Steve Troughton-Smith is a twenty-two year old developer and founder of High Caffeine Content, and Mobile Architect at Tethras , a company that specializes in translating apps into other languages. In short, he make things. You can follow him on Twitter @stroughtonsmith .
Me: When did you start learning how to program and how did you learn?
Steve Troughton-Smith (SS): To be honest I can’t remember a specific timeframe. I remember, as a really young kid, programming with QBASIC on a DOS computer; nothing more complex than ‘Hello World’, or making colors appear onscreen, but I think it was the initial kickstart for me. By the time I was nine or ten I had discovered a program called REALBasic (on a demo disc that came with MacFormat magazine) and was starting to use it to learn how to write Mac OS 8 and 9 programs. REALBasic was very much like Visual Basic for Mac apps, and at the time (up to version 5) was the simplest way to get into Mac development – you could drag and drop to create your app UI and it was really learner-friendly. When Mac OS X came out, REALBasic even allowed you create Carbon applications that would run on it, with all the amazing new UI that Aqua brought. I used REALBasic up until I was 15 when I literally ran into a performance wall – I wanted to create really graphical and animated things, and it just didn’t cut it. Apple had just announced Xcode 1.0, and I decided to delve straight in and not to stop until I figured out how I could remake the stuff I was making in RB in Cocoa. In the end it turned out to be much easier than I thought, and I’ve never looked back.
Me: What’s your work setup like and workflow on a given project?
SS: My development machine at home is a 27″ iMac (i7, so ’8′ cores, and an SSD); most of my development I do on that in Xcode (Mac, iOS), Eclipse (Android), or Qt Creator (MeeGo/Symbian). I have a custom built gaming PC beside it on the desk which handily doubles as a Visual Studio workstation for when I’m working on Windows Phone 7 apps. When I’m away from home, I work exclusively from an i7 MacBook Air.
I sync all my projects across computers through the cloud so that I never have to worry about copying from one machine to another. I just pick up where I left off on whatever machine is nearest.
Me: How many electronics do you own? Why so many?
Steve Troughton-Smith: Loaded question; I own everything I need to to make sure I can test everything I build on the widest variety of hardware/software versions. And then I own a little more for devices or OSes I love, or that intrigue me.
If you’re looking for a full listâ€¦(x) = number of devices
(2) iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, (3) iPhone 4, iPhone 4S , iPod, iPod 2nd , iPod 3rd, iPod 4th, (2) iPad , iPad 2, Nokia N9, Nokia N950, Nokia E7, (2) Nokia N8, Nokia 5800, HTC ADP1, Nexus One, Nexus S, HTC G2, HTC Sensation, Dell Streak, NOOKcolor, Galaxy Tab 7, XOOM, Galaxy Tab 10.1, LG Optimus 7 Samsung Wave, PrÄ“, PrÄ“ Plus, PrÄ“ 2, PrÄ“ 3, Pixi Plus, Veer, TouchPad, BlackBerry PlayBook, Samsung Windows 8 Developer Tablet, and Countless Macs & PCs, and probably some I’ve missed from the above.
Me: Wow! That’s a lot of devices. What’s your favorite OS to work with and why?
SS: iOS, of course, is my favorite. With iOS, it’s really easy to make good apps, which means you can make /really great/ apps in a lot less time than on other platforms. Of course iOS is also the biggest income target, too. I would closely follow iOS with Nokia’s ‘concept car’ MeeGo Harmattan OS, the likes of is are seen on the N9 and N950 limited edition devices. It’s the closest thing out there to iOS, yet remains even more open than Android (there’s a switch to root your phone in the settings app!). In close third would come Windows Phone 7, which also makes it easy to make awesome, well-designed apps. I love the highly-cerebral design aesthetic behind Windows Phone, and really applaud Microsoft for creating something distinctly unique and non-derivative for the first time.
Me: What are your thoughts on Android’s Market potential as an actual sales drive? vs the App Store?
SS: Android Market is the number two game in town as regards total count of apps available, but from the latest data I’ve seen it actually fourth in terms of revenue for developers, beneath iOS, BlackBerry and Nokia’s Ovi store. While the Android Market has a ton of apps, it has very few good apps – you could probably count on two hands the amount of truly well-designed Android apps in the Market (ignoring 3D games which don’t fall under the usual style or design categories). For brand new apps, it’s very difficult to get Android customers to actually pay for things; since users don’t actually buy things there’s no lock-in to the platform – nothing stopping someone from moving to iOS or WP7 and replacing all their apps. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of the Android Market as driving sales of apps or devices. Yes I generalize, and yes there are exceptions, but I do think Android is years behind iOS as an ecosystem for this reason.
Me: Thoughts on an openvs. a closedOS? What benefits do you think each one brings to a developer?
SS: “Open” to me is a very simple idea: you can install anything you want on your device, and you can change pretty much anything you like. I like open. I like things I can hack. I don’t like bad or sloppy design, or relying on your ‘openness’ to sell your platform at the expense of everything else. I do not think “open” in the Stallman sense is best for normal people at all; that’s an entire ideology and people often conflate that version of “open” with Android’s version of “open” (Android is in no way “open” like that, you must pay Google to license the real Android and all its development is done in secret and includes proprietary components that Google will never give you source code for).
There is a fine balance to keep here, and there are three standout examples in the market today: iOS, MeeGo Harmattan, and webOS.
iOS is very closed, but that’s not important when you can jailbreak. With a jailbreak you can do virtually anything you want, add/remove anything you like (heck, even run Android on your iPhone).
As mentioned above, however, MeeGo Harmattan (Nokia’s N9) is the best example of an “open” OS. Even tho the entire OS is designed like iOS to value the user first and foremost and really sweat the details on design, Harmattan has a switch in the settings app that, when you toggle it, roots your phone, downloads all the dev tools, and installs SSH for you so you can log into it from your computer and do whatever you want. You can bluetooth an app installation package to your device, or download one in the browser, and it will install. Virtually nothing is off limits, should you want.
webOS has something similar too, and a vibrant modding/hacking community that is (was?) sanctioned and contributed to by HP/Palm. These things are *way* more important than having the source code to your OS available.
The benefits of a closed or open ecosystem to a developer aren’t really relevant; a closed ecosystem makes sure that you can concentrate all your efforts on a single app store to target 100% of consumers, there’s very little chance of malware or viruses and you can really ensure the user has a great experience. An open ecosystem allows you create software that could never have been possible before, and allows you treat the device as a blank canvas – a lot of iOS jailbreak mods and hacks are amazing in that respect. On the flip side, there is a much increased risk of malware, piracy, etc, and any number of hacks that can affect the software you write adversely.
What’s actually relevant is how a closed or open system empowers or hinders its users; do they get a ton of amazing apps and games? Do they get an amazing end-to-end experience? Are they safe in what they do? Is it safe to give to their kids? Can they do what they want without breaking their phone? You pretty much have to make compromises to do the right thing for users, no matter how open or closed you are. Some consumers will disagree with you entirely, others will thank you for making their lives better. That’s why there can never be a single platform for everybody.
Me: Do you think a consumer cares about whether or not the OS they are using is open?
SS: Honestly, no. There is a very limited subset of users that care about these things, and even less of them care about being “open” in the Stallman sense. As tech people, we lie on that fringe – we like hacking our devices to do what we want. We’re always going to bring up the question of openness. The general consumer is way more influenced by peers, family, pricing, and apathy. For the most part, they have no clue whether a platform is open or not, and couldn’t care less. Would you care if your washing machine isn’t open? TV? No, appliances (including smartphones) are not computers to most people, and that’s exactly the way it should be – the technology should be invisible and intuitive.
Me: If you can share, what cool projects are you working on right now?
SS: Lots of things! At High Caffeine Content we have built and launched ten apps this year, across various platforms. We have another half-dozen in the pipeline, with probably only one or two of them launching before 2012. The biggest is a major update to the first, and most popular, iOS app we launched on the store, Speed; we’ve built a brand new app for 2.0, which includes an amazing iPad version. Other than that, we’re working on some top secret iPad and iPhone apps, as well as planning to finish porting our portfolio to both Android, Windows Phone 7 and MeeGo Harmattan. And when I say we, I really mean just I, as I develop everything we make myself; I pride myself in learning every platform we target inside out, and making sure that I use the native development environment for each.
Me: What are you most proud of?
SS: I am proud of all my apps, but one in particular has made the most difference to peoples’ lives, and that is Grace. Grace is a World Summit Award-winning communication app for children who have autism; it teaches them how to communicate, by allowing them to build up sentences from a set of pictures. I built Grace in partnership with the mother of two autistic children, Lisa Domican, and she really explains it way better than I ever could so you should check out the videos on the website ( http://www.graceapp.com/media-press/ ) if you’re interested.
Me: Finally, a new app called Codify was announced a few days ago. It allows developers to code on the iPad. Would you use it?
SS: I think apps like Codify are essential for the future of computing – we need children to grow up learning that they can make amazing things on tablet devices, and we need new ways of making apps that work really well on a touchscreen (as Codify does). There is so much potential here that so many people don’t understand; dogma is amazing for killing creativity and vision. “The iPad is not for content creation”, “you will never have Xcode on the iPad”, etc. There is a future coming where most software can be built without needing a line of code, and everything we’ve ever learned as developers will be upended. We’ve seen it in Star Trek, where the engineering characters write software on a touchscreen and by using their voices to talk to an AI; Steve Jobs said at the All Things Digital conference in 2007: “Ya know, just give me Star Trek”, when asked about the future of computing. It may sound like Sci-Fi (I’ll also accept ‘a load of crap’), but we now, just four years later, have touchscreen handheld always-on wirelessly-networked computers and tablets with voice-based AI systems thanks to him. And we’re just getting started.