When is a word game for the iPhone not just entertainment but an experiment into the future of how mobile apps work? When it’s a game made by mobile developer and designer Loren Brichter.
At 28, he’s already left quite a stamp on mobile interfaces: he’s the guy who invented that neat trick where you “pull” down on an iPhone screen to refresh the page of an app. Many of the most popular iOS apps use it now, including Facebook and Apple’s own Mail app. Same with his fast-scrolling technique for apps. Oh, and he sold Tweetie, which the Verge dubbed “the best Twitter app ever,” to Twitter itself, at the age of 25.
Brichter started his career in tech at the top: he was recruited out of college six months before graduation by Apple, to work on the iPod team. He ended up declining the offer. But Apple kept after him and dangled another job after he graduated: this one, luckily enough, on Scott Forstall’s brand new and super-secret iPhone team.
Brichter’s new iOS app, Letterpress, is a slick two-player word game that’s had much of the tech and design world buzzing when it was released in late October. It saw a fast uptake among users too: 60,000 downloads in the first day; now 1 million after the first month. But there’s a whole lot more going on inside than just the ability to create word strings.
The sole employee and proprietor of Atebits, Brichter is among the smartest and most innovative user interface developers working on Apple’s mobile platform today. That’s why Letterpress, though a well-designed amusement to fill downtime, is for him is not really a game but “a Trojan Horse” for an extremely ambitious — or as he put it to me, “insane” — experiment with the future of how graphics are displayed on a mobile device.
He built his own version of the user interface framework, the software that sits right above the graphics processor on an iOS device. Apple creates that for developers — it was completely unnecessary for him to do this. But this is the kind of thing he considers “fun.”
“It’s insane,” he admitted. “But I wanted to experiment with different ways of driving graphics … Apple’s [UIKit] is the best, but I wanted to try.” The experiment was a resounding success — and now has a million guinea pigs testing his code via Letterpress. And, he said, “there have been zero issues” with what he built.
On a bitterly cold day last week, we met up over coffee in a tiny Center City Philadelphia cafe, where we talked about the how working as a solo app developer has changed over the years, how he misses burritos and everything about California except the weather (!), and what he expects from the new era of design at Apple.
The changing App Store
Brichter, who comes across very humble, sincerely said he has no idea if 1 million downloads of an app in its first month is actually good or not.
“The App Store is so big now that I don’t know if that necessarily is a success or not. I didn’t necessarily define success [going into it].” And it’s totally different than his first big hit, Tweetie, the Twitter client he sold to Twitter in 2010. “You can’t compare them,” he insisted. “Tweetie was a paid app,” whereas Letterpress is free.
We write a lot here about how tough it is, especially for small developers, to stand out these days in Apple’s gigantic App Store. But you won’t find Brichter pining for the old days.
“I started [programming] 10 years ago with original OS X public beta. It’s been a long run for me. … At the same time, someone nowadays has all of these tools available, like Cocos2D, GitHub, StackOverflow; they can get on the App Store and get exposed to millions of people. It’s downright easy now,” he said.
How he works
Clearly, Brichter chooses his projects well. So how does he know what will work?
Everything needs to line up, he said. He uses the analogy of walking through a forest and you suddenly glimpse that view where all the trees happen to align perfectly and you can glimpse an unobstructed opening. That’s how he knows when to pursue a project.
“You have to consider every tree,” he said. “With the Letterpress idea, a whole bunch of things happened to align that made that an obvious thing to pursue: games had taken over the App Store, I wanted to try a free app, and I wanted to test a whole bunch of other technologies.”
High hopes for the future of iOS design
Design is one of Brichter’s passions and specialties. So while he demurred when I asked him what he thought of his old team leader Forstall getting ousted from Apple — he says he didn’t work directly with him at all — he raved about Jony Ive’s elevation in the Apple pantheon and what that will mean.
“I’m excited about Ive” taking over the Human Interface group at Apple, where he will lead both industrial design and the design of the software that runs on it. “He has good taste.” He paused. “But more important than good taste, he has the ability to” — he points to the MacBook Air in front of me — “he’s true to the materials, to the medium he’s working in. One of my complaints about design of iOS is it’s doing things that aren’t true to the hardware.”
“My design goals with Letterpress were to do things that the graphics hardware was really good at. [Ive] is the kind of person who has the same aesthetic. It’s not superficial — he’d think about [the design of iOS and an iOS device] all the way through” not just make something that looked good, he said.
When I mention is Apple known for that — thinking hardware and software through so they work together, he acknowledges that it used to be like that. “But I don’t know when that disconnect happened.”
Why skeuomorphism isn’t dead at Apple
All this talk of the skeuomorphic design philosophy favored by Steve Jobs will be following Forstall out the door is too simplistic and wrong, he said. Skeuomorphism is much more than visual — like the “linen” background texture on the iPhone or the gradients applied to the new iTunes icon. There’s also the skeuomorphic animations in an OS: page turns, slide to unlock, etc.
“I don’t think skeuomorphism is bad at all. We need that [animations] to interact with devices in a human way. Gaudy textures are just a visual design problem … I hope they tone it down.”
The tip of the iceberg
He’s going to be focusing on Letterpress for a while, and “use it as a testbed for more stuff.” But as for what’s next…
“I have a thousand half-baked product ideas. I think I’d like to focus more on infrastructure before I actually do those,” he said. “It’s like an iceberg. No one is solving the fundamental problems underneath the surface correctly. I want to give that a crack.”