Confessions of an Apple Manager-Turned-iPhone App Creator

Former Apple employee Dave Howell, now the CEO of startup Avatron Software, talks about the early days of the App Store, his Apple experience and how he plans to do battle in the iPhone's wild frontier.

Pity the startup iPhone app developer whose novel idea usually lasts about a day in the App Store. Dave Howell, CEO of Avatron Software, is one of those guys. The former Apple employee started his own company and came out with one of the first document viewers for the iPhone.

Howell's flagship app, called Air Sharing, hit the App Store nearly a year ago to great fanfare. Today, it competes with some 200 apps.

The App Store has become the Wild West where apps spring up seemingly overnight. It's where an app's logo suddenly takes on enormous importance. Some 100,000 apps now line the virtual shelves of the App Store, which opened its doors only a little more than a year ago.

Howell had worked at small companies before joining Apple in 2002. He spent six years at Apple in various managerial and engineering roles. Bitten by the startup bug, he enrolled in Cornell University's weekend MBA program and, in 2008, quit Apple to start Avatron.

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Former Apple employee Dave Howell leads his startup Avatron Software in the iPhone's wild frontier.

Now Howell must guide Avatron through the dynamic world of the iPhone app marketplace. It's a world where unpredictability and opportunity go hand-in-hand, frustration an everyday occurrence, and constant innovation the key to survival.

CIO.com spoke with Howell about the early days of the App Store, his Apple experience and how he plans to stay a step ahead of the competition.

You went from a big company with a closed, paranoid culture to your own startup. How was that transition?

At Apple, I gained an appreciation for all the process you get at a large organization. I had always been a sort of lone wolf working at start-ups and small companies. I was dragged into Apple kicking and screaming [when Apple acquired his previous company] but later really appreciated the power and discipline of it.

The paranoia and secrecy was always frustrating but not as hard as I thought it would be. It was more my fear. For the most part, Apple's processes just work really well. Another frustration with a big company, not just Apple, is that if you have what you think is a great idea, there may just be nobody there to listen to it.

Now, it's not the case at all. We have the nimbleness of a little group. Avatron has seven employees. We just hired two engineers. We're brainstorming every day about features, new apps, new opportunities—it's a lot more fun.

How was Air Sharing received?

We gave it away for two weeks and later set the price at $7, lowered it to $5 and then introduced a more capable one for $10. I was optimistically thinking maybe 100,000 people would download it. But really I thought that was crazy talk.

As it turned out, a million downloaded it in two weeks—168,000 in the first day. That's without advertising, no banner ads. It was just word-of-mouth and the power of the Internet.

We've done other apps, but that app has pretty much kept us afloat. We're profitable almost exclusively on the power of Air Sharing and now Air Sharing Pro, which came out in May this year.

Today, the number of unique users is around 1.3 million. That will overstate the total a bit, because some users will have purchased both the classic and Pro versions. The number of total active users is currently around 200,000. Less than a quarter of Air Sharing Pro users are in the U.S.

What does the competitive landscape look like?

When we started [development], there were no other apps that did that. By the time we finished, two other apps had already come out, which is why we did the free version for two weeks. Now there are at least 200 apps that view documents.

To be fair, there are only three we're really concerned with. They are really good competitors, focusing on one small part. One is called Good Reader, which is very good at reading PDF files. The other two are Quickoffice and [Documents To Go], which are good at editing Office documents. We don't have any editing.

How do you differentiate your app?

Our app is very easy to use, more broad and well polished. We've been really lucky with Apple's marketing assistance. Apple has featured Air Sharing twice as their app of the week.

Did your Apple background pave the way to the App Store?

Not at all. There were times when we were having issues with the App Store, and I'd send emails to everybody I knew at Apple, from fellow engineers to managers to vice presidents. The few people that responded would say, "You know I can't talk about that."

What kind of frustrations were you experiencing?

There have been moments where it's been frustrating because Apple's system are evolving painstakingly slow. For a big company, I think they're moving pretty quickly; but from a [startup's] point of view, a year is a lifetime.

We've had frustrations from bugs in the App Store and inconsistent app reviews. However, the opportunities in this new marketplace far outweigh any of these frustrations.

Where do you go from here?

There's a couple of things. One involves moving on to the cloud and giving people a way to synchronize between their computer and iPhone. Another is that we're offering something to enterprises: an app building toolkit.

They can deploy our app customized for their company or school. They can have their own documents pre-populated in the app. They can negotiate a licensing agreement with us and then deploy it to their customers and control how it's installed. They can create a banner image and build their own version of the app.

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for CIO.com. Send him an email at tkaneshige@cio.com. Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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