TMO’s Dave Hamilton attended MacTech 2011 and had the opportunity to interview several Apple developers. Here’s the conversation Mr. Hamilton had with Mr. Tim DeBenedictis, founder of Southern Stars. They chat about the popularity of a mobile astronomy app [Sky Safari], porting a complex iOS app to the Mac App Store, and how, after building a Mac version, the Mac App Store almost killed the business.
Dave Hamilton: My guess is that you had an interesting path that led you to being a Mac developer. Tell us a little bit about that story.
Tim DeBenedictis: I’ve been a space nerd my whole life. My parents got me a telescope when I was eight, and I had many fun nights looking at the sky in our suburban back yard in Syracuse, New York.
I went to school originally to become an aerospace engineer and discovered that that’s a lot of work, so I ended up going into planetary science. And I took one programming class in college — an introduction to C programming. I graduated in 1993, the [public] Internet happens, and then I somehow got shuffled off into this mystical land called Silicon Valley where I got involved with bank security software for many years. Not anything to do with astronomy.
But, of course, once you can write code, you’ve got a job in Silicon Valley.
TMO: Especially back then.
TD: Absolutely. Then the [dot-com] crash hits in 2001, so I did some traveling in Europe, and I realized I was really tired of bank security, so when I got back I decided to do something else. I got wrapped up in a little astronomy company called Carina Software in the San Francisco Bay area. I ended up re-writing their Voyager planetarium software. And that is how I got pulled into this small [astronomy] world.
So, then in 2008, the iPhone becomes a platform for apps, so we thought, maybe we should write a mobile astronomy app. Lo and behold, it [Sky Safari] took off. I actually took the mobile part of the company independent in 2010 and re-branded ourselves as Southern Stars. And the mobile business has probably outsold the desktop business by ten to one.
TMO: Is there something about your product that you think lends itself more towards mobile or do you think it’s just part of how the Apple ecosystem works?
TD: It’s partly that. Part of it is that people love software on these glitzy, shiny, lovable iPhones. But on top of that, astronomy is something that people do outdoors. Like on a camping trip. And you want to know … what’s that bright thing over there above the moon? Generally, people don’t have their laptop computers with them when they’re camping. But they probably do have their phone, right? So it’s a kind of thing that naturally lends itself towards mobility. And that’s a good part of the reason why Sky Safari on iOS has taken off.
Sky Safari 3 on iPad
TMO: You’ve got several flavors of your products here. And some can be used completely stand-alone, and others can be used to link to and control telescopes.
TD: Right. Part of the niche of our app when we introduced it was that this is the first iPhone app than can control a telescope. Of course, there were some star chart apps at the time, but the ability to actually point some hardware at the thing you’re looking at — that was new. And that involved some hardware innovation on our part too.
For example, one of the problems is that all [high end, amateur] telescopes on the market, to this day, have serial ports. Well, the iPhone has no serial port, so how are you gonna make these two talk?
The story there is that a friend of mine who does electronic design was out on an astronomy camping trip with me, and we were talking about this, and I’m lamenting the fact that we can’t find any way for the iPhone to talk to the telescope. And he scratches his chin and says, well, “I could build this little Wi-Fi-based thing that would translate a Wi-Fi signal to talk to a scope.” And I think, okay, go build it! Six month later we had a barely working prototype. And six months after that we had a fully FCC certified, world’s first, hot selling, battery powered Wi-Fi to serial adapter for telescope control: The SkyFi Wireless Telescope Controller.
The combination of that product and our first generation iPhone app won a Best of Show award at Macworld last year, and really since that time, that’s when our sales have taken off. So we made a real dent in the [market for] high end telescopes that cost over $500 [that have a computer control system], and the push for us now is to go down market — the one dollar astronomy app that can show you the basic stars.
Even so, the common thinking in the iPhone world was that you had to race to the bottom: get it out there fast and sell it for a dollar, right? Much to our surprise, our high end app has outsold the low end app, definitely in terms of dollars, but some days in terms of volume. We found that people are willing to pay $30 or $40 for an iPhone app if it’s a really a well-built, quality app.
TMO: And then $150 for the Wi-Fi gizmo. But to be fair, these are people who’ve already spent perhaps four figure amounts on their telescope.
TD: Many of them have. But I will tell you that even at that level with the telescope control apps, we’ve sold many times more high end apps than SkyFi’s. Which tells us that people just want the very best you have to offer. When you think about it, we’re offering an iPhone app that exceeds in features, in many ways, traditional desktop software costing over $200. So it’s really a good deal.
TMO: That’s great. It just goes to show that if you do the absolute best you can do, serve a niche very well, you’ll succeed.
TD: Yeah, it’s been a lot of work, but it’s really paid off.
TMO: I have only taken a brief look at the app — I know John Martellaro has done a lot with it. It’s amazing. And it does it in a very smooth way. I’m not encumbered by the interface.
TD: Yep. The UI is really important. And one of the things we released this year is a Mac desktop version of the app. So the path there is that we took the code that we’d written on the iPhone — which we had slimmed down and optimized with all kinds of OpenGL work to make it as fast as possible — and then put it back on the Mac desktop. As you know, the Macs have blazing fast processors, enormous screens, and so that core code just runs screamingly fast on the Mac. But the interface is different: menus, checkboxes, radio buttons are very different than the touch interface. But we wanted that Mac app to the paragon of the well thought out Mac app while at the same time bringing out that fluidity of the iPhone interface. We use a lot of Core Animation, transitions, those kinds of fluid things just make the app feel good.
TMO: How difficult was that process? Obviously, you took the core iOS code and moved it to the Mac, but how difficult did you find that process to be?
TD: A lot of it was just grunt work. And we already had a template of what we wanted to do, but the key was taking all those table cells and switches on the iPhone and rethink how we would implement them using Mac UI elements. I’d say, maybe three our four months of just engineering work.
TMO: That’s not bad. Not awful.
TD: The awful part, actually, was the Mac App Store [MAS]. That almost killed our business.
TMO: How so?
TD: Okay, we’ve spent three or four months of engineering time, and we’re really trying to do a fantastic job on Sky Safari for Mac, and finally we submit it. I think it was the beginning of August…
TMO: And this was, of course, a remake of an app that had already been approved and sold in the [iOS] App Store…
TD: Right. And we thought … we might be rejected for some minor technical thing. But, the reason Apple rejected us was that we had too many versions of our app. And we’re thinking, “What?”
You see, we have a basic version, a Plus version and a Pro version. And all three have been selling at this point for a year on the iOS App Store. The same three versions. So Apple writes back to us and says, “You’re spamming the Mac App Store with too many versions.” We didn’t even think that this would be a problem. I mean, this is our whole business model. We have an entry level version, a mid level version and a high end version. This is a problem? Software companies have been doing this for years. So after lots of communication with Apple, they never relented, and we ended up withdrawing our high end Mac version. We re-wrote it to use eSellerate’s commerce engine — and distributing only two versions on the MAS. As a result, the Pro version is something we sell directly through our Web site.
TMO: You don’t have to tell me the margins, but I’m sure you can confirm for me that eSellerate’s margins are substantially less than the 30 percent that Apple would have taken. Or perhaps better put, that Apple would have earned had they let you sell that app in the MAS.
TD: That’s a point I tried to not make lost on the MAS folks, but they weren’t buying it. And I want to add that the worst point in this adventure was when Apple pulled our iOS apps from the App Store for no apparent reason. So we started thinking, oh my goodness, we can’t do the three versions on the iOS App Store either. And it took a personal phone call to correct that situation. It shouldn’t work that way, but it does. Those are some of the vagaries of dealing with Apple.
TD: So now we have this Mac version, and the challenge we have now is that most people don’t know that we have it on the Mac. So we’re trying to get the word out there that there’s this hot, new, very well done astronomy app by people who are passionate about the field.
TMO: I actually have a question about the hardware. Looking at your demo booth, I saw the Wi-Fi unit, but I also saw something that looked like it was connected to the dock connector of an iPad, controlling a telescope.
TD: Yes. That’s another hardware story. As I said, we built our SkyFi box to bridge the gap between telescopes that have serial ports and iPhones. But, about March of 2010, I found a little company in Emeryville, California that was building, lo and behold, an iPhone dock connector to serial interface. I’m thinking, this is competition. I should check this out. It turned out, these are the same guys who built the Keyspan USB to serial adapters. These are really well built.
It turned out, we were their first customer. So the very first Apple, made for iPod approved, serial connector for an iPod is our SkyWire product. And that’s what you see connected to our telescope over at the trade show.
I will say that it has sold well, and it works fine. Although, in our field, people seem to like wireless. There’s a big win by not tripping over cables.
TMO: Especially in the dark.
TD: And both products complement each other nicely. We have a lot of customers who buy the inexpensive serial solution, then they say, well let’s get the more expensive [wireless] thing. So then they get the SkyFi box.
Finally, it’s very heartening for us to see the adoption of these products overseas. One of the most satisfying customer interactions we’ve had was a few days ago, actually. [A thread of this story, an Australian woman whose son died in a train accident and was trying to name a star after her son and how Tim was able to help can be found, in part, on the Southern Stars’ Facebook page. - JM. Tim continued…] It’s those kinds of interactions that really make this work fulfilling. You end up touching people’s lives in bizarre ways, that you would have never expected. That’s the magic that makes this work very worthwhile.
TMO: That’s awesome. And a perfect place to wrap it up. Thanks for making the time.
TD: Thanks for arranging our meeting!
You can follow the Southern Stars team on Twitter at @Sky_Safari