Young men and women with Apple ear buds are packed into a room, intent on their work. Some are doing graphic design, some are writing code, some are writing marketing materials. Flannel, odd haircuts and freshly scrubbed faces abound. Ethernet cables spool into closely arranged desks stacked high with computer gear. A delivery guy is loading the break room table high with moo shu shrimp and mushroom egg foo yong. Is this San Francisco in 1998? No - it's a gaming company on Madison's west side in 2012. What's going on here?
iOS, Apple's operating system for mobile devices, is what's going on. iPhone, iPad, iPad Mini: Apple mobile devices are everywhere, and their proliferation is fueled by a churning marketplace of cheap and cool new apps. That smell of moo shu may as well be the smell of opportunity.
While it still helps to hit marketing events in the big cities, the people who make iOS apps are increasingly doing so from locations not previously associated with software development - and they often have to, as the low price point ($.99 per app is typical) means that the developers who make them have to run lean and can't necessarily afford San Francisco rents. They are hoping for a breakout hit like Angry Birds, made by a Finnish startup that failed with dozens of apps before striking a seam of merchandise-ready digital pay dirt.
We're smart enough to see the possibilities here in Madison, and accordingly the tech startup scene around iPhone apps is smoldering. These budding entrepreneurs understand that the iOS ecosystem means developers don't have to live in Silicon Valley: They can write apps to track fishing data for Lake Mendota. Mobile startups are making a dent in the universe from right here, and it's changing the way that computer professionals who live in Madison are relating to the global technology community.
The old ways
Access to the big tech marketplaces used to be a lot harder from the Midwest. Historically, there have been two main approaches to developing software applications on hardware, and they both involved living in tech centers.
The first is for a software manufacturer, like Microsoft, to provide a software platform - an operating system, or OS, in that case Windows - with well-defined specifications or "hooks" that hardware manufacturers like Dell or Samsung can develop their hardware against. Microsoft issues baseline support parameters for their operating system, and hardware manufacturers build to those specs.
This back-and-forth interaction used to take place between Microsoft, Dell and Hewlett-Packard. New York tried to claim a "Silicon Alley," and there have always been small outposts for large-scale tech work, but the action traditionally centered on Redmond, Wash., with its epic Microsoft headquarters, and San Francisco, with its southern peninsula that encompasses Silicon Valley.
Under this model, Windows solved an enormous set of problems for the hardware manufacturer. Compaq, a hardware maker, wasn't necessarily up to designing its own operating system, with all the attendant user interface problems. It was just making the physical fuselage. So why not have that hardware run Windows? By licensing its operating system to third-party hardware makers, Microsoft effectively outsourced a key cost center to scores of hardware manufacturers - and vastly expanded its market penetration.
The problem with this arrangement is that Microsoft never had a lot of control over what people did when they installed Windows onto a dizzying array of hardware devices. Is there enough RAM? What about video card support? Is the CPU fast enough? Windows users, unless savvy beyond the reasonable expectation for people using Outlook calendars and maybe Excel or Word, often stare in puzzlement when things don't work. And then there's the "Blue Screen of Death." Good times.
None of this is very satisfactory, and to design fetishists and control freaks like Apple visionary Steve Jobs, it's entirely unacceptable.
Enter the App Store
Apple took the second approach. It was thinking about user experience, and therefore a high level of integration. By designing both software and hardware for its platform, Apple controls the look, feel and performance of all its products.
And that worked brilliantly, at least for a while in the iOS era. Early iPhones could only use the applications loaded onto the device. While Apple was changing the information ecosystem, it was also obsessively concerned with a pristine user experience, one that was guaranteed by isolating the early iPhones from anything non-Apple.
But inevitably, the original iPhone ecosystem started to feel stale, as computer people are used to being able to install new applications of their choosing. Recognizing that the lifeblood of third-party applications would add flavor to iOS devices, Apple rolled out the App Store. Enterprise-wide e-commerce efforts like iTunes Music Store were already in place to support the distribution of third-party apps. Suddenly you could buy apps for your iPhone along with music, TV shows and movies, with one-click ease.
However, there was a problem with the notion of third-party apps for sale in a marketplace within the Apple ecosystem: What if the apps were sucky? Apple would get blamed for that.
So the corporation implemented a staggering bureaucracy of app reviewers, who police each app (sometimes on a line-by-line basis in the code itself) and only grant approval when everything is up to snuff.
It was a risky approach. A painful and intense review process is a barrier to entry, and Apple needed developers to create products for their new platform. But it worked.
For now the money seems to be mostly wrapped up in Apple products, served by iOS developers, but the tech world moves fast.
There's a parallel world of mobile development with Android. There are also "hybrid" apps that can be downloaded to a device but are really mostly just mobile-friendly web pages. Madison is grappling not just with iOS, but also Android, hybrids and even also-rans like still-common BlackBerry devices.
With the App Store, developers from all over the world can now make applications that anyone else in the world with an iPad or an iPhone can download from a central clearinghouse. You don't have to be in Silicon Valley; anyone with the right resources can make apps from anywhere so long as the code passes muster: Singapore, Istanbul, Milan, Rio.
Or Madison, Wisconsin. Here's a selection of local players who are having success with iPhone apps. (Full disclosure: I have contact with some of them through my job at SupraNet Communications.)
PerBlue is a mobile and social gaming company at the heart of the emerging iOS dev scene in Madison, led by Justin Beck. He bootstrapped the company for a year and a half while the original team worked for free, and today PerBlue has 30 employees and three games. It brings in just under $3 million in revenue annually.
"Apple's submission and review process is notorious," says Beck. "It's a black box that you put your app in - not the easiest or most user-friendly experience. You can't just call someone at Apple and have them explain why they decided to reject your app."
PerBlue commands its assault on the Apple-verse from an office on the west side packed with young and creative computer geeks, and has become something of a leader and mentor to a new generation of app designers in the Mad City.
"It's amazing to see the growth and innovation that's happened here," says Beck. "And it's funny to go to national conferences and talk to others in the gaming industry - they're surprised to hear that game studios can exist in places other than San Francisco."
Beck had the opportunity to intern with Google and Microsoft while in college. "While they were great experiences and I got to explore several high-tech hubs, Madison is one of my favorite places in the world. We've had investors that asked us to move our operations to Silicon Valley, but we're committed to keeping our business here."
The app: Parallel Kingdom: PerBlue's flagship title is a multiplayer game that uses GPS location to place players in a virtual world that is digitally interposed onto the real world. Parallel Kingdom has over 1.8 million players.
SnowShoe makes an app that helps to authenticate smartphone transactions. Straddling the world of industrial design, it also makes a complementary hardware component: the SnowShoe Stamp. This patented device is a block of aluminum and silicon rubber that can be pressed up against a phone to approve a transaction. This intriguing commerce platform can be deployed for uses as varied as event ticketing or mobile coupon redemption.
The app: SnowShoe Stamp: Retailers can use the smartphone app in conjunction with the physical hardware device to make transactions easier. As we move to a world where purchases are increasingly governed by digital profiles managed in "the cloud," SnowShoe looks to be ahead of the game as a solution for retailers leveraging online promotions in the physical world.
Another iOS app augmented by a hardware device, the Asthmapolis service helps asthma sufferers track timing of medication to location, and in some cases environmental conditions. That data can help them adjust behavior and medication in hopes that they can live their lives more freely. The Asthmapolis sensor attaches to the top of an asthma inhaler and syncs to an iPhone via Bluetooth to create a smart superstructure around use of the inhaler.
The app: Asthmapolis: Doctors often recommend that asthma patients record their use of asthma medication in a diary. This app takes the trouble out of that crucial tracking process by automating most of the input values via GPS and time stamping.
This local company makes an app for retailers to manage potentially expiring inventory in their stores. Andrew Shell, the CTO, had some roadblocks submitting to the App Store. "Apple wanted proof of our business entity. We ended up requesting copies of all our filed articles of incorporation from the state, and once we delivered them to Apple, they had changed the rules and didn't need them anymore."
The app: Date Check Pro: Date Check Pro tracks inventory expiration dates on a per-product basis, allowing stores to manage their inventory so that perishables and medications stay fresh.
Door 6 makes real-time, online multiplayer games that get players rocketing through space-wasting asteroids... and then checking their Facebook pages. Atmo leverages digitized social connections so real-life friends can rip through the cosmos in Ender's Game-style Red vs. Blue team scenarios.
"We started making games for mobile because we believed it represents the future portable gaming platform," says Jeremy Shafton, CEO of Door 6.
"There's a great community of developers and tech entrepreneurs in Madison, and we socialize with them heavily," he says. "The community has really blossomed in the last five years."
The app: Atmo: Atmo is a real-time combat simulator where you compete with other players. The Door 6 team plans to evolve Atmo into a multiplayer role-playing game, where players can build complex systems like autonomous drones into the virtual universe.
Brian Jensen is president of Fishidy, a location-based personalized iOS app for anglers. He likes Madison as a base for cost-effective business operations. "There is no shortage of talent in Madison and the Midwest. It's a highly desirable place to live and raise a family," he says.
The app is a critical hit. "Feedback has been great, which was a huge relief," Jensen says. "We have a 4.5 [of a possible 5] rating and are now gaining more new users through the app than the website." (Users can download an app and then rate and review it, a process that is crucial to success. Many users won't buy something with lousy reviews and one star, not even for 99 cents.)
The app: Fishidy: Fishidy has info on more than 4,000 waterways covering much of the lower 48 states. Anglers can mark, track and view catches with a personal and secure fishing log that connects to their Fishidy profile. The interactive maps, real-time GPS coordinates and weather data justify bringing an iPad on the boat; anglers can even upload fishing photos right from the app.
Dan Merfeld founded local web shop TheoryThree Interactive six years ago, giving him a good vantage point from which to watch Madison's emerging tech scene.
"To write for iOS you need to know Objective C, a bit of a barrier," observes Merfeld, who designed key aspects of the Fishidy app. "You really want a senior-level developer. Not many of those are available. So it's still web-heavy locally, but we are shifting to mobile."
While the infrastructure for iOS development in Madison has taken root, it hasn't fully bloomed.
Merfeld stays in Madison because he loves living here. "I've been offered jobs in New York and Chicago. I would not leave Madison, because this is where I want to be. It's a very friendly community."
Madison has always had a problem with brain drain, Merfeld observes. While Chicago is a very attractive market for developers, he feels Madison has the advantage right now. "Madison is neither too small, nor too big and disorganized."
The local startup MobileIgniter facilitates easy app development for iPhone, Android and other platforms, for small businesses.
"Mobile development was a natural progression from traditional web development," says founder Timothy Nott. "After spending three months in Boston in an accelerator, I decided that was the kind of energy I wanted to be around."
Upon his return, Nott started to see more startups, more meetups, an accelerator and a growing mentor group. "All the essential building blocks of a tech community are here now," he says. "We're building our development team in Madison because it offers high quality of life at a reasonable price. Our fundraising activities have been focused on individuals in the state, and those with ties to the state."
The app: Village of Forest Park: The Village of Forest Park, Illinois, wanted a way to streamline municipal communications by making it easy for citizens to find departments and elected officials. It also wanted to enable two-way exchanges to allow residents to report things like potholes or graffiti to the village, which in turn can send push notifications for snow emergencies or water main breaks.
Just as important as the startups themselves are the groups that support fledgling businesses, and Madison has a web of them.
- Build Madison
Build Madison is a "24-hour community create-a-thon" that brings programmers, digital artists and marketing/business folks together. Winners of their friendly competitions get bragging rights and prizes.
- Capital Entrepreneurs
Founded in 2009, this group has about 150 members and works to make Madison a better place for startups. Its site has a jobs board and a resources section to facilitate synergistic relationships.
- Accelerate Madison
Accelerate has been holding events since 2005, mostly centered on business uses for emerging technology. It skews a bit older and to more established organizations, but still has plenty of room for nascent companies.
- BarCamp Madison
BarCamp Madison is a largely freeform conference that blurs the distinction between attendees and presenters. It has featured Greg Tracey of Asthmapolis on technical considerations for web and mobile sites, along with topics as diverse as making a film on a small budget and analysis of competing digital content management systems.
- Forward Tech Festival
The nonprofit incubator of technology ideas uses a physical space to foster the next great business ideas from Madison. Forward Tech Festival has become a nexus in Madison's tech sphere.
- Sector 67
This makerspace offers facilities for "entrepreneurs, nerds, designers, geeks and hackers." It runs a series on technical stuff like writing code and business stuff like successful marketing.
- High Tech Happy Hour
High Tech Happy Hour regularly hosts events, often with complimentary food and drinks, designed to foster community among web and app developers.