Voices that Matter iPhone: Creating the Winter Olympics app

Mike Schramm
M. Schramm|04.27.10

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Voices that Matter iPhone: Creating the Winter Olympics app

Jeff Sinclair took the stage on day two of this past weekend's Voices that Matter iPhone conference to the tune of the Olympic theme music -- his company (well his most recent company -- he's worked on a few other ventures previously) was formed for one purpose: to provide the official iPhone app for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Eleven months before the games, in March of 2009, Xomo was formed around the idea of "disposable apps" -- the thinking was that since most people only use an app for a period of weeks anyway, they would create event-based and location-based apps that had a built-in time limit. The eventual goal was to provide an Olympic app, and so even before the games knew they would want an app, Xomo started up to build one.

The story was actually pretty interesting -- Sinclair talks about the trials and tribulations of building both the app and building the funding and audience for it. Most iPhone developers start out with money and go from there, but Xomo really started out with the software, and then convinced the Olympics and their sponsors to pay for it. Read on to see how the award-winning app was eventually built.

Xomo started out by creating a few local event apps that they used both as prototypes of a kind, and as a way to build up their reputation as iPhone developers (and hopefully get Apple's attention). They created event apps for jazz festivals in Toronto and London, and a film festival app as well. When it came to the Olympics, however, Sinclair said that the ground was a little too rocky for seeds just yet -- six months away from the games, the two major telephone companies sponsoring them didn't actually sell the iPhone. But Xomo figured they had to get started anyway, so they actually made the app. Before they ever had sponsorship agreements, or even confirmation that the Olympics even wanted an app (there was no money in the budget for any sort of mobile guide), they built it up using information skimmed from the Olympics' website, and got it ready to show off. In essence, they created the app on spec -- unrequested spec, at that.

Fortunately, a few things happened that helped turn the tide. Bell, one of the games' sponsors, announced right around that time that they would be selling the iPhone in Canada, so it made much more sense for them to help sponsor an iPhone app. But Bell also sold other phones, so they told Xomo that they wanted the guide to be multiplatform. In response, Xomo hired Java and .Net teams to create versions of the app for Blackberry and Windows phones as well.

At three months, the project started to come together. Xomo attended an Apple developers' conference, and started building up a relationship with Apple, whose attention they'd captured with their earlier apps. Apple, Sinclair said, gave them plenty of support -- they were very committed to making sure there was an official iPhone app available for the games, and figured that if they could support an official app, then they could make things easy for App Store customers by ruling out any unofficial versions.

At the same time, Xomo began finalizing the feature set -- they added in some fun location and time-based features (like a movie trailer that would only play if the app was opened during the Opening Ceremonies, in the real-world vicinity of the actual event), and as much functionality as possible. They wanted to make sure their app was the main source of information, so they included even unofficial events in the schedules. They also did a lot of user testing, both showing the app to their own audiences, as well as taking advantage of a local usability research center in Toronto -- Sinclair told a funny story about how one of his developers actually worked to update the app every single time it was tested, including almost every hour during one day.

Finally, at ten days to launch, they submitted the app to the store, and it was rejected. Part of their app (ticket purchasing and a few other features) had relied on web pages to work, since those features required an Internet connection anyway, but Apple wouldn't let them release the app without a method of dealing with the lack of a connection. That problem was fixed, and then they were good to go.

Marketing the app was a bit of a problem -- because Samsung was the other major sponsor of the Olympics, the agreement was that the word "iPhone" couldn't actually be used in any of the promotion. Xomo had to say that the app was available on "popular smartphones" or otherwise go around the issue. Likewise, Samsung required that Apple couldn't actually feature the app in the App Store, and Apple was disappointed, but because they did want to support the Olympic app, they complied.

Xomo said they promised that somewhere around 50,000 downloads would be a solid turnout for the app, and on the first day, they saw 1,500 downloads. Within a week, they were seeing 20,000 a day, and as the games actually began, they moved up to a whopping 135,000 downloads every day. By the time the game ended, they'd reached over a million downloads in two weeks. Sponsors were thrilled, which was good: because the Games didn't have a budget for the app, Xomo had to basically sell the license for the app to the Olympic Committee, who then sold rights for the license themselves to Bell and the other sponsors. In other words, not only did Xomo make money on the app, but the Olympics did as well.

Sinclair said the take-off of the application was also due to something fun they'd added at the last second: when the app was shaken, a little easter egg animation would pop up and show some of the mascots from the games. That was developed on their coder's own time, and it really drove traffic to the app -- it offered a fun little hook that differentiated the experience and gave the press something to write about. Xomo recommended that to other developers: even if you're working on a serious application, throwing in a little bit of fan can only expand the audience and their interest.

Very interesting case study of a very singular kind of app. Not all apps are designed simply to be sold to customers -- a story like Xomo's is proof that the App Store supports all kinds of different software models.
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