Meet the Makers: Q&A with Iain Barclay of Electric Pocket

Jun 25, 2010
Tech

Company Name: Electric Pocket Location: Chepstow, UK Notable apps: On the iPhone platform, we offer BookLover (99 cents), BugMe! ($1.99) and MailTones ($2.99) Platforms: Currently developing or selling apps for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Samsung Bada, Palm’s web OS and Windows Mobile Specialty genres: Generally Personal Productivity, Media and Entertainment Company size: Currently 4 full-time employees […]

Company Name: Electric Pocket

Location: Chepstow, UK

Notable apps: On the iPhone platform, we offer BookLover (99 cents), BugMe! ($1.99) and MailTones ($2.99)

Platforms: Currently developing or selling apps for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Samsung Bada, Palm’s web OS and Windows Mobile

Specialty genres: Generally Personal Productivity, Media and Entertainment

Company size: Currently 4 full-time employees (the co-founders of the company)

Short description of company: Electric Pocket designs and develops useful and engaging applications for smartphone users. The company has a rich history of delivering popular apps for end users, from ink-based notepads to music-streaming and ringtone managers. As well as developing its own product lines on a wide array of mobile platforms, Electric Pocket also undertakes custom development projects, and has worked with organizations across the world to deliver cool mobile projects.

How did you and your firm get into the iPhone/mobile app development business?

In the early stage of my career, a few years after university, I worked at Hewlett-Packard’s Research Lab in Bristol, England. One of the projects I got involved with was developing a mobile messaging system for doctors at the local hospital. The project used a very early touchscreen handheld device called the HP Omnigo 100 to send short messages and instructions to doctors as they did their ward rounds. Looking back, it was really primitive – we used tethered Nokia Phones to provide the data connection, and required the doctors to wear toolbelts to hold all the kit – but it worked, and awakened my interest in mobile. Shortly after that, the Palm Pilot came out and I ordered one of the first batch to come to the UK, complete with SDK. My first app followed quickly from there – a currency exchange calculator – and I soon got the bug for the interaction you get from users when you release an app that really makes a connection with them. It’s still one of my favorite times in the life of a product. I originally wrote BugMe! in 1997 for the Palm Pilot, so it was quite a special day to release it again recently for iPhone – more than 10 years later! Between 1997 and today, we’ve worked on apps on a lot of platforms, from Palm OS through Windows Mobile to BlackBerry to the iPhone and Android of today. Our biggest hit has been an app called Ringo, which boosts the ringtone capabilities of user’s phones. It’s been a success on Palm Treo, Win Mo, BlackBerry and Android. We were actually quite late to the iPhone world, as none of our products really seemed to naturally fit at first – but I went to WWDC in 2009 and really got the bug then. We launched MailTones earlier this year, using the new Apple Push Notification to alert users to incoming email, and have followed that up with a version of BugMe! and then with BookLover, our latest app for people who enjoy reading and sharing books.

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In your opinion, how has the iPhone and Apple’s iTunes App Store changed the media industry?

The AppStore has given developers such a powerful connection to device users. Before the iPhone and the AppStore, we sold software via a number of third party web sites, PalmGear and Handango to name just a couple. These guys did a good job but just couldn’t get the reach into the device owners’ community that the AppStore naturally has, so we tended to see a much more hardcore set of app users – the guys who had searched out the websites that sold the software and knew how to work them and get the software back onto their devices. Now the software is available to everyone, and every iPhone user knows how to find and get apps. All my friends now understand what I do for my job, when even five years ago they didn’t really understand that mobile phones could have apps, or that those apps would really improve their hobbies, social lives or even their jobs.

Describe the differences between developing apps for the iPhone, iPad, and other platforms.

There are differences both in the technical and business side of things. Technically the platform is one I really enjoy – the development tools are very mature and “just work.” With the Cocoa framework, spectacular things are often very easy and when it comes to learning something new there is often so much help and information available in the community – sites like StackOverflow are absolutely fantastic for iPhone help and support, along with Apple’s own developer forums. On the business side of things, the ecosystem around the iPhone and iPad are like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. There are so many web sites and businesses which provide an infrastructure for developers to get the news out about their new apps and to support the whole process of managing application sales and support. When we release a new iPhone app, the world really seems to pay attention, and we feel that we’ve really done something – because the news gets picked up so well, and we can track the progress of the app through the charts and various rankings. It’s really rewarding, though a little deflating once the spotlight moves on to the next new app! On other platforms, there is just not the same reaction to new apps at all. Sometimes on other platforms you can release a new app, and it’s almost as if no-one cares. I just love the buzz we get from new iPhone apps, and it really drives me forward.

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What factors go into how you ultimately price your apps?

Pricing is really tricky, and I don’t think we’ve quite cracked it yet. We have tended to go with a low introductory price to maximize our initial chart position, and then hope to pull extra sales in from our higher ranking. I don’t know if that has made us more successful than if we’d launched at a higher price, and I think I still have lots to learn from the more established iPhone developers in that area. To be honest, iPhone app pricing is a shock to us, coming from other platforms where we could sell software for up to $20. Of course, those platforms have long since gone, and if the cheaper prices for much better apps leads to sustainability of the platform and the developer community then that is a very good thing. We just have to make sure we keep one eye on getting some kind of return on the investment we make in our development efforts, either directly or indirectly – through apps leading to paid development work, for example.

Describe what your dream app for the iPhone/iPad would look like.

If I can answer a slightly different question – my dream change to the iPhone OS would be to implement a card metaphor for applications, like Palm’s webOS has. That is a wonderful way to support multi-tasking – users can have several apps running, and can ‘flick’ between their applications – in a very similar way to flicking through the columns in the iPhone version of TweetDeck. It’s great that we’re going to have multi-tasking in OS 4.0, but I’d really love to see that webOS-style UI change in the mix too.

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