image from the camera, the other person sees a prerecorded video.

TMO: But they don’t know they’re seeing a prerecorded video.

GA: I looks just like a video chat. But it’s just a video file. And you can also just drag in still images, animated gifs, and it will just do an iChat theater type thing. We have a lot of fun with it. It hasn’t caught on big, but we love the feature.

TMO: Is it just you and your brother Ken, basically, that work together on this stuff?

GA: Yeah. Our Printopia project was a collaboration with one of our buddies, Chris Kemt, a brilliant programmer. We;ve had a lot of fun working with a third person.

TMO: Do you work in your own homes? Or do you get together every day?

GA: I try to get together with Ken a few times a week. Chris is down in the D.C. area. Our employee, Dori, is our fearless customer service person, and she’s in New York city.

TMO: Very cool. Well, then … are we good to go?

GA: I could probably talk your ear off about our apps…

TMO: [laughing] Glen, thanks for your time. I hope you have a good show!

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Interview by Dave Hamilton with his iPhone. Transcription by John Martellaro using Scrivener’s transcription tool.

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