The art of developing apps
Still in his twenties, Ed Lea is CTO with Grapple, a company that builds cross-platform smartphone applications, or 'apps'.
You wouldn't know it, as you walk among the music stores and theatres, but deep in the heart of London's Soho, not much more than a stone's throw from Oxford Street, there's a company that builds bespoke cross-platform mobile applications.
Depending on your point of view, the name Grapple is either a terrible pun or something terribly trendy, grasping the zeitgeist and neatly summing up the development of applications – or apps – that pretty much started with Apple. But, as we shall see, this interpretation of the name, tempting though it may be, isn't quite right.
The office itself is a cross between a beehive and a Cuban cigar factory. Row after row of long tables (not desks) form the workstations of a frantically busy cohort of developers, testers, authors, sales people and all the other components that go into making a company without walls. In an identical workspace to any other sits Ed Lea, a man so busy it seems he doesn't have time for a long name. Like everyone else at Grapple, Lea is under 30 (he's actually 29). With his shock of rust-coloured hair, he looks every inch the typical whizz-kid chief technology officer. Which is exactly what he is. But he's found time to squeeze in a slot to tell me about what he does at Grapple.
Grapple Mobile, to give the company its full name, started a little under two years ago building cross-platform smartphone applications. 'That was always our USP,' says Lea. 'We weren't building just for the iPhone, which was very much in vogue at the time. But also for Android, BlackBerry and Nokia.' The key point for Lea is that this offers Grapple's customers a bigger market, rather than simply the sector that happened to be locked into the iPhone.
App developer supreme
Despite the company's recent origins, their marketing people claim that Grapple is the largest app developer in Europe. But that's just big talk, isn't it? 'That's based on a number of metrics,' says Lea. 'In the past two years we've built well over 200 individual applications for almost 100 customers, and we have a team of almost 100 people. And so we've grown in the two main directions: the number of apps we produce, and the number of people producing them.'
As CTO, Lea is responsible for all of the technology output of the company, which also has offices in Toronto and New York. This essentially means applying the proprietary technology platform that Grapple has developed to building apps. 'Traditionally, if you wanted to build an iPhone app, an Android app, a BlackBerry app and a Nokia app, you'd have needed four developers. One specialising in each brand and each software development kit (SDK). What we have is one developer, writing one source code and that creates the binaries for all the devices we support.' This, says Lea, really speeds thing up and enables him to lead the technology forward and to make it work as efficiently as possible.
For the developer there is the obvious benefit that you're not doing the same job four times over, while for the client, their foray into purchasing a bespoke application carries lower development costs. I put it to Lea that with the best will in the world, as a customer I don't care about the former, 'while only caring significantly about the latter. 'Absolutely. And this, from the customer point of view, is where the cross-platform technology really comes into its own.'
Grapple is slightly different from other app developers, in that they only make apps for people who have an idea of what they want. They don't create and market their own intellectual property, 'although we do incubate our clients' IP. We deal with brands and companies, to help them to make money. Typically it's not a case of making an app for the sake of it. It's more a case of identifying what they're trying to achieve and helping them to make that happen in business terms driven through their app'.
I mention to Lea that there will be a lot of cynical people out there who think that this is just like the early days of the corporate website. A decade ago everybody commissioned one because they thought they had to. The results often looked pretty but had no real content, were difficult to maintain and generated no business. These were the early adopters in an Internet world that is now unrecognisable. And while some flourished, the Web is still a graveyard of over-optimism in corporate websites.
According to Lea there is a justification for developing an app for virtually any business. 'But you have to work out what it is you want to do. There's almost this reflex at the moment that you have to have an app. Often clients want to take their website and make it look like an app which is the wrong thing to do. It's about looking at your customers and understanding how you can improve their interaction with your business on a mobile.' Lea says that you can spend 'a couple of hundred grand on your app if you really want to, and it won't necessarily improve your business in any way'. It's all about building the right app, spending less money and ending up with something that will 'revolutionise your business'.
So who is revolutionising their business? 'We get big Blue Chips, banks and companies that everyone's heard of. But there are also smaller organisations – sometimes one-man-bands – who want to raise a bit of cash through using the latest technology.'
Despite the commercial incentives for developing a corporate app, there is an argument that you should have one as a brand extension. There are organisations that simply feel the need to transmit to their market that they are as technically literate as their consumer base. A good example of this is the England and Wales Cricket Board app (not developed by Grapple). It doesn't appear to develop direct countable business in terms of cash revenue, as it neither sells anything nor carries advertising. And yet it seems to be worth it, especially for the cricket fan who wants to keep track of the latest score. Lea says that there's value in this because it creates good associations that could push the grateful consumer nearer to an association with the sponsors. This really is a case of 'engaging with your audience'. In the face of commercial apps such as ESPN Cricinfo's product, maybe it's a way of maintaining your presence in a competitive market.
Developing a passion
Lea is one of those engineers who seemed destined to do good things from the word go. Immediately after getting his MEng in computer science back in 2004, he moved to a small software developer that span out of the University of Manchester. 'One of my lecturers left to start a company and regularly recruited graduates from my course. He knew that it was a well-taught degree.' Lea joined Transitive and worked with developing dynamic binary translation optimisation programming that 'essentially allowed software that worked on one type of computer to work on another, unmodified'.
As Transitive grew it boasted Apple, IBM and SGI among its customer base and Lea found himself increasingly working with big Californian computer companies. However, IBM acquired Transitive in 2008, at which point 'I realised that I didn't want to work for a big company. I enjoyed start-ups and the entrepreneurial side of business'.
Luckily for Lea, Apple had just released its SDK for the iPhone. He'd already developed a few apps and released them on the App Store. One of these included a product that would allow photo messages to be sent on the iPhone – something that was not possible before. Along with some of Lea's other apps this went to No 1 on the App Store and everything was looking set for a career as a freelance mobile application guru.
But after about six months, he realised there were flaws in the plan. 'I was riding a wave, but I also felt that it was going to peter out.' The market was becoming crowded and it was increasingly difficult to develop intellectual property for the iPhone and make a living from it. 'If you came up with a good idea, you could be sure that 20 others had come up with it too.' The only (not very) rational alternative to a 'me-too' product was to develop something completely 'off the wall and hope that people liked it'.
This was when Lea realised that there was an emerging market for more than simply iPhone apps. Clients wanted software that worked on other mobile devices. 'And that was difficult because, for example, an iPhone app is so different from an Android app. But then I met Alistair Crane (CEO) and Jamie True (Founder), who were starting Grapple. They'd identified the cross-platform technology tool for building a set of apps from one source code that could run everywhere. They were looking for someone to run the technology.' It was perfect timing. And, as Lea says, 'it just made sense'.
Crystal ball technology
As Lea and I sit in Grapple's conference room, we talk about some of the electronic devices on the coffee table in front of us. There's my 18.1 megapixel DSLR camera with removable 8GB flash card. There's a solid-state voice recorder (DVR) that stores hours of digital files, which can download directly to my MacBook Pro via an inbuilt USB connector. There's an iPhone that has at least 100 analogue long playing albums digitally filed away to give me several days worth of listening. And it's all part of everyday life' now. I put it to Lea that none of this really could have been predicted with any accuracy a decade ago. So, where will his business be in a decade's time?
'I don't know if I can see that far ahead. But certainly in the next few years we'll be moving more into mobile-Web. In time the common factor across all mobile devices will be mobile browsers.' He also thinks that the units will have different chips inside, but for him the key issue will be battery life.
'There will be faster chips that use less power so that the batteries will last longer and will be smaller. But it will probably be harder to make apps for specific devices, because the Web-browser will be the big unifying platform. Then it will simply be a case of creating content that works well with the browser. That will make it a lot easier for us to create a mobile experience for everybody.'
For Lea there are two other interesting events he foresees over the next ten years. The first is mobile payments with near-field communication and Oyster card-style phone-reading devices. 'This may or may not catch on. But there has got to be a better way of paying with increased security. People have their phones all the time and so it seems natural that it's gong to replace the wallet.'
The second major change will be in the way we interact with our devices. As performance improves and Moore's Law really kicks in, we'll be able to talk to our phones as well as the people on the other end of them. 'Apple has already started with this with Siri on the iPhone 4S. This is pretty basic stuff at the moment, and it works OK in some circumstances, but this is just the start of some fundamental changes. And it might not all be voice in future. If you want to get really sci-fi for a moment, one day this could be done with brain implants.'
So one day we'll just be able to think about what we want to do and the phone will do it? 'Well, there is this current obsession with holding the device in your hand, looking at a screen and touching things. I think that has a shelf-life, and so I think in ten years time we'll be interacting in a very different way.' *
To find out more about Grapple Mobile, visit www.grapplemobile.com
Ed Lea explains: What is an app?
I always like to rewind this question almost to the beginnings of mobile phones. The first application was SMS, or text messages. The mobile phone was really developed for voice calls, but then someone added an extra piece of functionality ' a piece of software for sending text. An app is just software on a phone that does something other than placing calls.
Apple pioneered this current wave of interest in apps in about 2007-8 when they created their App Store and provided an SDK so that developers could make their own apps for iPhone. They made it a really great experience both for developer and consumers: developers could easily build them, and consumers could easily find them. And that's what ignited the industry as it is today. And then others such as Google and Nokia tried to catch up by doing similar things.
Apps into cash: Premier Inn
Ed tells me about the app Grapple built for his client Premier Inn. 'It was just obvious stuff, really. Find a hotel, book a room. But this app does the obvious stuff really well across every smartphone. It doesn't matter where you are, you can find the nearest place and book.' Until this point there had not been an obvious or convenient way to do this. Automated switchboards don't work well in general, while accessing websites on a phone doesn't work at all in any meaningful way.
The resulting app delivered a colossal 47 per cent increase in the company's 'same day bookings'. If that's impressive, Premier Inn reports that the business effect was to generate an extra £2m worth of revenue per month.
But the big question is how Grapple knows this. 'We're able to track all sorts of metrics within applications. We can track the number of downloads and assess data such as which devices are being used, for how long and where. We can embed all that kind of intelligence into the applications which means that we can start feeding back and improving the app.'
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