Smart Thinking Destroyed By iPhone Gold Rush

There are a couple of trends in mobile software development that I don’t understand: 1) the over-focus on iPhone and 2) the over-emphasis on locally-running (native) applications.

iPhone or Die
On point #1, don’t get me wrong. I use an iPhone, it’s a great product and platform and clearly has mental share in the market. But it’s 10% of the smartphone customers. RIM has twice the market share with BlackBerry; Symbian four times that sell in plus a large installed base.

Maybe Yahoo! isn’t the best example, as it’s a consumer-oriented service, but apparently they have stopped developing a BlackBerry app to focus on their iPhone app. Is that a reasonable decision? Maybe. If I’m deciding, though, I look at who my customers are first. Making an enterprise or government sale? Better focus on BlackBerry first. Apple’s App Store isn’t even set up to handle large corporate purchases. Are your customers mainly in Europe? Better focus on Symbian, which is dominating the EU.

What’s a Website?
The second trend that’s bothering me is the plethora of websites pretending to be applications. The most amazing thing about the iPhone is the web browser. And yet all these sites are making native applications that are nothing more than a web site. The data still has to be downloaded to make them work, so it’s not like “offline” has any meaning to them.

Do I really need a Wikipedia app? A Google app? A Netflix app? All they do is connect me back to the web site anyway. Heck, if Twitter had a half-decent interface then I’d use their website instead. I’d much rather see time spent on making these websites really mobile-enabled. For a great example, check out ESPN’s mobile site. They’ve done an incredible job of making it look-and-feel iPhone while keeping it on the web.

The First Shot

Shipping software is an art form. Trying to balance the right feature set within a reasonable time frame is a challenging exercise. Being able to see through the haze of feature requests — an important thing to have, by the way — to see the bigger picture issues. Sometimes, Infinity Softworks has been good at this and sometimes it has not. The wrong mix is poison.

If there are too many features and not enough vision then the product is satisfying to those who wanted those features but not endearing to anyone. It does the job, they will say, which frankly is the kiss of death. After all when something cooler comes along, your product will be dropped like a lead balloon. As unit volumes come in, it’s increasingly clear that Nokia has fallen into this trap. It does the job. But BlackBerry and iPhone are cooler and are now stealing sales. (See data here.)

If there is too much vision and not enough features then there’s no product. People can’t relate to it and thus they don’t buy it. An example doesn’t come to mind off the top of my head (these products usually die quickly) but one company who has figured out a strategy for dealing with this problem is Microsoft. They like to use an “Embrace and Extend” strategy. For instance, they embraced email and extended it to integrate personal information management in Outlook, at the time a visionary perspective.

The trick is that this combination has to be managed with EVERY PRODUCT RELEASE. So we recently shipped FastFigures Mobile for iPhone and iPod Touch. (Direct link to AppStore here.) The features are 30 (mostly) finance- and business-oriented calculator templates, an algebraic and RPN calculator that doubles as a number entry keypad, and the template format — a cross between a calculator and spreadsheet — for doing fast analysis. What’s the vision for release 1? Easily do quick calculations on the go.

Is it feature and vision complete? No, not by a long shot. But it’s a solid start with what I think is the right mix of features and vision for the first release.

Introducing FastFigures Mobile for iPhone and iPod Touch

I’m very proud to announce the release of FastFigures Mobile, our first iPhone/iPod Touch application and the first release of our companion to FastFigures Online. FastFigures Mobile runs on iPhone and iPod Touch devices without requiring an Internet connection. FastFigures modernizes the calculator.

In my time running Infinity Softworks, there have been three defining products. The first was FCPlus Professional version 2, which came out in 1999. This product really introduced the template format to mainstream financial calculator users, making it possible for them to drop their HP-12c and HP-17b and carry a Palm handheld instead. This product was also a great marketing success for us as its younger sibling, FCPlus, was the first of our products bundled with Palm handhelds. We had product bundled on pretty much every Palm OS handheld from that point on, including Sony and other Palm OS manufacturers. During this time, bundling became our main marketing strategy.

The next defining product was powerOne Graph version 4, a full-fledged software graphing calculator for Palm OS devices. This was our key product to go after the education market. Educators loved it because their students weren’t spending their entire class time trying to remember which buttons to press and students loved it because they got to carry around a computer. Our education efforts, unfortunately, didn’t work out so well for us. Our three years of effort were killed off when Palm decided to exit handheld computers.

FastFigures is our third defining product. It revives the vision I had for the company’s products in 1999. Calculation is an integral part of many of our lives. We use it to calculate mortgages and investments and concrete slab materials and IV drips and pressure conversions and … well, you get the idea. And we all have our own specialities and needs, independent from everyone around us. But we don’t just run calculations. We need to retain results and share them with co-workers and clients. And we need to be able to run these numbers everywhere and recall these results everywhere, whether in the field or at our desk.

The Online version of FastFigures is already in beta and works with an Internet connection on Windows, Macintosh, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Palm computers. And now, with the release of FastFigures Mobile, we release our first version of FastFigures that runs without an Internet connection on iPhone and iPod Touch devices.

I hope you will give it a try (you can buy it here) and tell me what you think.

Waiting on a Winning Streak: Infinity Softworks Closes a New Funding Round

I don’t like to gamble so don’t usually play cards. Since I don’t play, I haven’t developed some amazing strategy for winning nor do I have the kind of memory that allows me to count cards/play odds and offset my inexperience. But I found myself in a card game anyway. There were six of us playing and I kept drawing lousy hands. I kept folding early and often, before I could lose much money. We played round after round, with me folding with small or zero bets and my chip pile dwindling slowly.

Finally, the cards changed in my favor. With only a handful of chips left, I bluffed my way to a solid pot then started drawing good cards. Before I knew it I reeled off seven or eight winning hands in a row, riding them to a nice pile of chips, and putting everyone else at the table on the defensive.

It dawned on me recently that I have been running Infinity Softworks the same way the last few years. As with cards I didn’t play this strategy on purpose. Instead, my cautious nature led me to it, going after small pots, biding my time for the right opening, staying in the game. Waiting. Other companies were betting all in — on mobile, on the web — and I was starting to wonder if I’d lost my nerve, if I’d be able to see the big opportunity when it hit. And frankly, I almost missed it.

This past summer and fall turned into what I thought was going to happen in 2001: the mobile software market is finally becoming a reality. Amazing hardware powered by Apple, RIM and Google is coming to fruition. The innovation curve is accelerating. Reasonable software distribution is coming back. And all of these devices are web-enabled, connecting our customers to the world.

I have found kindred spirits, people who also see great opportunities and have stuck with me for years. Years of caution finally paid off. Infinity Softworks closed a round of funding that will kick start our FastFigures and FastFigures Mobile efforts, giving us a solid foundation to build from and the ability to power through these tough economic times. (Read the release here.) This, the first winning pot in the latest of Infinity’s card games. I smell a streak coming on.

One Programmer’s Lament

Since Infinity Softworks had to get small in order to grow, I took on the task of programming again. Before 2007, I really hadn’t written any code since 2000. Since 2007 I have been involved in learning no less than five “development” languages: Objective-C for iPhone; RIM’s special Java flavor for BlackBerry; Ruby on Rails, CSS and HTML for the web version of FastFigures. This does not include the other one I still need to learn. We’ll need JavaScript for but I was overwhelmed with everything else and couldn’t manage any more programming knowledge in my measly little brain.

I wouldn’t call myself a great programmer. I’m competent and seem to be able to get the job done as long as it’s mainly focused on user interface. I can’t do the hard-core programming. Luckily, my other full-time developer handles all the guts of the applications.

My lament, though, is not over having to learn so many different languages but instead how quickly the knowledge seems to seep out of my head. Being engrossed in Apple’s Objective-C language for the past few months, we really haven’t touched the website. Now we are working on a UI overhaul and new web capabilities and I actually need a refresher course on those web languages. I literally stared at CSS and HTML code one morning for two hours, as if I was trying to read Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. It just made no sense at all. And this is something I have done a lot of over the years!

Albus Dumbledore has this really cool device called a pensive. In the Harry Potter books, he’d just drop his knowledge into this pensive. When he needed it again, he’d pull the knowledge out and put it back in his head.

Either that or I need someone to stick their fingers in my ears to plug the leak.