Interview with Aware Technologies developers of StepTrakLite

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AppCraver recently spoke with Ari Benbasat and Rich W. DeVaul from Aware Technologies, the developer team behind StepTrakLite. They answered our questions about developing apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

1. When did you start developing apps for the iPhone?

AYB: I started in March with a version of StepTrakLite for 1.1.3 (jailbroken, of course). We moved over to the official SDK - pretty much starting from scratch – once we were finally accepted into the program.

2. What was the inspiration behind your app?

AYB: AWare Technologies has been working in the area of step counting and activity classification from the very start, first in contract research for the Army and DARPA, and now with our FitAWare product. The first version of the application was a duplication of the functionality of FitAWare, which tracked activity in the background and regularly transmitted step counts backend server.

3. How did you settle on your price point for the app?

RWD: Looking at the trends, I knew that App Store prices have been falling, from an average of around $9.99 at the beginning toward $0.99 (something like the present average). We saw there were a bunch of other software pedometers at the $1.99 and $0.99 price points, and wanted to distinguish ourselves from the pack.

I had the luxury of approaching the App Store as marketing and PR for AWare, not our primary source of revenue. We knew we had a better product, but I was concerned that setting a high price (say $3.99) would generate little sales traction till someone reviewed us, or we would have to spend money on marketing, which isn’t really an option for us right now.

I briefly considered telling Ari to put a jewel on UI and ask $999, but decided that the free price point would drive more sales. As we are now #1 in health and fitness, I think I chose wisely. Now, if only the VCs would pay attention. :)

4. Roughly how many apps have you sold?

AYB: I am quite proud to say that we have over 62K downloads at this point.

5. How did you like the developer tools provided in the iPhone SDK? is there anything missing?

AYB: Most of the programming that I had done in the last decade was for tiny embedded systems used in an academic environment, so I really haven’t worked with anything this formal before. That said, I am pretty happy with the XCode and the SDK itself. Like pretty much all software, it can be maddening to use until you get into the mindset of the developer, and then everything snaps into place.

6. Is your company privately owned? Venture backed?

RWD: We are backed by the most Uber Powerful VCs on the planet… actually, no.

In truth, we are a closely held corporation bankrolled through a combination of plucky self funding and plucky FFF (friends, family and… friends) funding. And ruthless exploitation of our workers. I mean, efficient utilization of capital through brilliant management harnessing the enthusiasm and talent of our incredible team. And donations. We accept donations. Small bills, Ramen noodles…

7. What are some of the other iPhone apps that you like?

AYB: I am the kind of person who doesn’t plan all that well, so I love applications that give me on the fly knowledge about my surroundings. I know that it doesn’t have the best reviews, but I am a huge fan of the Yelp! application, which I use a bunch. It is exactly the sort of thing the iPhone was designed for (in my mind): it takes your current location from the phone, checks its database to give you local restaurants, etc, and then links back to the phone with either a phone number or a map. A perfect little closed loop.

RWD: Social media, location based services, and games. I like having Twitter in my pocket, I wish Google Maps would keep track of where my friends are for chance meetings. And I miss having Gnu Chess at my beck and call (jailbroken only, alas. No, I’m not shucking out $10 for an inferior chess engine.) Oh, and AirSharing. And the Apple Remote app—very handy for controlling my iTunes music playback at home.

8. What kind of features should apple implement in future versions of the iPhone / SDK?

AYB: I would love to see some sort of support for background applications. The iPhone has incredible potential as an omnipresent wireless device, but it can’t realize even a tenth of that if it is only responsive and not preemptive. StepTrakLite, as good as it is now, would give a far better picture of your activity level (and therefore your health) if it could track continuously rather than only when you are explicitly exercising (as is the case now).

9. What’s the development cycle for iPhone apps like?

RWD: Um, crazy idea, preliminary implementation, testing, refinement, release at pricepoint X, whining reviews from disgruntled fanboys, discount, oblivion.

More seriously, the development cycle for apps is complicated by Apple’s own secretive platform development process. For example, we had no preview access to 3G iPhones before they hit the market. There was no way for us to test on that platform before it was in the hands of our customers.

As it turns out, there are firmware issues on the 3G iPhone that cause accelerometer lockups—something we couldn’t have done anything about, but which has provoked some flaming 1 star reviews. There is a work-around if you read our FAQ. Unfortunately, some reviewers chose to flame first and read the FAQ later.

10. Are you working on any other apps that you will be releasing soon?

AYB: Look for an update to StepTrakLite soon, to be followed by other exciting products. We will be tying in features like social media and supporting a wider range of platforms (e.g. the iPod Touch) and geographic regions beyond the US.

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