An Interview With The Co-founder of TheAppBuilder

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Those of you who dream of a successful startup better pay attention to TheAppBuilder. It’s one of those stories where a couple of savvy developers discover a market gap and come up with a well-executed and successful solution.

It’s been about 6 months since I had a chat with TheAppBuilder team. I have been following JamPot’s updates ever since, and I must say they’ve been working so hard that the product is now completely transformed. While the core of their business still lies in providing a super easy workflow to create multi-platform mobile apps, they have implemented some serious changes and new features.

This time, I interviewed Michael Barr, co-founder of JamPot. We discussed their latest updates and future plans.

The obvious question: how did the whole thing start?

It started just about two years ago. It was just me and another technologist. We had both been working in various sections of the IT community. I was mainly involved in building content management web solutions. We had both been asked to start thinking about mobile solutions for a number of clients. We got together and said: there must be a better way to build mobile apps fast.

We were predominantly focused on iOS apps at the time. I pretty much enjoyed building stuff in Objective-C, but not everyone has those technical skills. So, from there we solidified the idea, secured the funding, and found few like-minded guys. Long story short: we brought TheAppBuilder to where it is today. And that is far beyond what we expected.

Tell me about your story with the CMS you originally worked on. TheAppBuilder could be looked at as a type of CMS. How do they relate?

It was at a small company in Northern-Ireland called WebBelief. It’s focused on delivering content managed web solutions based on the .NET platform. This business model was successful in the days when you could charge a reasonable amount for a content-managed website. However everybody knows that it was gonna be a short-lived time in the web. Many of the solutions move away from being developer tools to cater directly to the end user.

This is exactly the idea we have behind TheAppBuilder. We didn’t want to build another developer tool after we’d seen what happened when professional software such as FrontPage or Dreamweaver and CMS options like WordPress did to the industry. We wanted to allow anyone to create an app, same way that WordPress works with websites. We want to cater to the small business owner who just wants a presence on mobile marketplaces. He/she might not have coding skills, but they really shouldn’t need any to use TheAppBuilder. Those who want to take things further and have some HTML5 skills can use some really fancy techniques. We’ve even seen people building and embedding games using HTML5 canvas.

Are you planning to implement some kind of e-commerce solution to help app owners boost their business through the app?

We have a pretty extensive roadmap with some exciting ideas. Payments is one of those things we are currently looking at. People are constantly asking us how they might enable purchases within the app. We are looking at some of the big players in the payments and e-commerce field to see how could we implement their technology. There are some other interesting third-party solutions that we also would like to enable in our apps.

Let’s move on to the updates. The last time I spoke to you guys, the product had just gone public. How has the product been evolving in the past 6 months?

When I look back and see how many things have happened it’s almost scary!

In the early days, in order to deliver the apps across all major platforms, we had to use a few specific tools. One of these was the Adobe Air platform, which really helped us to deal with both Android and iOS. Although Air was a good introduction to the world of cross-platform development, the apps produced were not of sufficient quality for us to use, and our customers were not happy with the user experience that the cross-compiled solution provided.

We have since moved on to completely native clients: Objective-C for iOS, Java for Android, and C# for Windows Phone. We have also launched our new Windows 8 client, and we are the first app building company to support native Windows 8 apps. (Check out the Steve Ballmer app in the Windows 8 store.) This is especially interesting, because Microsoft are focusing a lot on the transition between PC’s, tablets, and mobile phones and providing a consistent UI and environment for the user, regardless of what device they choose to consume their content.

For a while, we kept Adobe Air for the desktop editor, but then we realized it could be far better if we moved everything to a fully web-based interface. That’s probably the biggest change. The whole app creation workflow is completely web-based from start to finish, and it’s accessible even from tablets.

We also added a whole new templating mechanism. To achieve this, we really had to look into how people use our app builder. If you start creating an app, the first thing you will find in TheAppBuilder Wizard is a selection of templates. If you are about to create an app for a restaurant, you can pick the Restaurant/Bar template, which is geared up with the relevant tabs and functionalities. Of course, you can customize all of these just a few steps later. We are planning to allow our users to submit their self-designed premium templates, which others can purchase. This will be a great way to allow our community to feed in and even return a bit of their time investment as well.

One of the most exciting new addition is Maps. It’s an easy way to set the geolocation of your business or any of your upcoming events. This can also be displayed in an augmented reality view on compatible devices. Up until now, it has been only using Google Maps’ API, however with the launch of iOS6, it’s set to work with Apple’s map back-end too.

We added a few other new sections as well. Gallery provides an easy solution to upload and manage your photos. Lists are extremely useful if you want to upload a selection of products. We also made a separate section for events. Apart from Twitter and Facebook, we also have YouTube gallery, which provides easy access to your videos. Of course, if you need any additional functionality you can always add an HTML5 tab and apply your own custom code.

We also introduced private apps. We saw a need for enterprise apps that aren’t designed for the public. These provide a way to distribute news and updates for a selected group of users, and we are working with some large enterprise clients who are looking to disseminate internal information to their employees via custom mobile apps.

One of our most recent updates includes nesting. This allows users to place any type of module within a standard list view, which opens up a world of possibilities to create very powerful apps. For example, a single content section can contain many sub-galleries, a news feed can be broken down into different sub-sections, users could even create product catalogs with categories and sub-categories.

Do you see any potential in NFC (Near Field Communication) at the moment?

Absolutely, we could probably do great things with it, but we need to wait until manufacturers catch up on the hardware side first. Then the technology can become mainstream and it will be worth dealing with it.

Do you still keep up with the look and UX of the different platforms or do you plan to go your own way?

We remain completely native, and we have embraced the features and behavior of the various operating systems even more closely. Our Android apps are now in line with JellyBean’s native UI, and the iOS apps bring you the distinct iPhone that is familiar to iOS users.

If you build an app, you also get an iPad beta version of it. This is a slightly different accommodation that’s tailor-made to this faster and larger device. The main point is that the app owners really just need to take care of the content and we do the hard work of releasing the apps on as many major platforms as possible.

Are there any other ways you are planning the community to get involved?

In the next few months we are planning to open up a developer API. That will allow people to discover the app structure via web services, which will allow developers to build native clients for devices that we don’t currently support.

Now you offer the HTML5 version of the applications for free. Do see growing interest in web solutions opposed to native?

We are starting to see a huge uptick in the web solutions and maybe a bit of a slow down on the native side. This is partially due to the strict approval processes of the app stores. Apple, Google, and Microsoft really wants to control what goes public, and this can sometimes make gaining approval difficult. Not necessarily because of the content itself, but the structure and behavior of the apps.

If you put together an HTML5 web app, you have the freedom to do almost anything you want. This free, easy solution allows regular people to create apps for purposes like birthday parties, or perhaps for non-profit organizations to stay in touch with their community in a really cost-efficient way. Some high-end applications may require access to hardware that only native code can allow, but HTML5 is quickly closing the gap to native code.

At the moment we have over 50,000 apps submitted and we see more every day. We’ve been really lucky to have such momentum without putting any particular effort into advertising.

Have you created any apps with TheAppBuilder? Do you feel that HTML5 capabilities are coming progressively closer to that of native code, or do you think that truly robust apps will always need Objective-C, Java, or C# to meet their needs?

Zsombor MarkusZsombor Markus
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Markus (yes, call him by his surname) is a web-design and web development enthusiast from Hungary. Currently living in Malta, where first got involved in e-commerce, later specialized in e-payments. Working on web projects combined with online sales shortly led to major interest in cross-device development. He is an experimental person, digging into the latest web standards. Demands his daily portion of tech feeds and doesn't drive a mile without a podcast on.

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