Small Circle Apps

(This has been in my drafts folder for a while, but today I saw this article on Techcrunch and I had to post it.  If you want to talk or argue about this idea, you can find me on Twitter @warwick or email me at bob@wholepunk.com.)

 

I love bookstores.  The smell of ink and paper.  The tall wooden shelves.  The slow walk that browsers take on while they survey subjects I never knew existed.

I come from a print family – my grandparents and parents owned print shops.  Bookstores always remind me a little of home.  So I’m in a position to tell you – we print books for the bookstore… but we print everything else too.

We print business cards, memo pads and calendars.  We print college course catalogs,  business forms, and direct mail advertising.  And no sane bookstore would stock any of it.

But it’s important that it gets printed.  Print allows for so many useful things, and almost none of them have any place in a bookstore.

I’ve taken a different course from my family, but really it’s not that different.  I don’t own a print shop.  I own an app shop.  From a little office in the downtown of Victoria, BC, my team and I create software for your phone.

I believe that there are apps that should be in the store.  Apps that broadly apply to a mass audience, whether you’re in Victoria or New York.  I’ve built a business helping to deliver those.  But I also believe that there are many more apps that are the equivalent of business cards, memo pads, and calendars.  They’re useful, but useful for maybe a hundred people.  I call them small circle apps.

*  *  * 

There are plenty of reasons why you might want an app for a small audience.

I prototyped an app for my wedding last summer.  Sure, there are wedding apps out there, but I would have been stuck using their design and their decisions when I wanted to create something that was uniquely special for our wedding day.  We ended up not using it, because I had absolutely no faith that we could get it past review.  Most things don’t belong in a bookstore.

I have restaurants all around my city that would love to let you order via their app.  I’m a regular at several of these kinds of restaurants, but they wouldn’t be able to get an app on my home screen either.  They’re just too small, and those apps aren’t useful unless you’re in the small circle of people who live near the restaurant – so the restaurants are stuck going through aggregators instead.

Whether it’s my real-estate agents ‘app business card’, or my kid’s soccer team schedule app, or my apartment building’s ‘announcement’ app – most things just don’t belong in a bookstore.

*  *  * 

The obvious retort is that I can just load up all this stuff in my web browser.  I can Google my real estate agent, and I can sign up for email blasts from my apartment building.  But the mobile web still sucks after a decade of working hard on it.  I want beautiful and smooth UIs, I want maps that pinch to zoom correctly, and I want notifications that show up on my lock screen instead of my email.

I can look up Facebook on Safari too.  Or Yelp!  Or Instagram.  But we don’t deny that those experiences are better as apps.  Apple has put an incredible amount of effort into making sure that apps on iOS are incredible to use.  Small circle apps will be better experiences than their equivalent websites too.

But they still don’t belong in the App Store.  The App Store should be a place that we go to find the apps that have broad appeal.  It should be curated.  It should be browsable.  It should be a bookstore.

*  *  * 

So how the hell do we get small circle apps if they shouldn’t be in the store?  Well, luckily Apple has already build all the mechanisms we need.

 The only difference between a small circle app and an app in the store is how it’s indexed.  Small circle apps wouldn’t show up on any of the browsing lists for the store.  They wouldn’t get featured.  They wouldn’t show up in search.  The only way to find a small circle app would be to already have a direct link.

And once you’ve got that link?  I can link directly to an app in the App Store today.  The store screen would load right up with screenshots and reviews and a download button.

People who want those apps would be able to get the link easily.  It could be sent to them via email, or it could show up on websites using Smart Banners, or people could scan a QR code with iOS 11’s built in scanner.  If we had shipped our wedding app as a small circle app, I can guarantee that our invitations would have had an App Store link on them.

And now, with just that little change, suddenly iOS apps aren’t limited to what you can find in the bookstore.  You can download an app for your neighbourhood, an app for your favourite restaurant, apps for your kids classroom, and an app for your church.

All without cluttering up my experience of the app store.  And I don’t have to clutter yours.  When we do want to search for our new social networking app or a cool game, we don’t need to wade through the garbage.

*  *  *

Let’s say that your name is Tim Cook.  You’ve been reading this entry, and you’re getting excited.  It turns out that there might be a way to have a beautiful bookstore and your kids soccer schedule, all on the same printing press.  What needs to happen next?

  1. Create a ‘small circle apps’ piece of metadata in iTunes Connect.  Developers would opt-in.
  2. Instruct reviewers that small circle apps don’t need to comply with App Store Review Guidelines 4.2 (and possibly 4.3)
  3. Update the App Store servers to avoid showing small circle apps in search or browse views.
  4. Tell the world.  We’ll be pretty excited.

*  *  *

 I’ve done a lot of thinking about small circle apps.  I feel like I have to admit – I’ve got an ulterior motive.  For the past couple of years, my dev team has been working on Codeless, which is an iPad app to build apps for the iPhone.  It generates real code, and it’s meant to create beautiful and complex apps.  The kind of apps that should be in the bookstore.

But you could use it to make small circle apps too.  And I wouldn’t mind it at all, as long as it didn’t clutter the store.

*  *  *

There’s a bold future available for the App Store.  It’s the best-case compromise, allowing a smaller and more curated App Store, and a broader more inclusive way of allowing small content creators to delight their audiences.

Not everything belongs in the bookstore.  But that doesn’t mean we stop printing the pamphlets, the ads, the notepads, or the business cards.  Apps are powerful and full-featured experiences.  Apple can make them even better.

I Come Bearing Swag

Today, Whole Punk is co-sponsoring Ladies Learning Code in Victoria.  They’re doing a workshop on responsive design, and I couldn’t be prouder to put our dollars towards them.  About 20 seconds after Erin announced sponsorships for the year, I was standing in line to make sure we got one.

This morning I walked in about half an hour before the workshop with a huge box of swag.  Notepads and stickers from Whole Punk.  All with our logo on it of course.  I’ve got a goal of getting our logo into every tech shop in Victoria, and this seemed like a great vector.

(If you know a Victoria tech company without our notepads, please shoot me an email.)

As we were passing the swag out to every seat, one of the coordinators mentioned that this wasn’t something that any of the other sponsors had done before.  It was obvious, now that I’d done it, but bringing swag just wasn’t the norm.

Those are my favourite ideas.  The ones that are obvious now that I’ve done it.

(Bonus! They’re tweeting about us: https://twitter.com/llcvictoria/status/741676004620439553)

My First Customer

I’ve been reading “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh, and in the first few pages he makes a comment about his early entrepreneurial endeavours.  It made me think of something that I haven’t recalled in years.

When I was about seven, I started by first business.  My family had a record player, and we were getting ready to get rid of it.  It was the early 90’s and audio cassettes were clearly here for the long term, so we were starting a project to pick our favourite records and record them on tape.

Naturally this struck me as a business opportunity.  Tapes were less annoying to use, and I had a Fisher Price tape player that ran on batteries.  You didn’t even need to come into our house to listen to a record – instead I could play it for you on our front step and you could enjoy the music.  Clearly a foolproof plan.

With a reckless disregard for business paperwork and music licensing law, I took to our front yard with a cardboard box to stand behind and a sign.  I was charging ten cents to listen to any of our records – once we’d finished putting them on tape.

It took only minutes before my Mom started wondering where I’d gotten off to, and to find me in the front yard.  Nobody had come by, so I hadn’t made any sales.  Mom carefully explained that maybe we should wait until I had something to sell before I took to opening a storefront.

That said, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to test out the idea on some of the people we knew.  So that night, when we walked down the block to visit my Grandma, I gave my pitch and walked out with five shiny dimes.  I gave her yellow paper slips that I’d made with shaky printing that entitled her to listen to our tapes.

Grandma died a few years ago.  She never cashed in those slips, though I know that they sat on the table next to her armchair for as long as she lived in that house my Grandpa built for them.

Thank you Grandma.

Why We Do This

Most entrepreneurs know the Starbucks fantasy.  One morning, you’re waiting in line to grab whatever revs you up in the morning.

You’re on autopilot – not thinking about what you’re going to order, but about how you’re going to get through the month.  Is that new product really the right direction?  Is your most recent hire worth it, or should you have hired the other candidate?  Or both?  Or neither?  every thought ends with a question mark.

And then it hits you: Life could be simpler.  By a lot.  You could have less responsibility.  By a lot.

If you really wanted to, you could just close down your company and serve coffee for a living.  Do something well defined.  Repetitive.  Screw up peoples names on cups and not really care all that much.

A job that requires skill – but a totally different set of skills then you have today.

And you spend the two minutes in line watching the people behind the counter.  “I could do that,” you think to yourself.

After all, you’re an entrepreneur, it’s not like you bring home a huge paycheque anyway.  And nobody ever gives you tips, unless we’re talking about unsolicited advice.

About a year and a half ago, I was having a bout of the Starbucks fantasy.  It was lasting for weeks.  All I could think about was how I had so many options, and almost none of them would take as much out of me as running a company.

I was in Toronto visiting my best friend when I let it slip out of my mouth.  “Maybe I don’t even need to keep the company going.  We’re at a good place this year to wrap up our lease.  And I know I could line up other jobs for people easily.”

We let that sit in the air for a minute.  I felt especially tired.  I was trying to launch a product that wasn’t going anywhere.  The airline had just lost my luggage somewhere in New Jersey.  There was money in the bank, but nothing in our sales funnel.

“I’ve known you for ten years,” he said.  “And all you’ve I’ve ever seen you want is to run a company.”

He was right.  When I’m not running a company, my brain spends all it’s spare cycles thinking about starting one up.

And the Starbucks fantasy went away.  And it’s stayed away since.  Ever since the moment when I acknowledged that running a company wasn’t just something I was doing, it was something I was wanting.  Because it’s funny how quickly your brain turns wants into obligations.

If you’re in this place, I hope it’s because it’s something you want to do.  Because it’s something you’re driven to do.  If it’s something you’re just…doing?  That’s not worth it.  Go work at Starbucks.

Update on codeless

It turns out that I’m pretty bad at developing codeless in public.  Luckily I’m half-decent at developing software.  I’m trying to be better at both.

As you might recall, codeless is a different kind of app design tool.  It works with native elements, directly on an iOS device to create an interactive prototype that can be exported to code.  After getting frustrated with the number of static mockups I was seeing, it seemed like the obvious thing to try.

Happily, it’s coming together.  If you’ve got four minutes, check out the quick screencast I put together of a basic maps interface.

It’s getting to the kind of place where we should be collecting email addresses for a beta in a couple months.  If you’re interested, ping me at <a href=“mailto:bob@wholepunk.com”>bob@wholepunk.com</a> and we’ll get you on the list.

Prelude to codeless

I love working on side projects, but I don’t usually talk about them until they’re ready to demo.  

What if I decide this isn’t worth pursuing in six months?  What if this turns out to be vapourware – will that hurt my reputation?  When I go down a blind alley and have to turn around, will I look stupid in front of my peers?  What happens if we get really busy at work and I can’t make any progress for a month?

On the other hand, I have a burning desire to try and build a side project ‘in public’.  I want to get people excited about this project, and I want to see if people are interested in it before I get too far down the path of building it.  I want to build the projects reputation, so that on launch day we’re ready to talk about it confidently.  And I want to tap into the hive mind that is the internet and see if anyone suggests something I never considered.

With that in mind, I’ve decided on a couple things.  I’m going to tell you about a side project I’ve been working on, only a few weeks into it’s life.  I’m going to try to stay open about it, and to tell you about where it’s gone and where it’s heading.  And I’m going to commit to releasing it as open source if I ever decide to put it on the shelf for good.

The problem we’re solving

I find it pretty frustrating how apps are designed right now.  Static mockups are made 

I get really frustrated with apps designed in photoshop…

…because it feels like someone handed me storyboard mockups and claimed they were a completed film.  I’ve been running an consulting company that specializes in mobile development for the last three years, and I’m always annoyed when a designer hands me a photoshop mockup for the app.  Because I know they’re going to want it translated to the screen in a pixel-perfect fashion, despite the fact that they built it in an image editor, and not on the platform.

Here are a few things that commonly fail in translation:

– Font rendering is different across platforms.

– Sometimes things look better on a 30” monitor than a 3.5” device.  Button sizes that look perfectly reasonable in photoshop are usually impossible to hit.

– For that matter, we usually only get photoshop documents for a single size of screen, and it’s usually not the largest or the smallest.  Apps designed this way are usually too tight on small screens and too spread out on large ones.

– Often there’s a graphic effect they’ve carefully tweaked, but want rendered live.  A blur over content is a common example.

These are all things that get screwed up in translation.  I’d like to be able to design apps on the actual device, with the native elements, so that I know things will render the same way in the final product.

We’re also wasting a lot of time and money

In the current model of handing off mockups, two expensive people doing the same work over.  The designer does a great job in photoshop, then the developer has to do the *same great job* in code.  And the developer is probably going to miss some subtleties.  Just look at how hard it is to do those ‘find ten differences’ puzzles you see in newspapers. Right now, every screen of the app is one of those.

No, I’m not saying the entire job of a designer is positioning elements, but the final output is a graphic file.

The ultimate aim for a mobile design app would be to output actual compilable code at the end.  Let the designer do their job in the *actual medium*, and let the developer take that work and build on it, not redo it.

So…codeless?

codeless is an iPad app I’ve been working on.  It’s in the early days right now, only supporting a few things like view positioning and some basic property editing.  But it’s going to be great.

Think of it as a cross between Photoshop and Interface Builder, with a little bit of Invision App thrown in for good measure.

It’s ugly as sin right now.  Here’s the first screenshot.

codeless screenshot

You can probably tell, there’s quite a ways to go.  Come with me.

Concept and Execution

Matt Gemmell tweeted this lovely concept of the Macintosh Nueu from Curved Labs.  It’s a stunning piece of design work that immediately sets off a twinge of nostalgia.  Familiar in both 1984 and 2015, the design resonates.

I loved the design of the original all-in-one Macs.  I keep a Mac Plus and a Classic II on the bookshelf in my office.  Maybe it’s just because I used them in my childhood, but they evoke a sense of wonder that more modern technology struggles to match.

With few exceptions though, I dislike concepts.  They give me a sour feeling in my gut.  As someone who’s often tasked with turning bright ideas into reality, I’m deeply uncomfortable with presenting a cool idea in such a factual way.  Concepts make for great art, but they’re terribly misleading when it comes to portraying what we should actually do.

Executing on an idea brings forward all the sharp corners and rough edges.  We almost never know what the actual problems in a development cycle are going to be until we’ve finished the first pass at implementation.  Oh sure, you can spot some of the dangers from afar, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more lurking horrors that will require a course correction midstream.

If you can execute on the idea and it’s still a good idea, you’ve got a winner.