TMO Interviews Em Software: Perils of the Niche iPhone Developer

We're here in the WWDC dining hall with Mr. Chris Ryland, president of Em Software in Steubenville, Ohio.  His company has developed a unique, powerful scientific calculator for visualizing 2D and 3D equations.

TMO: Mr. Ryland, tell us about your iPhone product, Grafly.

Ryland: I guess, when the iPhone SDK was released last year, we were looking to move on to other markets. Our idea was to look at replacing hardware that the iPhone is going to replace - for example graphing calculators. And my junior partner is a math and graphics programming whiz, so he did the math part and I did the UI part of Grafly.

We think we've come up with something unique...

Chris Ryland

Chris Ryland, President, Em Software

TMO: Is this like the famous Graphing Calculator in Mac OS X?

Ryland: It is, but no one has every done a graphing calculator for a platform that has an accelerometer for exploring in 3D, real-time. And we've done something unique -- we take any equation, it doesn't have to be a function, it can be multi-valued, and we explore the iso-surface in three dimensions. That means finding the zero points, exploring the mesh, and expanding as you go. It's really extraordinary what it does. I don't think even [Wolfram] Mathematica can do that.

TMO: Is this a shipping product?

Ryland: It is. It's been shipping since September of last year.

At this point, Mr. Ryland provided a live demo of Grafly and promised to send screen shots. The basic idea is a navigation bar that allows the user to move around in equation space. One can save equations and also move among them with the navigation bar.


Equation entry

Equation Entry

Ryland: Basically, you can enter any 2D or 3D equation. Of course, we also supply some sample equations to get started with.

TMO: So how would a scientist or mathematician actually exploit the visual nature of this solution?

Ryland: Well, there one user who was working with a mathematical representation, a 3D plot, of electron charge in a chemical equation. He was after that visual, scientific insight.


3D surface

3D Surface Plot

TMO: So if, in the process of using this app, one obtains some interesting physical insight, what is the connectivity if the app?

Ryland: Yep. You can e-mail the images to yourself. Actually, we crate a tiny URL so that when you look at it in iPhone e-mail, you can then look at it in more detail in Safari.

TMO: How is the product doing in the market?

Ryland: It's doing quite well. Someone at Apple really liked it -- or took pity on us -- and put it right on the front page of the App Store when it first came out. And then Daring Fireball discovered it. So it started off great guns. Of course, after a month or two, it trailed off.

Right now, it's eight bucks. Which is expensive. But we experimented with various price points, and it didn't seem to matter. And, of course, after the first hundred days, it's invisible -- unless someone does a specific search on graphing calculator.

TMO: As an iPhone developer, how do you feel about the marketing prospects of a product like this?

Ryland: Indeed, we are painfully aware that just being on the App Store is not good enough for most apps. You have to advertise. You have to push out constant press releases. You somehow have to get on the news. Get the product reviewed. We haven't had a real, in-depth review yet. Someone did a quickie review. And, you know, we've been kind of negligent about that. We're just engineers, not very good marketers.

TMO: Are the other products you built at Em Sofwtare before sort of holding the fort?

Ryland: Yeah, our other products are doing very well. It allows us to work on Grafly. And we have a bunch of new things that we're going to be working on over the next few months. But this was just our first exploratory product, and what we found out is, you gotta do marketing to have any real success.

TMO: How long did it take to write Grafly?

Ryland: It took about five months, both of us working full blast. There's a lot of sophisticated code in there -- but, of course, you don't know that when using it.

TMO: Have customers told you what they'd like to see next in the product line?

Ryland: They have. For example, what we really lack is the ability to do a graphical equation assembly. So that you can drag stuff into play, move exponents around. I'm reminded of a fellow who has a new scientific calculator that just came out a few weeks ago, called Pi Cubed. It's a beautiful scientific calculator app. His app integrates to ours so you can build a equation there and display it on Grafly.

But no one has really pushed us off into another similar area, so what we're thinking about building is a Google Wave client. have you hard of Google Wave?

TMO: I have!

Ryland: That really caught our attention. I think there's some opportunity there for some serious collaborative software that's better than what you can do in a browser right now. But they haven't really documented the client server protocols and file formats yet.

TMO: In the process of sizing up the market, are scientific applications for the iPhone an opportunity? Or is the market saturated?

Ryland: I really don't know. All we proved was that with good intentions you can do really well. We sold 1,500 copies of Grafly in the first few months. There's definitely a market there, but it is a niche market. So it can't support our business. But we're going to pursue it anyway -- and do some real promotion.

We also pushing the light version of Grafly which is free. That might get more people interested and get them to move to the full-featured version.

So, to finish up here, we're just going to have to play with some stuff and see how it goes.

TMO: Thanks for chatting with us.