Prototype

So I’ve described the concept. And what about the conception? Well i did manage to build the first version of the app that day. The first order of business was finding a name. And for these sort of tasks i like to employ my secret weapon… my stupendous herd of clever cats on facebook. I described the concept (including the idea of following an arrow pointing to your friend and that it was mainly intended for sms) and said “Go!”. Suggestions started to pour in. Some of the ones i passed over included: PointMe, WalkThisWay, HereIAm, Converge, Alan (Alan! Alan!), AppToMeetYou, GettingHotter, See Me Soon (aka S-M-S), MarcoPolo,  MateLocate, and “Dude Where’s my Friends”. I had no shortage of suggestions, but the one i latched on to was actually uttered by my friend Joe not 5 minutes after i asked. At that time, the only thing actually using that name was the meetup.com app on iTunes, so i appended “SMS” and then i had something unique. Then, once i got myself a twitter handle and a domain name (meetapp.at) i was ready to rock.

ScreenshotSlideshowSmSo i worked hard, late into the night (though not all night, I’ve learned that you get to diminishing returns in the early hours after a not insignificant amount of beer and pizza), and by the following afternoon had built a prototype and a basic presentation.

The app was quite basic, but it had the facility to send a location and to listen for incoming SMS messages including the correct urls. And the url itself would show a google map if viewed in a browser, so all the elements were there.

Now I’ve been to several of these hackathons over the years – it was my third year at this very event – and the fact of the matter is that my track record at the time for winning some prize at each one i entered was 100%. This time was the end of that – the judges passed over my idea completely! It remains the only time one of my ideas didn’t win a thing, and ironically it was when i most felt like what i’d made had a future outside of a frenetic weekend’s activity. And i suppose that’s true on some level, since here i am 1.5 years later.

 

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Birth of an App

So enough about me, what is this elusive MeetApp i keep referring to? Well the concept was something i came up with for a hackathon at the OTA (Over The Air) mobile developer conference held at Bletchley Park in September 2013. Now for the uninitiated, a hackathon is where developers get together and try to develop some pet project over the course of ~12 hours  and then present it the next day and compete for prizes. Or as a cynic might describe it as a conference where several companies with marketing budgets burning holes in their pockets sponsor categories so developers test their APIs for them in order to compete for prizes worth far less then their average day rate. What everyone can agree on is it’s a chance for developers to get together, drink beer and try out the left-field ideas that they’ve come up with but haven’t had the opportunity to work on in their day jobs.

MeetApp was one such idea. I actually originally conceived of it as an add-on to the Boomtown festival app i was working on – a friend finder feature, but i realised it could potentially be useful on its own. nokia-5140-compassIt’s only when i started thinking about it that I realised that i’d actually wanted this sort of functionality as far back as 2005, when i remember getting excited about the Nokia 5140,
which was one of the first mobile phones with GPS support (it was actually sold as an aftermarket Express-On cover to the phone) and promised the ability to send your location to anyone you want in an SMS. I never ended up getting that phone, but even now that pretty much every phone has a GPS unit in it, it’s still not as easy as it should be to send somebody your location.

There are lots of location-aware apps, but they all suffer from one or more issues:

  1. There are battery life issues for apps that track you in the background. Glympse is a fantastic app to let somebody track your location for a set period of time, but if you’ve sent somebody a Glympse, better hope your phone is plugged in to your car because otherwise it’s likely to be dead by the time you arrive, possibly after burning a hole in your pocket.
  2. There are privacy issues for background tracking. This is probably the biggest issue for many. Lots of people don’t like the idea of their location being broadcast to everyone they know, or potentially don’t know, or even are wary of google or apple themselves knowing that. These fears may be somewhat unfounded, since privacy measures are built into these apps, but that fear may be real enough that it turns people off.
  3. Some are not cross platform. I’ve heard lots of good things about Find My Friends on iOS, but since i don’t have an iPhone, that’s a non-starter for me.
  4. You don’t alway know the accuracy of the location you’re sending. This became quite apparent to me when I was involved with a city-centre location-based game using twitter. There is  tick-box next to the post button to include your location in the tweet, but there’s literally no way of knowing whether it’s sending your current, reasonably accurate location, or the 1km approximate location you were at 15 minutes ago
  5. Almost all solutions require login of some sort, along with the issues around remembering passwords and the worry about whether that company intends to sell your information or not down the line….
  6. All require a mobile internet connection. Now, this is an issue which is rife in the mobile industry – it seems most app developers seem to assume always on ubiquitous connectivity. This may be the situation someday though it certainly is not the case today, nor will it be for some time to come (if ever). The situation has improved somewhat in the past couple of years, with more developers implementing loss-of-connectivity countermeasures, but it’s still far from common. I think this is mainly because it needs to be specifically built in, and it’s not always straightforward to test. As an aside, i once had to test an app for players of golf, and was getting reports of strange errors when they lost and then regained connectivity, but was unable to reproduce it myself. I needed a Faraday cage big enough to fit me and the phone inside it, which is not easy to come by. Fortunately, my local pub, The Duke of York performed admirably in this regard ;-)

MeetApp is different. When you press the button to share a location, bam, it’s ready – no internet required. It encodes the location, the time, the accuracy of the fix, your name, the place name and the address. And you can send it to anybody, by any means you like and no matter what device they have, they’ll be able to see your location. If they have MeetApp installed they’ll get the best experience, but if they don’t, then they’ll see a web page with a google map on it, with a button to open it in Google Maps, or with whatever mapping app is suitable for their platform.

So how does MeetApp address the areas where other apps come up short? Well i’m glad you asked…

  1. MeetApp goes out of its way to be kind to your battery. There’s no background tracking. When the screen is off, or the app is in the background, MeetApp is off. When the screen is on, MeetApp will do everything it can do get you the best location it can as fast as it can. If the locations it receives stop improving in accuracy, it will deactivate the GPS. But it will use Google’s activity recogniser to work out if you’re moving, and if you are, it will keep GPS on to continue bringing you the most up to date location as you move.
  2. There are no privacy issues with MeetApp because we don’t collect any information. We don’t ask for personal details or passwords, we don’t know who you’re sending locations to. And if your recipient has MeetApp installed, your location won’t even touch any server anywhere.
  3. I’m building MeetApp for Android, and I’m hoping to convince one of my colleagues to make the iOS version. For those who are on other platforms, the web page is still useful!
  4. All locations are shown with an accuracy circle integrated. And if the accuracy of the GPS fix is too low, you’re able to manually correct it by tapping on the map directly
  5. No logins. No details to sell. Which is one reason why this project wouldn’t interest any VC. More on that in another blog post…
  6. As long as you have some medium to send the location (e.g. SMS) mobile internet is completely optional. Even when receiving a location, you may not be able to load the map tiles, but you can still follow the arrow to find your friend. I’ve also added NFC capability so you can transfer a location by touching your phones together, e.g. without any network whatsoever. An edge case, sure, but imagine you’re at a festival and you need to direct somebody to where your car is parked – MeetApp’s got you covered.

So there you go. I’ll continue in a later post to describe what i made on the day of the hackathon, what I released as the first public version, and what’s in the works for this year, but in the meantime: What do you think? Would this be useful to you? Let me know in the comments. :-)

 

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Paving Paradise to put up a Park and Ride

This is a small departure from the “usual” content intended for this blog, but I’ve resolved to add a blog entry each week, and this week instead of spending the day coding, i felt compelled to support the courageous protesters of Rising Up on the Stapleton Allotments. As of last night they have begun camping on platforms in the tree tops in the area threatened by the Bristol MetroBus scheme. I brought them some coffee.

IMG_0317I’ve been following this issue for a while, first alerted to the scheme by a Change.org petition started last summer (it’s still going, please sign!). They are rightly (IMO) staking a claim that Grade 1 agricultural land is more important to the future of Bristol than a place to park your car and get on a bus. It’s not that i have anything against park and ride developments per se – we need to improve transport in our city and that can play a part – but there have to be places it can be done that don’t require building on prime greenbelt. And there are perhaps better ways to spend that money (some ideas here).

The timing couldn’t be more (in)appropriate since Bristol has just started its year of festivities as Green Capital of Europe, and while today marks the start of the planned work on the MetroBus scheme it is only the beginning of a larger campaign of destruction that is scheduled this year.

IMG_0315At the camp that’s been erected over the weekend, things are in full swing. They looked to be settling in for the long haul when i visited, with rotas being made up (for manning gates, cooking/washing-up and press & police liaisons) and sign painting in full flow. I’m pretty damn frustrated that the city planners are so short sighted but glad that there are people who care enough to brave the sub zero temperatures in Bristol this week to stand up for what’s right. It’s not acrobats on tightropes or photo shoots with green bits of plastic that makes Bristol one of the greenest places to live, but the actions of people like these. Well done, guys – we’ve got your back.

Edit: good article on the Bristol Cable

 

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Beginnings

Hi, I’m Elliot. Today is Monday, but instead of going to work I’m taking a day to do something for me, and hopefully for you as well. In a nod to Google’s well known “20% projects” idea, I’ve decided in 2015 to endeavour to take one day a week to work on something of my own devising, and that is something i call MeetApp.

First, some background. I’ve been making apps for mobile phones for about 10 years now. I work for Intohand Ltd in Bath, UK as a Software Development Consultant. That’s a rather business-centric name for something that i feel is more of a creative endeavour. I don’t generally refer to myself as an app designer, since i often work with visual designs that somebody else has produced. I do however feel that putting these designs together into an interactive experience that lives on people’s pocket computers is an art form in itself, and one not widely understood. The term i’ve come up with to describe what i do is Logic Sculpting. If you’d asked me when i was 6 what the best job in the world would be, i’d have probably suggested being paid to make Lego creations. In a way that’s kind of what i do. I build creations with virtual building blocks by scripting logical structures. The consultant part of my job title means i do that for various companies. (If you’re interested you can find examples of my work here, here, and here)

Mobile app development is big right now. It seems everybody wants an app (and thankfully not just on iPhone anymore either). We’re in something akin to a gold rush. This is great because it means there’s plenty of work for people like me. But there’s an old adage you might have heard about the original gold rush – that the only people who made money out of it were the people selling pick axes and pans. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of apps that are made don’t earn back the money they took to develop. This is part of the reason I’m happy to be a consultant. I put my all into every project i’m involved with, but in the end i don’t need to try and make money out of it which, by and large, suits me just fine.

I wasn’t always a hired gun. My first foray into mobile apps was working on a startup called mycitymate back in 2005. Perhaps i’ll expand on that experience in some future blog post but for now, suffice to say that I worked very hard for many years and succeeded in making some pretty impressive mobile creations, but also in making myself very poor and worn out. It takes a lot of elements to make a business succeed, and while i may not have excelled in all of them, I feel at least i gained some insights into what they might be. The main one is making sure you have sufficient resources to match your ambition, (or a solid plan on how you will acquire them) and its colliery, something that was referred to by one of my favourite english teachers in high school with the acronym KISS, or Keep It Simple Sweetheart. I’ve built so many apps that have a TON of features, and it’s always a challenge to communicate to users what all of these are, and the truth is, even if you succeed in that, they’ll only really care about one or two of them. A wise man once said perfection is not achieved when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.

So with all i’ve learned about the app business over the years, i’ve decided to try and put them into practice for something all my own. Something that’s simple, useful, and fun to use. An idea that has become a bit of a passion for me recently and that i feel little choice but to pursue. Put simply, that idea is the ability to save and share locations with whoever you want to, and wherever you are. It’s a simple idea, but like the best ones, requires a lot of complicated and clever things to keep it that way!

I thought it would be nice to document my journey in this blog. Along the way i’ll talk about the technical issues i faced, the design considerations and iterations i went through, and notes on the tools and services i’ve used to do so.

Happy to have you along for the ride. Stay tuned!

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