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TUAW Interview: Milo Bird of Phantom Fish

Robert Palmer

On Tuesday, Phantom Fish released an update to Byline, its Google Reader-slash-offline browser app for iPhone and iPod touch.

Byline's developer, Milo Bird, has been hard at work since Byline 1.0 was released, making improvements to the app based on his users' feedback. Last week, Milo took some time out of his vacation to New York to sit down with us (virtually) and talk about Byline and the app development process.

Does Google make it easy to develop an app that interfaces with Google Reader?

Yes and no. The API for accessing Google Reader is straightforward and well-designed, so from a practical point of view it's quite pleasant to work with. However, it's not formally supported by Google, so there's no official documentation. The API has been around for years now and is in use by a large number of third-party apps, so there are several sources of unofficial documentation, but working out the nuances does involve fumbling around in the dark a bit.

Tell me more about the new interface design: What was the motivation behind the wood finish?

The new interface design was motivated in part by a desire to create something original and fun to use, and in part by usability concerns. Byline now has a built-in browser with a toolbar at the bottom of the screen, which makes the interface layout superficially similar to Mail and Safari. I wanted it to be immediately obvious to novice users that they were still in Byline rather than in either of those two apps. I may offer the option to revert to a more traditional interface design in a future update.

How have you found the App Store vetting and approval process? Was it as frustrating as other developers suggest?

I think that the main problem developers have had is with the speed of the process (or lack thereof), rather than the process itself. When the App Store first opened, updates were taking over two weeks to be approved. That's just crazy in such a new and volatile market. The current lead-time of about a week is still on the slow side, particularly if your app is rejected on the first attempt. This hasn't yet happened to me, but I'm sure if it did I'd be very frustrated at having to submit again and sit around like a lemon for another week.

Others have said this, and I agree: Apple needs to publish detailed and explicit guidelines for developers, explaining exactly what will and won't be allowed into the App Store. In fact, whatever they're now using internally should just be cleaned up and published. I don't really care what the guidelines are, and of course Apple should reserve the right to make exceptions, but at the moment Apple is obviously following rules that they haven't bothered to spell out to developers, and this is creating a wholly avoidable crisis of confidence.

Has the removal of the NDA helped you in terms of finding out how others are developing apps for iPhone?

Yes, dropping the NDA has already had a very positive effect. Several mailing lists have sprung up and there's been a steady stream of blog posts, many of which were written months ago and have been gathering dust since. Apple could have spared themselves a lot of grief by creating a private forum for developers under NDA, especially since, by their own admission, the NDA was only kept in place for legal protection.

Have sales of Byline met your expectations?

For the first month or so Byline was averaging over a hundred sales a day, which was above my expectations. The last couple of months have been a lot quieter, but it's still early days.

Competition in the App Store has been focused largely on price thus far, but I worry about the effect this will have on the perceived value of iPhone apps in the long term. One of the reasons software on the Mac is so good is that Mac users demand good software, and are prepared to pay a few extra dollars for it. If App Store developers keep on dropping prices rather than improving their apps, then soon enough customers will expect everything to be cheap and crappy, and developers will be forced to drop prices rather than improve their apps. It's a vicious circle. Fortunately, there are some developers on the App Store who are trying to carve out a market for quality apps, with regular updates, at prices which are high by current App Store standards but rather low when compared to, say, the price of a 24-hour movie rental.

Byline 2.0 is available for a special price of $3.99 (the price of a 24-hour movie rental!) for a limited time in order to build some buzz, and to lessen the try-after-you-buy pain of those who aren't yet sure that they want or need it.

What's next for Byline?

2.0 is a pretty massive update, so I'm planning to spend some time polishing what's already there, particularly in terms of performance, which can suffer a bit during syncing when Byline is set to load 200 items from each list. I intend to make it possible to star items directly from list view, and I want to improve accessibility by offering font size settings, but other than that I don't have any big plans for new features. I'm sure that will change once I start getting feedback on 2.0 from users.

Many thanks to Milo Bird for his participation and willingness to share!

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