When you’re already a pioneer in your field and one of the most beloved mobile digital DJ apps ever, overhauling your app is pretty big risk. And even riskier? Going against current design and pricing trends in the iOS App Store.(s AAPL) Oh, and don’t forget trying to figure out how to please two opposing types of customers: the pros and the newbs.
Algoriddim’s original Djay app, which has seen iOS and Mac downloads in the “millions and millions,” is being released on Thursday as a new app called Djay 2. It’s been redesigned on the back end and has been visually and functionally upgraded to continue to appeal to commercial DJs as well as its growing user base of kids and amateurs. It also attempts to find its place with Apple’s changing design language of iOS 7. The update is a kind of test of user loyalty by charging again for an iPad and iPhone app that was not cheap in the first place: the original iPad app cost $20. Djay 2 will be charging $10 this time around after an early introductory price of $5.
Djay actually debuted as free software for the Mac long before the iOS App Store was born. Once the iPad arrived and Apple introduced the right API for iTunes libraries (“the Holy Grail,” according to Algoriddim’s founders) the pairing of a mobile touchscreen device and digital music mixing became crystal clear as a way to vastly improving the software’s usability.
The idea that you could mimic scratching and mixing records with the same motions on a small, portable tablet as you would on expensive, cumbersome turntables seems obvious today. But it seems that way now because of how Algoriddim’s founders designed the app to seem so natural. Djay’s excellence was rewarded with a coveted Apple Design Award in 2011 shortly after it debuted on iOS.
But even that award-winning app needed some work for the big re-release. “We spent a year trying to find the design to bridge the pro and consumer worlds,” co-founder and former professional DJ Karim Morsy told me during a meeting in New York City earlier this month. The aim was to do that while keeping the interface as familiar as possible.
Design is the answer
Much of the changes to the app are behind the scenes — the library from where you select songs has been completely re-written, Perfect Sync is a new feature that helps users keep two songs in sync after matching them up.
The Algoriddim engineers also wrote a new analysis technology that matches up music patterns in songs to correspond with colors — the idea is that someone who’s mixing music can see different parts of the song by color: chorus, verse, etc.
The ultimate goal was to figure out a solution to its users’ biggest requests: please the professionals who use the iPad app at live shows and want technical improvements and satisfy casual users who want something more approachable and non-technical.
Morsy, unsurprisingly, found the answer in music.
“I learned piano at 4 years old. It’s always fascinated me that I started at 4 years with the same interface until 20; it never changed, and it’s a testament to the great design,” he said. A piano is “not for professionals, and it’s not a toy for kids: it’s agnostic of users and adapts for whatever you want to do with it. That’s why we’ve stayed away from doing a ‘lite’ or ‘pro’ version because that’s against our design approach to products. The biggest goal with Djay 2 is everyone should be able to just use it.”
They found a solution: multilayered design. Casual DJs get their familiar turntables that they can swipe to digitally scratch and mix songs, while the pros can tap to open an area that appears to slide out underneath the turntables where they find wave forms for each song playing. It lets them see exactly what the song’s beat is going to do and what’s coming up next in great detail. “It’s pure. It’s not skeuomorphic,” Morsy said.
Skeuomorphism, which is a design principle that relies on using real-world metaphors (and has fallen out of favor among iOS designers), brings up the other challenge Morsy and his co-founders were facing: how to fit Djay 2 into an iOS 7 world, which is based around flat design principles and moving away from textures, gradients, felt and spiral notebooks, when the entire premise of your app is that it accurately mimics an analog DJs setup?
The solution for Algoriddim was to honor both schools of thought: Djay 2 adds flattened menu buttons and it got rid of some textures. But in other ways Djay 2 doubles down on skeuomorphism. The “records” that appear on the turntables when you select songs to play remain in Djay 2 but now they’re not just any records: the grooves in the vinyl match the real-life vinyl recordings of those songs.
“In the old version, one weak spot was the record that designer made: the vinyl needed a purpose. So we created a new analysis engine for audio data. We wanted to recreate the vinyl as if you pressed it in a record factory today,” said Morsy. “That’s purposeful skeuomorphism. With the grooves you know what’s coming up next.”
Playing the pricing game
Charging again for what is a major improvement but not a totally new app is a pretty big deal, particularly because the original iPad app cost $20. But this practice also may eventually end up becoming standard for super high-quality apps: Apple clearly approves of this — it released an upgrade to Logic Pro X (for Mac) last week and charged even current users the full price for the download of the new one, $200. (That may also be a sign of what’s to come with Apple’s mobile productivity suite: Numbers, Pages and Keynote are $10 apiece on iOS and haven’t been upgraded in a while: many developers think that Apple is undecided on whether to charge for new versions of the app when they appear or not.)
At a time when the trend among iOS developers is to make their apps free or do free with in-app purchase, Algoriddim did the rather bold thing and charged again. (There’s also no mechanism in the App Store for paid upgrades for the same app.) Flurry’s most recent data showed that more developers are opting for free apps because paid is simply less attractive to iOS users. As of April, the average price of an iPad app was 50 cents.
But in making this decision, Algoriddim considered not the trend, but its overarching goal: how to stay in business and expand its user base. Algoriddim is an independent, self-funded company, and when you spend a year working on something ambitious, you can’t just give it away for free.
They started charging $20 for the app several years ago even before this new pricing trend, and their app’s continued popularity certainly vindicates the decision. “We put so much work into it we didn’t want to go the 99 cents route. It was premium software and we charged a premium price, $20,” Morsy said. “And even then, we were a top paid, top grossing app” on the iOS App Store.
Djay 2 is still charging what can be considered a premium price, but slightly modified: $1.99 for iPhone, $9.99 for iPad, plus a promotional period after launch where the iPhone version will be 99 cents, and iPad $4.99.
“We still want the premium price, but [at these new prices] we can reach more people,” he said.
If Djay 2 doesn’t duplicate the success of its predecessor, that will provide strong evidence of iOS customers’ lack of tolerance for paying for upgrades. But if it does, it could open the floodgates for professional apps moving away from cheap and free and more toward charging for quality.