This is the first in, hopefully what will become, a series of interview with independent developers. The goal is to profile developers building great apps (mobile, desktop, web) and hopefully get some honest answers about what works and what does not work being an independent developer.
Chris Sainty is an Australian software developer with over 10 years experience developing desktop and web applications for retail clients. An early and eager supporter of the direction Microsoft has taken with the Windows Phone 7 platform, Chris had an app in the marketplace and a phone in his hand at launch. A year later his app, gReadie, remains a popular choice for Google Reader users on Windows Phone 7.
Techie Buzz (TB): What is gReadie?
Chris Sainty (CS): gReadie is a Google Reader client for Windows Phone 7. In a highly competitive segment of the app marketplace, gReadie targets powerusers who follow a lot of feeds and need to quickly scan their feeds to find the posts of real importance. This is done by using a clean and simple UI, that is well tuned for finding the posts you want and then either reading them in-app or saving them to an external services (such as Read It Later, Instapaper etc.) for later follow up.
A sampling of gReadie’s settings
TB: What made you decide to write a gReader client and that too for an unknown platform?
CS: Prior to Windows Phone 7, I was using an iPhone 3GS. By far, my most used app on iOS was a Google Reader client. So I knew when switching to WP7, I was going to need an app to do the same. Having prior C# and Silverlight knowledge, I was very keen to write something for the WP7 platform. So it was a natural fit that my most used app should be my own.
It was a risk to invest so much effort into a new platform, and one that has not been financially rewarding yet. However, I believe things are just getting started for apps on Microsoft platforms and do not regret for a moment the experience gained from being an early mover on the platform.
TB: What technology/ies have been used in the making of gReadie? Any open source tech/libraries? Is the gReadie code open sourced?
CS: The current version of gReadie is using only two open source libraries ServiceStack.Text (https://github.com/ServiceStack/ServiceStack.Text) for JSON processing and the Silverlight Toolkit (http://silverlight.codeplex.com/) for a couple of UI elements. Though, I am very unhappy with the latest version of the Silverlight toolkit which broke every single control I was using without explanation or documentation. Previously gReadie has used many other libraries for various purposes, but these are the only two still in use. Internally gReadie is using the new SQL Compact support enabled in Mangowhich allows it to provide excellent offline reading capabilities even with thousands of posts downloaded.
TB: Are you planning to build gReadie for Windows8? Any sync possibilities being explored between the phone and the desktop?
CS: I am very interested in pursuing gReadie on Windows 8. gReadie v1 was available at launch for WP7. gReadie v2 was available at launch for WP7.5. I would be very happy to keep this trend alive. From my early investigations of the Windows 8 APIs, it looks trivially easy for a developer to share settings and state for their app between devices. Hopefully, this leads to some interesting sync capabilities.
TB: How is the freemium model working out? Would you do it any other way? Can you talk about the number of users you have? Trial vs Paid?
CS: Currently gReadie is provided free with ads (trial), or ad-free for $1.49 USD. Revenue-wise, the ad model really doesn’t work very well for gReadie. In a year, ad revenue has been less than $100. Only in the last few weeks has the Microsoft advertising been made available outside the US; hopefully, this improves revenue. There isn’t a very good alternative for trials at the moment. As a user, I find functionality-crippled trials frustrating, as you need to take the developer’s word that those features will work as advertised once purchased. In addition to that, there are still many markets in the world that have no capacity to purchase full versions, notably China, so you cut those users off from functionality in your app.
Trials aside, the paid version sees a conversion rate of just below 20%. This has actually dropped a little since the release of Mango, but in raw numbers we are doing much, much better with Mango. It has certainly sparked new interest in the platform, and I believe in apps generally. It would seem that a lot of users used the upgrade as an excuse to go out and see what else was out there in the marketplace.
TB: Have you seen a pattern of what brings in your users? Being featured in the marketplace, for example? Has Mango helped distinctly?
CS: To my knowledge, gReadie has never been featured on the marketplace anywhere in the world *Though*, I know from one of my other apps (QTV, an Australian TV Guide), which has been featured here in Australia, that being featured does wonders for your downloads. I find any notable press coverage translates to downloads. gReadie was one of the first Mango apps released. This was picked up by a number of the main WP7 news sites, and resulted in the biggest single day downloads and sales that gReadie has had yet. Another spike was caused by a Brandon Watson retweet that mentioned gReadie. Anything that gets the name of the app in front of peoples faces will tend to result in them at least giving it a try.
[Ed: There are a couple of times where I have in fact seen gReadie featured in the US marketplace, although not as the showcased app with the custom background and prominence.]
TB: How long was gReadie in development before you launched it? Did the introduction of new APIs and background agents in Mango simplify or complicate the development?
CS: The earliest work on gReadie started around July 2010 when the developer tools were in early beta. It wasn’t until around September that development picked up steam to get readied for launch in October. The upgrade process to Mango was similar in duration a couple of months. In neither case was the development full time. gReadie is generally developed on quiet afternoons at the office, or on my own time at home.
TB: How many developers contribute to gReadie? Is it safe to assume you are an independent developer for gReadie? As an "indie" developer, what are some tips you can offer others on how to launch (getting the word out, following up, traffic spikes, etc.)?
CS: Although released through my employer, I am the sole developer of gReadie and have been for it’s entire duration. If you are starting out, then it is definitely important to get someone to talk about your app. All the WP7 news sites have tipforms where you can let them know about your app, and I find, they are generally quite happy to give you a mention. Secondly, I would suggest making sure you are happy with your logo and that the app is at least stable at first release. New apps are featured in the marketplace, and there are many users who scour the newest apps each day to see what is there. You only get one chance to catch their eye and impress them, so don’t miss it by rushing to market and planning to tidy up the loose ends later. Finally, I would say get on Twitter. It’s a great way to engage your customers and offer support. I can turn around a support query in 15 seconds if I have my twitter client running and know the answer. That impresses anyone.
TB: How much help has Microsoft provided, directly or indirectly, in getting issues resolved and getting your app in the marketplace?
CS: Microsoft have been a mixed bag; they are definitely excited about the platform, and making progress. But everything feels glacial when you are watching a company of that size do anything. If you have a development question, then StackOverflow is a better destination than the Microsoft forums. For internal support relating to certification and the app hub though, they do actually answer support requests lodged; so that is a good start. It would just be nice to see things iterate more quickly, whether that be the phone OS, the app hub site or the dev tools. Bugs in any of them take far too long to get sorted out. I think if they apply the model they have now to Windows 8, they are going to have a huge headache on their hands.
TB: Finally, any thoughts on what’s in store for gReadie in 2012 and beyond?
CS: In terms of features, I am pretty happy with the current offering from gReadie. There will always be more to add of course, but I think the basics are in place. I am very interested in working on a large screen UI for gReadie, the end result of this might be a Windows 8 app, an HTML 5 web app or even an Xbox app if Microsoft open the platform up. At this stage I have no plans for new WP7 apps, the truth is that the numbers are just not there yet. But I will continue to support the platform with the apps I have there already and see where I can take them.