Each year at WWDC, TMO interviews a few Apple developers who want to tell their story. The result is usually a number of serious insights into the state of mind of the developer community. In our fourth interview, Dave Hamilton chats with Bruno Virlet of The Grizzly Labs.
Dave Hamilton: I’m here with Bruno Virlet of The Grizzly Labs. Genius Scan is your biggest product, but you have one other, right?
Bruno Virlet: So, yeah, we have Genius Scan, the third version, we also have Genius Fax that we launched recently. We also have Jotana, a very small client to send quick thoughts to Asana. But Genius Scan is by far the main product.
TMO: You effectively started building just one app. What made made you need to build Genius Scan?
BV: My business partner and I were roommates at the University of Illinois, and we wanted to do a project together, and I was into compilers and optimizations and he was into image processing and so we thought about making an app. You would take a photo of, say, a picture in a museum and it would recognize it and give you details about that.
And so the first step for that was to detect the frame of the picture. So we made that and then we discovered that the whole photo recognition was complicated. But we had this nice frame detection code, what can we use it for? In 2010, we started working on that, and the fun part is that I was to fly to Europe for a friend’s wedding and got stuck in Chicago because of the volcano in Iceland. So I bought a MacBook and started working on that. That’s how it happened.
TMO: That’s really funny. Interesting. So, iOS was the first platform?
BV: Yeah, definitely. We also launched on Android last summer. But for two years we only had iOS, and it was keeping us busy. Really busy.
TMO: That’s good!
BV: Yeah, yeah, really good. And also it’s a side project, not a full time job. So it’s keeping us busy at night.
TMO: Do you have plans to transition it to be a full time thing, or are you able to manage it fine just now?
BV: We are able to manage it fine just now. It might happen at some point, but the nice thing about having a full time job is that you learn a lot from other people, you’re not lonely, you know? And it avoids what we fear the most -- working for myself as an independent developer. Might happen at some point, but no hurry.
TMO: No hurry, that’s a good way to put it. So, you’ve been developing for iOS for quite a long stretch of iOS’s history. Have you benefitted, or perhaps been negatively impacted, by changes to iOS over time? Or has it been a pretty good relationship, symbiotic or not?
BV: Well, so far it’s been good. We started with iPhone 4, I guess. I think the transitions were fine. We had some stuff breaking between updates, but most of the time it was fine. We always kept, maintained compatibility with at least one version back in time. IOS 7 seems to be more of a challenge. I actually tried Genius Scan on iOS 7, it works okay, but it doesn’t blend very well in the new UI.
TMO: It’s a whole new UI.
BV: So, I think there will be some work related to that.
TMO: With what you’re doing, did you have to go deeper into the camera or are you able to just get the data from Apple’s frameworks and process from there?
BV: So initially we were doing that, directly from the Apple framework, after that we had to transition to using more advanced libraries, AV Foundation libraries. That’s been fairly easy to use and then after that, once we get the data from that we have our image processing which had to be fairly optimized, but it’s been around for three years and without any changes, it works. It’s pretty good.
TMO: So it’s working like it’s supposed to. You’re interacting with the APIs the right way and then you get the data. OS changes don’t impact the data.
BV: The platform is very stable.
TMO: That’s good. That’s great. That’s as it’s supposed to be.
BV: Yeah, exactly.
TMO: Now you just have to re-skin the UI. So any issues with App Store, or has that also gone smoothly for you?
BV: Most of the time it goes smoothly. We’ve never had a rejection, or maybe on minor stuff. I guess, the toughest is every time you release an update, you are a bit scared that something might go wrong. And then you have to rush to try to get a priority review, which we have done, but it always takes two days.
TMO: You can’t push it out immediately....
BV: Then you have all these users complaining. And we have about one million active users per month, so we get a lot of support emails that arrive if anyone has an issue.
TMO: So, in a situation like that, if you release something and then quickly realize there’s a bug, can you can you ask Apple to roll back to the prior version while the update is in review?
BV: No, no you can’t. There’s no way of doing that.
TMO: It seems like that would be not only handy, but smart.
BV: Yeah, it’s always as case of forward bug fixes. No way to go back in time. So, what we do when that happens is ... we immediately update the description and tell people “do not update”. We also have a banner in the app that we could use to tell people that we have an issue in this app, please bear with us while we are updating it. We also have made a nice help system which can be dynamically updated, and we can place questions, important relevant questions and answers at the top. So that’s been very helpful to cut down on the support requests.
TMO: Well, that’s good!
BV: It does not happen very often. It’s hard, and I think it’s important to know you may have to deal with it.
TMO: Yeah, and that’s sort of why I brought it up is because from a user’s perspective, so that the people that are reading this interview, it can be frustrating to say, well wait a minute, if they pushed this out, and it’s broken, why is it still something I can get? And that’s simply because of the way the App Store works.
BV: Yeah, exactly. And it’s something that users aren’t always aware of.
TMO: And with iOS 7, this could be an even bigger deal because of automatic updates happening in the background.
BV: Exactly, yeah. That’s very true. That’s a nice feature, I think that's what they want, but as a developer it scares me.
BV: If there are any bugs, like you get with a new version, if you introduce a bug that, you know, crashes your app or breaks something, it’s okay. But you don’t want to have data loss for the user. Corruption of data is the worst.
TMO: That’s not good.
BV: That hasn’t happened to us so far.
TMO: That’s good! I’m glad that hasn’t happened. So, you’re clearly doing this for iOS. You’re doing it part-time, effectively. Yet you decide to take on not one, but two other platforms because you’re doing Android and Windows.
BV: So, with a friend in France, he’s working mostly on Android. And I’m mostly working on iOS. We kind of help each other. And for Windows, we have been helped by Microsoft. It’s keeping us busy.
TMO: So, did Microsoft approach you to develop this?
BV: Yes. I’m not sure how much I can tell you.
TMO: Sure, I understand. But it’s interesting that they see an app that’s popular here and say: we want it on our side too!
TMO: That’s smart business for them.
BV: And it makes sense. Once you’ve used it on one platform you want it on all the platforms.
TMO: Good for you. Good for them.
TMO: Well, is there anything else you want to talk about, or anything from the announcements that sounds interesting?
BV: iOS 7 you mean? I think it’s quite exciting. Apple is taking a big risk in making people unhappy. I’m not sure what I’m thinking about iOS 7 yet. Feature-wise it seems very nice, like control panel, multitasking, like even their apps have improved a lot. Like the calendar app looks pretty slick. I don’t know about icons. I’m thinking ... a kindergarten contest?
TMO: I saw a lot of inconsistency in the way the icons are. Safari is very different than iTunes. I mean just from watching the Keynote, it felt like these were not apps made by people that are working together.
BV: I think there was a leak, the day before, showing some of iOS 7 and I was thinking, no it can’t be right. And I saw the exact same thing there in the Keynote. But I think they are taking a risk. It’s nice to see they are willing to go in [a certain] direction.
TMO: Apple doing what Apple does.
BV: So, yeah, that’s pretty good.
TMO: Well, I appreciate you taking the time with us. This is great.
BV: Thanks for interviewing me.
Interview by Dave Hamilton, transcription by Julie Kuehl, editing by John Martellaro.