1. Polar Bear Farm was created not just in response to the potential of the platform that is the internet, but specifically in response to the launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007. Does it ever feel weird to you that your entire business is based on one platform developed by one company?
Not really. When we started there was no platform, not even the promise of a platform from Apple. It turns out, the work that we were doing before App Stores existed, along with a handful of other people and companies, spurred this whole thing to life. Jailbreaking the iPhone and installing apps became so mainstream, so quickly, Apple couldn’t ignore what we were doing, they had to open up the platform to official 3rd party development. It definitely took some inside Apple by surprise. So in large part, it was a handful of people like us who forced this who thing into existence from the get go, Apple eventually did it because their customers clearly wanted it, and were even willing to jump through some fairly serious hoops so that they could.
2. What do you make of the explosion in popularity of “apps”? How have they changed how people interact with the intern?
Apps were just one piece of the puzzle. There were mobile apps before the iPhone, but it was never a mainstream thing to install apps on your phone. It was actually a whole stack of things which fell into place, which enabled this explosion to happen.
First a device, the iPhone, with the computing power, and radically different interface, which people could understand and use effortlessly. Then companies like Nullriver, who created a super easy one stop shop for browsing and downloading apps. Then people and companies like ourselves, who saw the amazing possibilities in this, and started building apps which were desperately needed. So it was the combination of the device, distribution mechanism, and developers which was the key, you needed all three. It’s clearly changed the way people interact on the internet.
It’s enabled unbelievable changes in the speed and distribution of information. The contextual and real time nature is the big difference. My phone, and the apps on it, were invaluable in the hours following the earthquakes here in Christchurch. With power out, it was the only source of information, and contact I had with others in the city, for several hours. Something which wouldn’t have been possible only 4 years ago
3. Your first app was a jailbroken release in response to a flawed search function in the iPhone – how was it received and when did you realise you had a sustainable business model built on iOS?
It was scarily fast. Two days after releasing it, it was clear there was a real business there. Several days later, I got a friend on board, and we were planning to fly to San Francisco to exhibit at Macworld Expo. At this point, there was no App Store. Apple offered no official tools nor endorsed developing native apps. So even in a market of a million or so jailbroken phones, it was clear to me there was a genuine sustainable business there.
4. Describe what its like trying to market and derive revenue from apps. How do you made your mark amidst hundreds of thousands of apps vying for people’s attention – and cash?
Early on was relatively easy. A much smaller market, but even smaller number of apps to choose from. You could easily browse every app available, but now that’s impossible. Now even great apps can go unnoticed. So it’s a challenge every developer grapples with, and there’s no magic formula.
The kind of apps we’re focusing on now, have very different marketing approaches to your typical apps on the store. We were lucky to have a head start in this game, and have amassed quite a user base, for which we have contact information. Many developers simply don’t have a direct line of communication with their customers, as Apple don’t provide that information. We try wherever possible to give people the chance to give us their email if they’d like, so we know who they are, and have the opportunity to send them info on new apps we’re releasing, or significant updates. It seems an obvious thing, but makes a big difference, and is something few iOS developers actually do.
5. Do other platforms, such as Android, Windows Phone 7 etc hold appeal to you for developing apps?
Android is utterly uninteresting to me. Google, and their handset partners’ priorities simply don’t align with users. No one chooses to use Android, just like no one chose to use Symbian last decade. Android is simply what you end up with, if you don’t choose an iPhone. It’s second rate at best, and it’s pretty clear Google don’t have a cohesive vision for the platform. They’re winging it, flitting off in all directions without serious consideration for what they’re trying to achieve.
Window Phone 7 is interesting in that they are taking a unique and distinct approach to the design of their OS. They also appear to be exerting more control over device manufacturers about what they can and can’t build. Their biggest problem is they simply have no traction. I still believe they shouldn’t be licensing the OS, but instead selling their own hardware (or dictating to a sole hardware partner, say Nokia, exactly what devices they want built). But Microsoft tend not to prefer that approach.
But perhaps the biggest problem for us in developing apps for other platforms is the fact that we choose to use Apple devices because they’re the best. Developing great apps requires a genuine and deep understanding of the paradigms expected on that platform. An understanding you can’t truly get, unless you’re using them all the time.
6. Where do you see the business going? The potential in the app world is endless – how would you describe your niche that keeps you relevant?
There’s certainly plenty of scope there. There are many areas, particularly in business which have barely been touched yet. That’s an area I’m really interested in, with massive potential efficiency gains, and we’re pushing hard into that area.
7. There’s a lot of buzz in the mobile world at the moment around location-based services and so-called augmented reality. Do you see potential to develop employing these technologies?
Tangentially interesting, yes. But the biggest problem I see with this stuff so far is where is the user value? Why should users care, beyond being a shiny and new demo? I think by and large no one has really figured this out yet. The game changer with mobile to me is all about context. You have a device which knows where on the planet you are, what direction you’re pointing, how fast you’re moving, what time of day it is, who’s around you, what’s around you, it can see, talk, and listen. That’s a huge amount of input, a lot of which we’ve never had before on computers. The challenge is using all this information in clever ways to make useful tasks for users, super fast, and easy.
8. What are your best selling apps so far?
We sell utilities, before this year, it was Record, a simple audio recording tool. Mid last year we released Air Forms, a rapid application development tool for businesses wanting to get their databases mobile, quickly and easily. That’s been super successful, and has rapidly become our best selling app.
9. What has it been like dealing with Apple as a partner. Do you get a fair deal and does the closed system of vetting and setting standards for apps work in your favour?
To be honest it runs a bit hot and cold. We’ve never had a huge problem with the requirement for approval. By and large the rules of the game are clear. Sure they make the odd mistake, but they’re not unreasonable in their requests. The run ins we’ve had with app approval have almost always been resolved quickly and reasonable. I do think there is more Apple can do around other aspects of the store to make it a healthier place for developers, but the reality is, Apple are in this for their users and themselves, developers most definitely take a back seat here.
10. Around 27 per cent of kiwis now have smartphones (according to the latest AUT Word Internet Project study). Is our use of apps similar to the rest of the world. Do you count many NZers among your customers?
New Zealand is a tiny, tiny proportion of our sales. It’s simply not a viable market for apps, as the volume is far too small.