Christchurch IT scene: Smudge Apps

Mobile applications company counts Vodafone, Fairfax and Yellow as its clients

Apple launched the iPhone in 2008 with an app store, which to many seemed like an afterthought — but not to friends Toby Vincent and Reuben Bijl. To them it was an opportunity.

Vincent, who was studying law at Canterbury University, but had an interest in graphics and technology, suggested to Bijl, a Computer Science graduate, that they develop iPhone apps. Bijl was working full-time so development took place during the evenings and on the weekends.

The very first app was released in late September 2008 and called Halloween – it is a sound board of spooky noises that sells for $1.29. But its success barely rates with Vincent who downloaded it at the request of Computerworld and was amused to see the app has retained its five-star rating.

The Halloween app was among several apps that brought the pair international attention. They landed their first commercial contract with a small advertising agency, with a request to create a version of their spirit level app for the launch of Discovery Shed, an offshoot of the Discovery Channel in the UK.

Locally their first major contract was with Yellow, the company publishing phone directories in New Zealand. At that point Bijl quit his job and the pair moved the company HQ out of his bedroom and into an office building located in a former nunnery on the outskirts of the CBD.

Following the Yellow app they decided to target Vodafone with an idea they had for an app that would enable customers to view their account information. It took about eight months of meetings until the telco agreed, but it was the boost the company needed.

“A lot of our work has come through Vodafone, we work pretty closely with them. They go to their corporate clients and say ‘hey you guys should build an iPhone app and those guys should do it for you’ and that’s definitely helpful,” says Vincent.

Smudge Apps now counts among its clients; Vodafone, Yellow, Sky TV, Fairfax, winemaker Penfolds, and Air New Zealand.

Staff numbers are now at nine and Vincent (pictured above, second from far right with some of the Smudge Apps team) says the goal is to be the biggest mobile app developer locally. “Our short-term goal is to cement our place as the premium player in the mobile app market in New Zealand. At the moment there are one or two companies that compete on the same level of clients as us, that could potentially get a client like Vodafone or Sky,” says Vincent.

The next market is Australia, although the company has acquired some clients across the Tasman such as a directory service True Local.

It is expanding to develop apps on other mobile platforms, with the first commercial Android app due for release this month. Vincent says they’re also interested in Microsoft’s Windows 7 platform, but not Blackberry or Nokia.

“The problem with Symbian is that you have so many different types of phones that can run it – phones with keyboards, without keyboards, touchscreens, stylus. They’re all different screen sizes and all different input types, so it's really hard to make it a compelling user experience.”

Vincent says being based in Christchurch means they can work without too many distractions. For example, meetings are generally done over the phone, cutting down on travel time to and from offices, although there are times during the process when a face-to-face meeting is required.

The company has had little trouble recruiting staff. Although mobile app programming isn’t specifically taught at university, its easy to train Computer Science graduates.

As for the recent earthquake, Vincent says it hardly affected them. The company’s building was shut for a week but being so small they just camped out in his dining room and continued doing business over that period.

* This is the third in a series of articles about the Christchurch IT scene. Tomorrow Computerworld talks to open source advocate Dave Lane. In the meantime, check out the details of the next Fry Up debate to be held in Christchurch on 1 March, the moot is: 'South Islanders will be the most innovative when it comes to fast fibre networks'.

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