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Useful. Fantastic. Essential.

COW Library : Apple iPod : Dave Howell : Useful. Fantastic. Essential.
From The Creative COW Magazine


Creative COW Magazine presents - Useful. Fantastic. Essential.


Dave HowellDave Howell
Portland, Oregon USA

©2009 Dave Howell and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.


Article Focus:

From LiveType to the Apps Store.




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Dave Howell was the engineer who wrote India Pro Titler for Prismo Graphics, an application that redefined the cutting edge of advanced title animation. When Apple bought the company in 2002, they relaunched the product as LiveType, and Dave became LiveType's managing engineer. LiveType was bundled into Apple Final Cut Studio starting in April, 2003.

This is when Dave started answering questions in the COW's Apple LiveType forum. When he joined our LinkedIn group in April, 2008, he told us, "Now, I'm writing iPhone software for creative professionals at my new company, Avatron Software, Inc." When we asked exactly what he was working on, he replied, "I don't know yet, exactly. My last day at Apple was Friday. Now it's Monday, and I'm looking for engineers.

"If you have problems you wish you could solve on a handheld device like an iPhone or an iPod Touch (or whatever comes next), please let me know!"

We didn't have anything specific in mind yet either, but we knew that we'd stay in touch to see how Dave's story with Avatron Sofware unfolded. Here's the story he told us 18 months into his journey.


BEGINNINGS

For eight years, from 1994 to 2002, I ran a small Mac software contracting company called Pablo Media. Pablo Media wrote all kinds of Mac software, including game ports, various kinds of plug-ins, QuickTime components, and full applications.

Our most ambitious project was writing India Special Effects Titler for Prismo Graphics from 2001 to 2002. Then in 2002, Apple purchased India, including both the application and content from Prismo Graphics, and some libraries from Pablo Media.

After having only worked at startups and other small software companies, my tenure at Apple gave me my first taste of organizational process and hierarchy. To my surprise, I rather liked it.

Sure, there were moments when the culture of secrecy drove me crazy. I contributed to the Aperture team, which had a feature for exporting a web page, while the folks down the hall from me were working on iWeb, which lets you design a web page. Had we been allowed to talk to each other about our projects, we could have collaborated, shared code, and enabled integrated workflows. Instead, we were all surprised to see our respective product announcements.

While at Apple, I decided I wanted to start a software company of my own, and apply to it some of the management principles I had learned. To help prepare for that, I went back to school on weekends. In 2008, I earned an MBA from Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. Soon after that, I left Apple, and incorporated Avatron Software.

When naming my company, I wanted something that started with an A, like Apple, Adobe, Autodesk, and Avid. And of course AV is a good start for an audio and video plug-in brand. The "atron" suffix just sort of invokes an optimistic retro-vision of the future, with shining labor-saving robots and hovercrafts with fifties-car fins.

My first thought was to build a titler. Apple hadn't done much with LiveType, or for that matter with titling in general. The Final Cut Studio package contained a mess of different incompatible titlers, including LiveType, Motion's titler, the built-in Final Cut Pro titler, and Boris Title 3D, not to mention those in Shake and DVD Studio Pro. But none of them really targeted the niche of professional, fulltime title artists.

After managing the FxPlug SDK for Apple, I was well prepared to write an FxPlug-based titler. My Fx- Titler plug-in was going to work in Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express, and Motion. Even Apple doesn't have a titler that is usable in all of those apps. I even registered the fxplug.com and fxtitle.com domains. (Know anybody who might want to buy those?)

After FxTitler, I had other ideas about writing an FxPlug-based online media store for clip art, stock footage, and LiveFonts.

And then, the iPhone SDK was announced. I realized that I had to follow this unique technological inflection point and write iPhone apps instead of plugins. I decided to keep the name.

There are now seven of us here, with over a hundred years of collective Mac programming experience, including eighteen years in Apple's Applications Division.


SERIOUS APPS

Back when the team started last summer, we spent the first few days brainstorming about ideas for products. We came up with around sixty different ideas, ranging from voice-activated adventure games to hardware peripherals. Some of them, it turned out, were not possible. Some didn't make business sense. But a few were quite viable.

As an aside, the idea I was most proud of, but which I'm glad we didn't pursue because it quickly became obsolete, was this: we wanted to hook up an iPhone to serial devices like a barcode scanner, a credit card reader, and MIDI gear - but the iPhone doesn't have a serial port that's accessible through the iPhone SDK.

We figured out that you could take a modem chip - which has analog audio in and out ports at one end, and serial digital ports at the other - and plug it in BACKWARD. Now you'd be connected to the iPhone's audio out and microphone in, and have a serial port at the other end. We calculated that you could support a 4800, maybe 9600, bps data rate. Not fast enough for MIDI, but adequate for a lot of other hardware applications.

We needed something else. The main criteria we considered when choosing a more practical first project were:

Does it leverage functionality that Apple has already built in the SDK, but that has not yet been exposed to users?

Will it force us to build our own platform of frameworks that can be redeployed in other future products?

Is it possible, yet difficult enough that it erects an adequate barrier to entry?

Does it match our skill set?


Below left, the icon for Avatron Software's Air Sharing Pro.
Below right, Avatron Software's Whiteboarder.

Air Sharing Pro Whiteboarder

Japan Air Sharing
Air Sharing ranked as the Top Paid App in Japan




Air Sharing was the one app that best met all of those criteria.

Air Sharing is a document-viewing app. It hosts a little HTTP server on your iPhone, with WebDAV extensions, which means that you can connect wirelessly to your iPhone from a computer, using Mac OS X, Windows, or Linux, and mount the iPhone as a sort of Wi-Fi hard disk. You can drag files and folders onto the mounted volume as you would onto a USB thumb drive. You can then take your iPhone with you and view your documents offline.

The iPhone has a lot of built-in support for viewing documents, which it uses in its Mail and Safari apps. But the built-in functionality is pretty limited. It crashes when it encounters high-resolution images. It doesn't provide a scrollbar for navigating through long documents. It has buggy support for some formats. So in Air Sharing, we worked around some of the Apple limitations when that was possible, and wrote some of our own viewers when it wasn't.

Because we're programmers, we also added support for viewing source code with syntax coloring. Air Sharing recognizes keywords and syntactical constructions in different programming languages, and colors them to make it easier to scan them visually. When we started work on Air Sharing, there were no other document-viewer applications on the App Store. By the time we were done, there were already three others. Fortunately, each of those had serious flaws. Still, because they had a head start on us, we introduced Air Sharing with a special promotion. We gave the app away for free for two weeks. In that period, over a million users downloaded Air Sharing. In retrospect, while we lost a lot of potential revenue with this introduction, it has been a very successful way to kick start our brand and get people talking about Avatron Software.

Now, there are hundreds of document-viewer apps in the App Store. Air Sharing is leading the pack by a long margin, having been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.


NEW DEVELOPMENTS

In addition to Air Sharing and Air Sharing Pro, we now have fifteen apps in the app store, with two more waiting for approval and several others in the pipeline.

One new app, Whiteboarder, lets you capture photos of whiteboards in meetings, and then enhances the white levels, removes noise, and lets you locate the corners to remove perspective skewing. Then it lets you organize, print, and email those images.

We also formed a new business division called Avatron Publishing. This division works in partnership with content owners to produce apps built on the Air Sharing frameworks.

For example, Avatron Publishing has teamed up with Informed Guides to produce five medical and reference apps based on Informed's very popular line of printed pocket guides. The subjects range from Registered Nurses to EMS to Homeland Security. We plan to release more of these in the future.

We've also partnered with Level X Hoops, which was formed by an ex-Disney Music exec who owns a line of basketball training DVDs, to release eight video-based instruction apps for learning moves and team plays. We plan to release dozens more of these within the next year.

In the future, our goal is to find more partners who own rights to video and print properties that might be adapted for the iPhone - and I'll bet a lot of folks in the Creative Cow community have something like that. The video projects that would work best are those that are made up of a set of short clips. Our Ganon Baker series of basketball apps has about 20 clips, each demonstrating some move.

I think our best content is in the app "23 Ways to Destroy Your Defender." Each clip shows you a single move, and shows it in slow motion, with a professional NBA trainer breaking it down into steps.

Any kind of training video like that should work, whether it's sports (although we've already entered exclusive partnerships for basketball and golf), music, magic, dog-training, painting, martial arts, etc.

The point is that the Avatron Publishing platform is perfectly suited for building reference and instructional apps. We are building up our team, as well as our software frameworks and tools, to streamline the repurposing and publishing process. I'm really excited about our Avatron Publishing initiative.


THE REVIEWS COME IN

Gizmodo's Essential iPhone Apps: Fall 2009 "Most of them are crap. Some of them aren't. Here are the 50 iPhone apps you actually need, all in one place... AirSharing: Our favorite file storage app-shoots files to the iPhone's flash memory via Wi-Fi for storage, transport, and easy retrieval.."
"Most Useful App." -2008 Best App Ever Awards.
"Editor's Choice." - PC Magazine.
"App of the Week." -Apple Inc.
"It's so easy to use." -Chicago Tribune.
"A fantastic file storage app." -iPhone Alley.
"Editor's Pick... Score: 10/10." -AppCraver



USEFUL APPS

I left Apple in April 2008, rented office space in June, hired engineers in July, we shipped Air Sharing that September, and have been running full speed ever since. It's been a bit of a whirlwind!

So far, we're bootstrap-financed, so our growth and product evolution has been organic. That has been much easier to manage than if it would have been if we had taken venture funding, and suddenly found ourselves in a gleaming new office full of strangers.

Moving forward, we have a roadmap that leads us to a broad, yet cohesive product line over the next few years. Our mission is to be the leading developer of useful apps for the iPhone platform.

While there are nearly 100,000 apps in the App Store, the competitive landscape for useful apps is still fairly sparse. Now, we just hope Apple will just keep gaining smart-phone market share, and that they will deploy the iPhone OS platform on new devices, like Apple TV, a combination HD camcorder and digital camera, a tablet computer or netbook, and embedded devices.


Dave Howell
Portland, Oregon USA

Dave really has been at this a while. He wrote the Master Tracks Pro 4 Macintosh MIDI sequencer in the late 80s, which won Electronic Musician's "Most Innovative Software Product" award, and which he later ported to the Apple IIgs. He was also writing video components and I/O before QuickTime existed, and wrote a crossplatform graphics library for use in the pioneering Kai's PowerTools. Dave holds US Patent #7199805: "Method and apparatus for titling."


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