Developer Workshop: Avatron Software

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, Geodelic, Spark of Blue Software, Tarver Games, People Operating Technology, Booyah, Bolt Creative, Thwapr, Monkeyland Industries, Rocket Racing League, Vlingo, Advanced Mobile Protection, PapayaMobile, Taptu.and GameHouse

This week FierceDeveloper profiles Avatron Software.

Like so many mobile developers eager to seize on the emerging App Store opportunity, Dave Howell walked away from his job in the spring of 2008 to launch his own iPhone application shop, Avatron Software. Unlike most other developers, Howell left behind a gig at Apple, going off on his own after six years on the computing giant's software engineering team--he further set himself apart from the pack when Avatron's flagship app, premium file-sharing solution Air Sharing, generated more than a million downloads within its first weeks of release in September 2008. Air Sharing enables iOS users to mount their device as a Wi-Fi drive or connect from their computer's browser, dragging and dropping files between the desktop and their smartphone--consumers can view and email documents across a variety of formats, print documents and email attachments. 

Avatron followed up Air Sharing with two additional productivity applications: Air Display, which enables users to transform their iOS device screen into an extension of their desktop monitor, and Print Sharing, which allows for wireless printing from iOS hardware without special software installation. FierceDeveloper spoke with Howell about Avatron Software's evolution, the value of productivity tools and building applications that appeal to Apple's sensibilities.

Avatron DAve HowellDave Howell on leaving Apple to launch his own startup: When Apple first announced the iPhone SDK, I got so excited. The iPhone was ten times faster than the first Mac I had. So I got my MBA from Cornell and learned about running a company.

Working for Apple gave me a new appreciation for the engineering process. Before Apple, I was a cowboy programmer who did whatever needed to be done. Apple brought me kicking and screaming into a different world. Without that experience, I couldn't have done this.

Howell on focusing on productivity solutions: From the beginning, I saw so much potential in the iPhone platform. Most people were doing apps that were shiny and novel, but they didn't solve a problem--I was trying to build up a set of frameworks, and build a foundation for a company with a future. Novelty apps don't have that kind of reusable framework.

My own experience is based around making useful tools. Game development is fun, but I'm not an expert at it. I worked on productivity apps at Apple--I get a kick out of making something that makes people more productive, whether it's in media and the enterprise or any other environment.

Howell on whether his Apple stint afforded him unique insight into the App Store submission process: I wish it did. There were points where we definitely could have used a helping hand from inside Apple. But no one I knew there had insight into the process. I find [the App Store] just as frustrating as anyone else.

The App Store is getting better. Submissions are now taking about 24 hours for approval. We submitted a version of Air Sharing to Intel's AppUp store and it took months to get through. At the current rate, in 62 years we'll sell the same number of copies through AppUp as we did in our first week in the App Store.

Howell on app promotion: We've had fair success designing applications that appeal to the App Store team and getting featured in the store on that basis. Looking at apps featured, identifying what they have in common and then designing to that aesthetic helps. We've seen a trend towards the App Store featuring apps with a small number of features that do them all well. When you look at broader, more feature-rich apps, it seems Apple doesn't feature those.

We've also done media outreach. We built apps we hope will appeal to technically savvy bloggers.

Howell on rival operating systems: We ported Air Sharing to Intel, and we just finished a Mac App Store version of Air Display. That's entering beta right now. We've looked at Android. The problem is that people are buying Android devices, but almost nobody is buying apps. Air Sharing would be hard to port to other platforms--it's designed around iOS.

Howell's best advice for aspiring mobile developers: For people that want to get jobs in this industry, the most powerful thing is a portfolio piece--write something you love that shows off what you can do. Make sure you develop something people really need and really want, and don't skimp on the look and feel of it.