Meet the Makers: Q&A with Jim Brink of Aji

Jun 18, 2010

Location: All over! We’re very loosely based in Chicago, but are pretty virtual, with team members contributing from Toronto, Ohio, California, and Arizona. Notable apps: iAnnotate (for the iPad), a successor to our Aji Reader and Aji Annotate iPhone apps. We also do TouchTerm and TouchTerm Pro for iPhone (coming soon to iPad). Platforms: We’re […]

Location: All over! We’re very loosely based in Chicago, but are pretty virtual, with team members contributing from Toronto, Ohio, California, and Arizona.

Notable apps: iAnnotate (for the iPad), a successor to our Aji Reader and Aji Annotate iPhone apps. We also do TouchTerm and TouchTerm Pro for iPhone (coming soon to iPad).

Platforms: We’re pretty focused on iPhone/iPad these days, though we have a lot of past experience on many other (more ugly) platforms.

Specialty genres: Productivity! We think the iPhone/iPad platforms have a ton of potential — and a lot of that untapped — for changing the way we do work on a daily basis. Our apps (especially iAnnotate) are primarily attempts at solving problems that we’ve faced in our own work/academic lives. We also occasionally try our hand at games…though not too successfully. πŸ™‚ (psst…Lexel is a great word game, go check it out!)

Company size: 1 full-time (me), turning 2 full-time soon! 5 other part-time people helping out.

Short description of company: We’re basically a small group of tech+academic nerds, trying to make a living on our own terms by creating cool apps! (And ok, occasionally taking on a few more traditional contracts to pay the bills.) Given the time and opportunity, we have a lot of ideas we’d really like to try to turn into products, and the iPhone/iPad platforms seem like a great place for that kind of innovative experimentation.

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

Aji grew out of my personal freelance software consulting — when the iPhone OS 2.0 first came out, I had enough free time to devote to putting out a couple of apps for things that I thought were missing from the iPhone. These have had enough success (and I had enough fun!) that I’ve been slowly transitioning from consulting to more exclusive app development, and we’ve been building up a team to help support that.

We’re not tied completely to the App Store — we are actually thinking of putting some time into some desktop+server based ideas once things settle down with the iPad. But it has been a really great environment to work in — the combination of the powerful APIs and the App Store distribution model really opens up a lot of opportunities for indie devs.

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

I’m not too sure about the media industry in particular, but I do think it’s had a massive effect on the computing industry, and will continue to have more and more of an effect as time goes on. The biggest effect, in my mind, is providing truly powerful mobile computing — partly this comes from the devices themselves, partly from the APIs that make developing a joy. Other platforms are trying to catch up, but from what I’ve seen, they’re still years behind.

The “Closed ecosystem” is something that a lot of folks like to complain about, but in my mind is one of the key’s to Apple’s success. Because I, as a developer, know exactly what kind of device the software will be running on — and I know exactly the capabilities and limitations, exactly the specs, etc — I get to spend more of my time on adding new features and “eye candy”, rather than trying to guess at and be compatible with every possible system configuration. I do think there’s a place in the world for open-source, open-everything systems — but for people who just want useful devices that work, the App Store model is the best so far, by a long shot.

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

Where to begin? iPhone/iPad development is pure joy relative to any other platform I’ve ever developed for. The APIs are extremely powerful, especially for a mobile platform. The free development tools are the equivalent of what you’d pay $1000s for on other platforms. And especially having distribution and retail completely taken care of — no installers, no account management… πŸ™‚

One huge difference is graphics and animation — all of the fade in/out and animation effects in iPhone apps are trivial to implement in code. It makes it astoundingly easy to really make an app look nice. Similarly, integration with graphics and skinning is really easy…working with a graphic designer, it’s almost fun to cut PNGs and build fancy-looking interfaces. These things are an endless chore in almost any other programming environment, and rarely worth the effort.

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What factors go into how you ultimately price your apps?

Hmm…guesswork? πŸ™‚

We’ve tried a few different things, and of course different apps require different prices. I do think we’re pretty strongly against the “race to the bottom” in terms of pricing, especially for productivity apps. We aim to make high quality software, that helps users get things done on a daily basis; so we think that’s worth more than 99 cents. Most of our software is on the same level of desktop applications in terms of functionality and complexity, and in that space $10 is super-cheap and $40 is closer to the norm. So I think we’re aiming to hit users who are serious about using the iPhone/iPad to more effectively get things and done; and if we do our job properly, then $5 – $10 is certainly a reasonable price to pay.

The main problem with the “race to the bottom” is that it lowers expectations, on all sides. If someone spends $.99 and something doesn’t work, it’s almost expected — “oh well, it was only $.99”. We’d like to see more serious software for these platforms, especially the iPad — and it does seem like the iPad is pretty consistently support high-quality apps above $.99, so that’s good to see. We feel that $10 for iAnnotate, for example, is a good price point — it’s low enough that anyone who has a need to markup documents can certainly afford it, and high enough to sort of “stake the claim” that we’re putting out a quality piece of software, and that’s what users should expect.

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

What, and give away the secrets of our next big project?? πŸ˜‰

I think the iPad has the potential to support my dream app, which I guess could best be described as “the most efficient tool for digitizing thought”. (And as a special case of that, an app for going from thought to code!) At this point, it’s hard to be much more concrete than that.

We actually do think about this a lot, although it’s certainly a multi-year project. But it’s good to dream, right?

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Josh Fliegel

Josh is a student at the University of Southern California, lives in Chicago, and has made Chuck Norris cry.

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