TMO Interviews Vito Tech: iPhone Apps, From Russia with Stars

We're here at WWDC with Erika Torazzina, Head of Business Development for Vito Technology in Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia. The company is probably best known for its StarWalk app for iPhone (and iPod touch) which has been reviewed at the iPod Observer.


Erika Totazzina

Erika Torazzina, Head of Business Development, Vito Technologies

TMO: Tell me about the Vito technology developers and where they are.

Torazzina: The founder, who is Russian, and a few other staff are in Alexandria, Virginia. But the development team is based in Novosibirsk, Russia. It's the capital city of Siberia and is the third largest city in Russia.

It's been called by Money magazine the new Silicon Valley. We have a lot of software development coompanies there. Intel has an office there, and there's been a lot going on, especially in the last couple of years. It's been literally booming.


Google flag marks spot of Novosibirsk

TMO: So how did you come to join the team?

Torazzina: I was living and working in Novosibirsk and was asked to come in and be the head of Business Development and Marketing for Vito.

TMO: Well... Vito is an Italian name. Can you explain?

Torazzina: It is, but the company isn't. It's taken from the founder's name, Victor Toporkov. So it's from the first two letters of his first and surname name: "Vi" plus "To".

TMO: Aha! Now I understand.

Torazzina: Victor founded the company nine years ago. Back then, it was mostly software development for Windows Mobile. The last product was about two years ago, and then, about a year ago, he started with the iPhone. Compared to many of the companies here at WWDC, it's medium in size -- because we have about 25 people. About 12 of those are actual developers. But not all dedicated to the iPhone. About three or four are dedicated to the iPhone.

TMO: Back when I did the reviews of the desktop astronomy programs, I sent you the URL. Was that helpful for the development of StarWalk?

Torazzina: It was. Absolutely. I really appreciate it because it's not easy, where I live, to be directly in contact with writers and reviewers. And get information out there -- which is what I am trying to do.

Even so, I have noticed that StarWalk is impressing quite a lot of people here at the conference. And we've had very good feedback.

TMO: Have you been watching Apple's hyperwall upstairs to monitor sales?

Torazzina: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, we've seen it blink a couple of times. Not as many times as Facebook, though. But StarWalk has remained in the top 25 in the education category of the App Store for about five or six months now. And now that's recently climbed to 20th, we sell about 160 copies a day, world wide.... Actually, around the world, we get a better ranking. It's 6th in the U.K., 4th in Russia. And everybody's so impressed with how fast it is and how smooth it is.

Also, we were very happy to hear about the digital compass coming in the iPhone 3G S.

TMO: How will that work with the next version of StarWalk?

Torazzina: In the current version, we have compass points in the display. But that stays static as you view the display and move around. With the new iPhone, we can tie the display to the real direction that its pointing. So as you move around, holding the iPhone, the sky will stay aligned. That will be a nice touch.



StarWalk for iPhone and iPod Touch

TMO: Ah, I see. That will be very cool. Now, I've been wondering, what does it take to be an International Year of Astronomy official product?

Torazzina: Actually, they contacted us and said they really liked the application. They wanted to have something connected with technology for their big event. And they asked us to become sponsors of their event and their Website. So we're always on their site.

TMO: Let me guess. Then they hit you up for money?

[Author note: It's not that I don't love everything astronomy and the IYA folks. But I had to ask.]

Torazzina: Well, you know, you always have to spend some money. And, right now, they don't have anything else on iPhone.

TMO: Speaking of that, can you tell us about any future products? Not asking about anything secret, of course.

Torazzina: Well, yes. Within Vito I've been pushing them into two areas: Education and medical. Apart from games, which are always going to be big, big, big. I think that education is creating a lot of interest for teachers, professors....

TMO: Our own Colorado Governor Bill Ritter just announced today new education plan that includes the use of iPods.

Torazzina: I saw that! And I was just chatting with a guy from the University of Maryland. He was hired by the university to be their Cocoa development person to create iPhone applications for the campus. His first job will be a mapping application. Also, I've been talking with our two developers who did the StarWalk application, and we've been thinking about branching out to something astronomy or science related. Perhaps observatory related would be a logical next step.

TMO: I have a friend who's a fairly well known amateur astronomer in Arizona. I'll see if I can get you two connected. I think he has his finger on the pulse of the astronomy community.

Torazzina: Thanks. You know, we wrestled with StarWalk. We were torn between making it more technical or more fun. But yesterday, we were talking to the Apple ADA person [John Geylense who manages the Apple Design Awards at WWDC], and he was very impressed. He told us, 'Go schools. Go universities. Go teachers. And then it will be big.' But I think our guys are a bit scared because they're not professional astronomers.

TMO: I think if you get plugged into the amateur community, starting with that friend I told you about, you'll go a long way towards getting the right kind of feedback.

Torazzina: Perfect. Because that's what we'll need for the next step. And then I think we'll also focus on medical apps. We're in the really early stages of that. We met with some people here at WWDC who said that they have the medical side of the business, but now they need the iPhone piece and tie them together. We can think of a lot of things that would make a doctor's life easier and better organized.

As for games, we're a good sized company, and we're thinking about the long haul. You can't make a lot of money on a 99 cent game, like some single developers are trying to do as a hobby. We expect them to drop out of the development world in a year or two. It's a problem... it came up when we were talking about the pricing of StarWalk. We felt some pressure to reduce the price to US$2.99, but then we realized, this is not a $2.99 application. It should be much more expensive. [It's US$4.99.] And it was up to us to get out there with the value of our application. It's a lesson to be learned by the iPhone community.

But, hey, we're here at WWDC to learn as well as try.

TMO: Well, we're up to 17 minutes. That's the longest interview so far. This has been a lot of fun, and I wish you good luck with Vito.

Torazzina: Thank you. And when we do the next update to StarWalk, it'll be a major upgrade. I'll let you know when it's released.