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Web 2.0 Expo: Lessons Learned Building Tablet Apps

Time magazine exec outlines lessons learned in launching an iPad app the same day the tablet was put on sale.
Amazon Kindle Fire: Visual Tour
Amazon Kindle Fire: Visual Tour
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"Your first release to the customers, especially in a startup, is the way to start the conversation with them about what they want--until the public gets to see it, you really haven't developed squat," Smith said.

Time created the software in partnership with Woodwing, a company based in the Netherlands that it had partnered with several years before to retool its publishing workflow. Woodwing was venturing into new territory with the creation of the tablet apps, but Smith said he had confidence in the company because it had built its product on open standards and took enough pride in its work to push back against unreasonable requests. Some other software and consulting firms act like "yes" men, saying "yes" to whatever the customer wants, whether or not it makes sense, Smith said, and its ultimately better to partner with a company that has the integrity of its convictions.

One of the things that helped keep the project on track was it had a deadline that couldn't be moved. That made it easier to force tradeoffs like dropping features that were taking too long to program because without those hard choices the product wouldn't have been ready in time for Apple's launch of the iPad in April 2010. If at all possible, "pick a date that can't be moved--and if the reason for the date is external, all the better," Smith said.

As a non-developer overseeing a software project, he said a big part of his job was to insulate the developers from the company politics swirling around the project and present them with a very clear set of goals. The goals for the first product release also needed to be negotiated, so that both he and the developers had an agreement on what was and was not realistic.

Smith suggests developing a very clear one-page list of project goals and being willing to whittle it down to just the essentials. Some of the items that don't make that pared-down list may get added back in later, in trade for other items that were supposed to be included that turn out to be more difficult to achieve than expected. If the developers see your full wish list at the beginning, they may also manage to sneak in a few more items at the end and give you a pleasant surprise.

When you first see a working prototype of the app the developers have created, don't panic, Smith advised. Look past the warts that are sure to exist and decide whether the software at least delivers the core functionality you agreed on as a goal. If yes, the developers should charge ahead "in a dead sprint to the end," Smith said. If no, consider whether it's so far off the mark that you should consider pulling the plug, he said.

What you deliver will not be perfect. Smith said reading Time on an iPad is "an interesting experience today," but not the ultimate experience he would like to deliver. "We're so very clearly at the beginning of this process," he said.

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