Android Influencers: Touch Lab's Kevin Galligan and Jeff Namnum chat Android apps and iOS ports

Android development is hard work—made harder by the new set of design guidelines Google's put forth. So what it's like to make an app?

touchlab

Remember back when Android wasn’t the dominant mobile operating system it is today? Those were dark times, if only because the industry wasn’t as diverse as it is now. Back then there wasn’t as much choice in the smartphone world. You were either an early adopter of the Android platform, an iPhone user, or still flipping open a dumbphone somewhere.

But now Android is overcome with options thanks to the proliferation of apps in the Google Play Store. With the help of development shops like Touch Lab, the number of apps available for Android has grown exponentially throughout the years. It certainly helps that Kevin Galligan, President of Touch Lab, and Jeff Namnum, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, have been such active members in the Android community, too.

Galligan and Namnum’s business focuses specifically on bringing more applications to the Android platform, whether it’s through porting one from iOS or developing it from scratch. We had a lengthy conversation about what it’s like to develop an Android app and some of the challenges of being in this particular business. Galligan and Namnum also spoke briefly about Droidcon 2015, which is happening later this summer in New York City.

Greenbot: Let’s start by chatting about how Touch Lab came to be. What’s your story?

Galligan: I wrote my first application in 2008 for the Android Developer Challenge—that was before the G1 came out, so there were no actual devices. I did more stuff just for fun after that.

In 2010, I started on Squarespace, then Harvest, then hired my first developer. A year later, Touch Lab officially formed. A couple years later I was trying to run everything myself, which was not fun. Jeff—and then Olivia, our operations manager—came to fix all that.

Namnum: Kevin and I met in late 2012 at a co-working space called New Work City. We became fast friends and, pretty soon, Kevin became a client. In the year or so we worked together it was clear that this partnership needed to happen, even though we’d both been burned in the past by crappy partnerships.

Kevin had built this great company with crazy talented people in it all by himself and, at the same time, had been serving the community by growing the New York Android Developers Meetup. Our thought process was similar, our talents were far enough apart, and we were still friends after working together. It made great sense. Actually, I think the reason our partnership works is because we’d both prioritize each other’s well-being over making a dollar any day.

Greenbot: Was porting apps over to Android always the main goal of the company?

Galligan: Building great Android apps was—and is—the goal. However, most of the market was porting iOS apps, so you kind of need to get really good at it. Most of the startup market starts with iOS, then suddenly finds out the rest of the world doesn’t also have an iPhone.

Namnum: Agreed—a great Android experience is the obsession. I have this dream that we become the IDEO of Android. What that means to me is that when an organization, municipality, startup, or company needs to build something excellent on Android—mobile, wearable, or otherwise—that we’d be their first choice partner, and that their engineers and designers would be excited to work with us.

Greenbot: Do you guys just do ports of apps? Or do you develop standalone applications as well?

Galligan: We make standalone apps. That happens more now as iPhone is less often the default platform. We’re building out our design team so that we can focus on initial designs rather than just porting. Also, we’re getting into custom AOSP builds and hardware for which there isn’t a “port.” 

Just throwing this out to the universe, but if you need an Android Auto app, please get in touch!

Namnum: Ditto!

Greenbot: How do you decide which apps to to work on next? What’s the process? Do your clients approach you or do you seek them out?

Galligan: Traditionally, mostly word of mouth. We have a wide network in the startup and general tech communities and we try to be very visible to the Android community. Locally [near New York City], you don’t need to ask too many people before you’ll hear about Touch Lab. In the future, we’re going to do more active lead generation.

Namnum: Our inbound word of mouth is pretty great—thank God—but it’s just part of our strategy going forward. Our approach for 2015, going into 2016, is three-pronged:

  • Community events (Droidcons, the meetup, speaking gigs): Without our community, it’s not likely we would have the success we have today. Giving back to them in every way we can is central to our brand.
  • Producing valuable content for developers & CTOs: We want to get back to sharing what might be valuable to others, code, posts, videos. If we’re putting out stuff that’s valuable for developers and their bosses, then when they need an Android partner, hopefully they think of us first.
  • Promoting the crap out of our talented team: We have a pretty great alumni network, even though it’s small now. We want the folks on our team to be able to grow their careers and be very public. It’s great for Touch Lab while they’re with us and it’s great for us if they move on.

Greenbot: What’s the process of development like? What’s the difference between porting over an app and starting from scratch?

Galligan: Well, lets first dispel a rumor. I’ve heard “Android is cheaper,” which isn’t really true. The second platform is generally going to take less time to build because you have an existing, functional model to work from, and because there are a lot of mistakes and adjustments you don’t need to make again on the second platform. That said, excellence on either platform costs about the same to produce.

There are two basic methods of porting: feature-down and code-up. Feature-down is replicating features visually and functionally, but not directly porting code. Code-up is literally translating Objective-C to Java. Most of the porting work winds up being feature-down, but if there’s a lot of complex business logic it makes sense to do it code-up—at least critical portions. Of course, many apps wind up being a mix of the two.

The UI logic and model is pretty different under the hood, so that tends to be feature-down. We often start replicating the data models, which is a code copy, and write the remote calls and tests around them. Then, it’s usually login/signup/register, then one screen at a time. It tends to be much more linear than building from scratch—think Super Mario versus Minecraft.

Polishing and adapting the UI is generally the last step. If it’s a big enough project, we’ll put an engineer who’s UI-focused on it for the polish stage.

Namnum: I don’t have much to add about development—Kev’s the man. What I get most excited about right now is the increasing number of brand new products we get to build. For example, this year we’re working with both The Jane Goodall Institute and DoSomething.org on “from scratch” projects. Guiding the design from day one is great; it gives us the opportunity to run through the full design thinking process instead of coming in in the middle. We’re looking forward to doing even more of this now with our new—very talented!—lead designer.

Greenbot: What are some of the challenges?

Galligan: Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Every client needs the “share” talk. It seems mind-blowing to them that you don’t just put Facebook and Twitter directly into everything.
  • Many third-party APIs [don’t work too well] on Android, or sometimes don’t exist at all. Also, a word of advice: if you’re building an iOS app and are planning to port to Android, ask around about any services you want to include.
  • Anything that’s hardware-related can be rough to port over. Camera integration and Bluetooth are often a nightmare, for example.
  • Video is hard. iOS has pretty solid h.264 support and a pretty narrow hardware lineage. Android has a wide range of native pixel formats, including some chip-specific with no documentation. Party time!

Namnum: It’s tough running a consulting shop when both partners kinda hate old-school consulting shop practices. We want to be this place that produces great Android applications and pushes the boundaries to some degree—not just some shop that tries to find the best way to rack up hours. So, for me, the biggest challenge is finding the best possible partners—ones who understand that respecting the platform is the best way to have success on it.

The second biggest is finding time to think about how to push, bend, and morph our business model in ways that let us grow without becoming an old school, boring “consulting company.”

Greenbot: It’s been a year since Android L debuted. Are you guys now actively pushing Material Design on your clients?

Galligan: Yeah, but you have to bend. Ultimately, it’s their app. However, we turn down a number of clients, and how much they want to make a good Android app factors into that choice, so its not as much pushing as it is avoiding.

I have some advice for people getting into consulting: if you don’t want life to suck, you need to establish yourself first as a high quality consultant to be able to turn people away. Turning down work is a good thing.

Namnum: So, we’re a bit of a pain in the ass. Even before the Material Design specifications came out, we’d send potential clients on their way if they refused to at least adapt their iOS designs for Android. That said, having the specifications out there makes it much easier to push clients on the importance of design, so we’re thrilled that it’s out there.

Greenbot: Let’s talk a bit about Droidcon. Where did the idea come from and who is in charge of that?

Galligan: Droidcon is run by the Berlin chapter, but I’ve heard varying origin stories. However, it’s always run by the local developer community rather than a “media” company. We thought that was great and decided to bring that to North America. Droidcon NYC 2014 was the first, and then we helped the Montreal people get theirs going. NYC 2015 is coming August 27 and 28. There will be another location soon, but we’re not talking about that just yet.

Namnum: There’s a central organization that runs Droidcon but it’s interesting to see how much the Droidcons abroad vary from one another. I think what I bought into the most is that each event is run by a local developer group that actually cares about Android and the community, as opposed to just some event company trying to exploit the opportunity.

I’m honored that we got the chance to introduce it here in the Americas. It’s fun—though a little scary—that now if there are any rumors about what’s happening in Droidcon in the Americas, the community reaches out to us (well, Kevin actually) first to confirm things. We’re trying our best to be worthy of that trust.

Greenbot: What do you guys hope it evolves into?

Galligan: In 2016, I’m hoping for five to six events in North America. The most active members of the Android community speak and attend Droidcons because they’re the people running them. It has an authentic vibe. I want this network to help direct where Android goes, so it’ll be like a rolling summit meeting.

Namnum: I’m loving the way Montreal and NYC blended together to be awesome for the community at large. Montreal did an amazing job of great programming and they were nice enough to let us be involved in some small ways. They’re a great team doing great things. My hope is that as Santo Domingo [in the Dominican Republic] comes on board this year—as well as other locations in North America that I can’t comment on just yet—that this same atmosphere of quality, respect, and great camaraderie continues. I’m still hippie-ish enough to wish for one, big, happy, smiley-face community.

The other thing I hope is that sponsors begin to see the value they get from engaging with developers in the creative ways we do at Droidcon in America, and that they start to carry that over to other conferences. It’s better for everybody.

Greenbot: What can the Android community do to get the word out about Droidcon?

Galligan: Tweet! Also buy tickets, and pick up the super cool hoodie.

Namnum: Umm—yeah, that. Specifically, if you have your ticket already, tell the world and help us work that FOMO [Fear of Missing Out] angle. Also, if you wouldn’t mind, look at all of the submitted talks and if you see one that looks awesome to you, hit the tweet button. It’d help us make sure we don’t miss something that you want to see.

Greenbot: Let’s get to the fun questions: How long have you both been Android users?

Galligan: I got the G1 on the first shipment. I have never had an iPhone, and no other phone since. I’ve had over 10 different phones as personal devices, but can’t really remember in detail. 

Tanya, who runs Droidcon for us, was an iPhone fan. She finally broke down and we got her a Samsung Galaxy S6 the other day.

Namnum: My first Android phone was the Nexus S, and I did actually have an iPhone 3G before that. I was one of those people who immediately jailbroke my iPhone when I got it. When I learned about this Android thing and how it was all built on open source, it hit my Fast Company-loving, “Computing is Social” buttons and I was in love. Got my Nexus, got on XDA, and I’ve been loving the community ever since.

Greenbot: What phones are you each sporting these days?

Galligan: I have a One Plus One. I think I’ll get a Nexus 6 with the recent price drop, but the OnePlus One is a great phone. Jeff has an HTC One Max. He keeps flashing custom roms and breaking features.

Namnum: The One Max was a very generous gift from the awesome HTC outreach team at Droidcon NYC ‘14. I actually thought at first glance I’d never get used to that huge beast, but man, I love it now. I’m really sad that there’s not going to be a next version, so Nexus 6 looks like my next phone.

Greenbot: What is one app for each of you that you can’t live without?

Galligan: Lame answer, but maps. I forgot how to navigate without that.

Namnum: Instagram. Because I like pretty latte art pictures—and pretty pictures in general.

This story, "Android Influencers: Touch Lab's Kevin Galligan and Jeff Namnum chat Android apps and iOS ports" was originally published by Greenbot.

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