iPhone Developer Spotlight: Noel Llopis of Snappy Touch

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Noel Llopis interviewNoel Llopis, Founder of Snappy Touch, recently spoke with us about his latest app Flower Garden and his experience developing apps for the iPhone and iPod touch.

When did you start developing apps for the iPhone? Did you have previous experience as a developer?

I started developing for the iPhone in October of last year. To be exact, that's when I had the idea for Flower Garden and started working on a Windows prototype. It wasn't until a month later that I liked enough of what I saw in the prototype and decided to pull the trigger, sign up for the iPhone developer program, and buy a MacBook Pro (which I had to buy used off Craigslist because I couldn't afford a new one!). Before that, I worked in the games industry for over ten years, doing mostly game engine and technology.

Snappy Touch is my second startup, and it was my introduction to development for iPhone or even Mac (I had never used Objective C before, although I had a lot of experience with C and C++).

What / how many apps have you made so far?

I never know how to answer that question: either one or two! Flower Garden is the app I started with and what got me into the iPhone world. But it was a really long project. It took six months from start to finish, which is way too long by iPhone standards (that's half the lifetime of the App Store!!). So around Christmas I was getting restless because I knew I wasn't going to finish for a few more months, so I decided to bust out a "one day app" as an experiment.

I'm a big tea drinker, so I wrote Tea Time! which simply lets you enter your tea parameters and picks the correct water temperature and time for the perfect cup of tea. The whole thing took one day to program, one day to do all the graphics, and half a day to set up my company, get a basic web page, etc. So it ended up being more like the "two and a half day" app. It was a great learning experience going through the whole process, learning about payments and reports, etc.

A bit over a week ago I finally released Flower Garden, which is my main project. It allows you to plant seeds, see the flowers bloom in real time, and make bouquets and send them to people. Flowers are created procedurally from a DNA-like structure, so it really gives the app a very unique feel to it, with every flower being unique and different from all others. It also opens up the door to a huge range of possibilities including cross-pollination.

What type of apps/games/software inspires you? Where do you get your ideas?

I'm inspired by the raw ideas of a lot of indie games (both on the iPhone and PC), but I'm also inspired by the level of polish big companies can put on their apps and games. My main source of inspiration is not other apps though, it's usually things completely unrelated to the iPhone or the computer. I find that having other interests allows me to make different idea associations and approach things from a fresh angle. In particular, I seem to get a lot of creative ideas while I'm out running. When I came up the idea for Flower Garden, I was about 4 miles away from home, so I ran back even harder and rushed to iTunes to see if anyone had already done anything similar :-)

How do you settle on the price point for your apps?

That's a really tough one to answer because the market is changing all the time. I think it's important to approach pricing from the point of view of the user, not the developer. It doesn't matter how much it cost you to make it, it's how much it's worth to the user that matters.

For Flower Garden, I knew it was definitely not a $0.99 app, but it wasn't a $9.99 one either, and probably $4.99 was a stretch. So that narrowed things quite a bit. $2.99 seemed like a fair price given the quality of the app and what it gives you. Besides, buying a single greeting card in the store is probably $2.80 + tax so as soon as you send a bouquet you break even and (hopefully) had a lot more fun in the process :-)

What has been the best thing about designing for the iPhone?

To be fair, the best thing about the iPhone is the iTunes App Store. Without it, it would be a really fun and pretty piece of hardware, but we would all be struggling to figure out how to make any money with it. It would be very similar to the Flash platform or even PCs. The App Store changes all of that and makes the iPhone a really unique platform, with access to millions of customers ready to buy your app at the click of a button.

Apart from that, for me personally, one of the best things about designing for the iPhone are its capabilities: fast CPU, good graphics hardware, great touch interface... It's really very similar to the SegaDreamcast console from the late 90s. When you think about it, it's amazing that we can carry something better than a Dreamcast in our pockets today, and that small, indie teams are making games that rival what huge teams were creating in 1999. It's a really exciting time!

What has been the biggest challenge about designing for the iPhone?

The biggest design challenge for me was coming up with a good interface. The multi-touch screen is an outstanding input device and it's very intuitive, but it's also radically different from a mouse-based interface. It ended up forcing a lot of decisions in the design of Flower Garden to keep the screen uncluttered and accessible at the same time. I love the multi-touch interface though, so that was a "good" challenge.

On the not-so-good-challenges side, and purely from a technical point of view, dealing with memory on the iPhone has been a major pain. I'm not talking about reference counting in Objective C. That's fine — I come from a C/C++ background so I'm used to that. It's the fact that you never know how much memory you're going to have available.

I think Apple dropped the ball on that one. You just can't do that, especially for games! They should have guaranteed a minimum amount of memory available. Maybe just 5-10MB, and then treat the rest of the memory as optional. That way you can always count on that and you can plan on dealing with low-memory conditions. Right now, your app might start and only have 3MB of memory free. What are you supposed to do in that case other than tell your customers to reboot their iPhone?

Is Snappy Touch venture backed or privately held?

Snappy Touch is just me, so definitely privately held. I'd love to be successful enough to grow it to have a small team, but I definitely want to keep it very small and agile.

Do you have any other apps in the works?

Right now I'm totally focused on doing updates for Flower Garden: cross-pollination of plants, more social elements, downloadable content with OS3.0, etc. I have lots of other ideas though. My next project will be shorter, that's for sure. I'd love to keep it under a month.

What apps do you have on your iPhone?

More than I can name, or even than the iPhone can hold! I try to download as many apps and games as I can and analyze them. How did they do this? What kind of interface did they use for that? It's a great way to learn what works and what doesn't. Games that I'm currently obsessing about are Sky Burger, Pocket God, and Galcon. And some of my go-to apps are TwitterFon, Darkroom, and Kindle.

What do you like to do when you're not coding for the iPhone?

I spend way too much time coding for the iPhone, so when I can, I try to get as far away from the computer as possible: running, cycling, backpacking. And if that's not an option, then I'm probably home reading, cooking, writing an article, or daydreaming about a new project.

Watch the FLower Garden video demo:

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