At WWDC, June 8-12, 2009, I interviewed 11 developers who work both on Mac and iPhone. Everyone of them taught me something I didn't know, gave me an insight I didn't have, or occasionally validated a hunch I had. Here's a recap of the best stuff I learned from those 11 developers.
Mickey Roberson of MRR Software develops the (free) Syrinx Twitter client for the Mac. He described how he didn't like the look and feel of available Twitter clients and used his own gut feeling and sense of design to jump in. So, even if someone else gets into the market first, the key insight is that many users may use an app by default, not realizing that they don't know what they want, but they'll know it when they see it.
Mr. Roberson also described how to start at a different point in app design to perhaps arrive at a key insight into the User Interface. It's all about creativity and imagination, even if you're not first in the market.
Along those lines, with Twitter clients, Andrew Stone is the developer of Twittelator Pro for the iPhone. He is a classic example of picking the right horse (Cocoa), sticking with it, and becoming such an expert that when opportunity knocks, one is ready out of the gate. He also taught us that having a huge ego and dissing Apple, as a developer, isn't productive. Maturity, teamwork and good relations always pay off in the long run.
Next up was Serguei Beloussov, the CEO of Parallels. He affirmed the value of a solid, consistent brand and the need to constantly upgrade and reconstruct the architecture of a growing, popular program. Often, developers, in their rush to market, paint themselves into a technological corner. Then the product languishes, unable to reinvent itself when more advanced techniques and competitors come along. If there's one thing we can expect from Apple, it's change. Thinking ahead is mandatory.
Neil Ticktin, the editor-in-chief of MacTech magazine described how a print magazine can remain viable, even as newspapers and magazines seem to be failing day by day. If a print publication can 1) entertain, 2) enlighten, and 3) teach, then it's viability remains strong. These are things in short supply on the Internet, often a sludge pile of opinion and demagoguery. Also, if the publication targets the right kind of audience, in this case, Mac Professional Geeks, the ads become a part of the reader's professional education instead of an intrusion. Using these principles, MacTech has flourished.
Sometimes Apple includes a technology in Mac OS X that appears to preclude competition. For example, iCal or Mail. However, smart people with lots of expertise, upon deeper inspection, often discover that Apple hasn't, in fact, put the best of breed technology or extremely high level professional effort into those casual apps. That's what John Chaffee, an expert at calendaring, discovered with iCal, and that led his company to develop BusyCal -- a product that outright embarrasses iCal. Look for it later this summer.
I keep hoping a company will have the same insight with e-mail.
Alykhan Jetha is the CEO of Marketcircle. He explained how one must plan far ahead for the expansion of the product line so as to be ready for fluctuations in the world economy. He also told me about how one has to anticipate the change of technologies that come along, some produced by the industry and some by Apple, and view those as an opportunity, not the rug being pulled out from under the developer.
Mr. Jetha seems to have learned that at an early age. When his family was expelled from their country, due to politics, they all viewed moving to Canada as an opportunity, not a sad disruption. That's probably why Marketcircle recently had its best sales month ever in the middle of a bad recession.
Being tuned into the new Apple technologies and what business clients need is what lead to the founding to Double Encore by Dan Burcaw. As an ex-Apple employee, he understood the market for many enterprise companies who want to have an iPhone app, have the money and marketing dollars to build it, but don't want anything to do with actually building it -- let alone hire a lone Cocoa Touch programmer.
Mr. Burcaw's new business partner learned something important from his old Apple boss. When there's a Gold Rush going on (like the iPhone) rather than dig around in an empty hole others got to first, sometimes it's better to get onto the business of selling picks and shovels to the dreamers.
Steve Shepard develops Storyist on the Mac for novel writers. He was a writer himself and realized that fiction writers didn't really have the required tool on the Mac to write a novel. He was able to do that by working at a high level in technology beforehand. So he did two things: he used his own experience as a writer to build a writer's tool from the writer's standpoint not the techie perspective, and he followed his heart, starting his own business to do it.
He also pointed out that if no one is complaining about the price of an app, then it's probably priced too low.
From all the way over in Novosibirsk, Siberia, Erika Torazzina came to WWDC to listen and learn. She spoke with Apple Developer Relations and tuned into the pulse of Apple development. Right away, she learned that, in addition to games, there are opportunities for iPhone development in education and medicine. She also learned that when building science and educational software, you play it straight, don't simplify the app or try to make it more cutsey or more fun. Customers respect the value proposition of a serious app and will pay a fair price for it. Presenting the value proposition to the customer is the key to marketing.
GroupLogic's President is Reid Lewis. He and his business partner have been doing Mac development for 21 years. Not only does that build expertise, experience and vision, but it goes a long way towards customer trust.
He pointed out the value for any executive, involved with Apple development, to attend WWDC for the networking with other companies. There are opportunities to build relationships, solve mutual problems, build alliances, and get a finger on the pulse of the Apple community. Alykhan Jetha knows that too.
Finally, he pointed out that as Apple jumps on new bandwagons, like the iPhone, for its own good, one shouldn't always take that as outright abandonment of a previous product space. Sometimes, executives in the industry just need to step up, build alliances, and exert their own leadership. Apple seldom hands a silver spoon to anyone who doesn't work hard at something.
In the last interview I did, Chris Ryland, who is very technical and has a love for science and mathematics, described the difficulties of building a highly specialized technical application for the iPhone, out of love, and then grappling with the marketplace. It's okay to follow your heart, but a small company has to have both dreamers and people who know how to position, market and sell an app. Otherwise a labor of love just becomes unproductive labor. Technical iPhone developers should read Mr. Ryland's story.