Interview With Pixter Co-Creator Anirudh Coontoor

One of the more interesting apps I’ve been using lately has been Pixter by Metarain. Launched in June, Pixter is a photo sharing social network with a freemium business model and a focus on protecting customer privacy. There are no ads, and users can choose from some very reasonable subscription plans to pay for the service. The UI is pleasant and clean, without a lot of clutter that I feel is in Instagram. 

I had the opportunity to interview Metarain CTO Anirudh Coontoor, after meeting him and Metarain CEO, Faizan Aziz, at WWDC in June. We ended up talking about the genesis of Pixter, its influences, and more. 

What originally got you into app development?
Anirudh Coontoor: Faizan [Aziz, Metarain CEO] and I met in college. Our branch was Electronics and communication, but we were both very interested in programming. We had developed a couple of website for schools and colleges and also worked on some Java apps (individually, not as a team). Both of us were Windows users and Faizan had an iPod. I had never used any Apple product yet. Faizan bought the first generation iPod touch when it came out in October 2007 and we were blown away by it. Faizan jailbroke it to run apps and games. When the SDK was announced in 2008, we wanted to develop apps for iOS, but none of us had Macs and we weren’t sure about developing. Faizan got his first Mac in 2009 and only then did we get serious about developing apps. We decided to learn about iOS development and began our first project in January 2010. We decided the best way to learn would be to take what we considered an impossible challenge - build a game. Thus SpaceHeist was born. We built our own game engine and server backend for HighScores etc. (GameCenter was not out). We did this during our college and launched just before our exams in May. It was very basic, and we started working on version 2 and support for the iPad. We launched them in August and September. We had some innovative features on the iPad, like the multiplayer and the ability to use the iPhone/iPod as a controller and the iPad as a screen (all this was before GameCenter and GameKit). It didn’t do well on the App Store. We realized that games were hard to make and it requires a lot of time, experience and marketing. But SpaceHeist was a huge learning experience for us. Its still available on the App Store for nostalgia.

After that we decided to make a browser with the ability to sync bookmarks, history and tabs. It was frustrating to us to have a tab open on our computers and not being able to have it on our iPhone. This was before Apple had iCloud and Chrome on iOS, and there were not many apps on iOS which could do this well. We wanted the sync to be instantaneous - push based and we also wanted to be able to use any browser on the desktop, so we made extensions on Chrome, Firefox, Safari (they had just announced the API). It turns out that syncing is a pretty hard problem to solve, and we spent a long time in making an architecture that could support our need. After about 8 months, we had the server backend, extensions and the iOS app almost ready. We only needed to polish it for launch, but for personal reasons we had to take up jobs and we decided to scrap the project. We got most of our server skills while building this app, so it was not a total waste.

What inspired you to create Pixter?
AC: When Instagram announced the TOS change in December last year, we were disappointed and we wanted an alternative. Even after they changed it back to the old one, it turns out that the old one was even worse. We really wanted an alternative, but the ones available were Flickr and 500px, which were not as easy to use as Instagram and were targeted more towards professional photographers. We also wanted some features which are not available on Instagram. Some apps which do have it have not done a good job, so we decided to build Pixter.

Faizan Aziz: Another important feature we wanted was that users using Pixter should not be limited by using it. What we mean users who are willing to pay should be able to share with their friends and family who might not be that willing to pay. So we had a freemium model from day one. Users who are not willing to pay can still follow any number of people for free, but can only post limited photos.

How has the app been doing since its release in June? I can imagine Pixter appealing to the App.net user-base, and others who don’t want their usage to be monetized.
AC: We have been surprised by the response it’s gotten. We have not advertised in any way but we have gotten about 10000 downloads. The app was also featured in the Indian App Store! By far the most response we have seen is from app.net and we saw an increase in downloads and visits to the website when we were interacting and talking to people at WWDC. Everyone there seemed to like the UI and we were lucky to have gone in the iOS 7 direction. 

What matters however is our active users and we are pretty happy about that. We see a ton of photos being uploaded and our ‘interesting’ feed is always fresh. We want to make sure that our usage doesn’t drop off, so we are constantly interacting and getting feedback from our most active users. They seem quite happy with our response times. However we still want to push forward in that area. It is really important to us for our customers to be happy. Again, with Pixter, you are the customer.

We are seeing that even though people are interested the price is a bit high, so we are working on that front. We are also introducing a referral system by which users can increase their free photo limit. This will hopefully incentivise friends to download the app.

We have some big updates lined up soon. The updates include comments and push notifications and a bunch of more stuff. Stay tuned :)

You mention the Indian App Store and you are based Bangalore, if I am remembering correctly. What are your thoughts on Apple’s efforts in the Indian Smartphone Market and the potential for a low cost iPhone (rumored to be called the “iPhone 5C”)? Additionally, what is the Indian iOS development scene like? 
AC: Yes, we are based in Bangalore. There are very few companies doing iOS development in India, and even fewer which develop products. The majority are service and consultancy based companies. There are not many iOS specific developer conferences, but there are lots of Android developer conferences including Droid Con which is organized by Google. Microsoft also arranges conferences for their platforms. It’s also hard to find iOS developers here, which makes it quite a challenge to do iOS product development in India.

Until recently, Apple had not made any significant effort to increase the iPhone presence in India. As a result, India is dominated by Android and the iPhone’s presence is negligible. It’s tough to compete with Android phones which start at Rs.10,000 [$163] which are half-decent when Apple’s offerings started at Rs.26,000 [$424]. There are no carrier subsidies in India, so customers have to pay the full price. But, around six months ago, Apple really started marketing the iPhone and the iPad. They run full page ads on the front page of major Indian newspapers, several times a week. They have also started a buy back program. Anyone can trade in their old smartphone and get Rs.8000 [$130.50] off on the purchase of the iPhone 4 (which retails for about Rs.26,000[$424]). So that is really driving sales, as evident in the Q3 earnings, where Apple revealed that there was a 400% increase in India sales.

It’s great that Apple is selling more iPhones, it gives us a larger customer base, but it worries us if the majority sold are the 3 year old iPhone 4, which is harder to support. It will be great if Apple introduces a cheaper iPhone, with updated internals compared to the iPhone 4. As I mentioned earlier, the iPhone 4 retails for Rs.26000[$424] which is still expensive, you can get a capable Samsung Android phone for about Rs.10000 [$163]. If Apple can introduce an iPhone for Rs.15000 [$245]  then they can make a real impact and take away some steam from Android.

Which Apps and Developers influenced the way you designed Pixter? 
AC: The design of the app was inspired by Twitterrific 5 and Letterpress. We appreciate quality and we wanted to make Pixter a quality app. There are lots of quality app makers today: Tapbots, Realmac Software, Marco Arment (learnt a lot from his podcast Build and Analyze). Pixter was in some ways or another influenced by all these fine apps and developers.

Our business model was largely inspired by Dalton [Caldwell] and what he did with App.net

What’s next for Pixter?
AC: We have a big release coming up which includes comments, push notifications and a bunch of new filters. After that we have some more features planned.

Although Pixter fits pretty well into iOS 7, we are making it more iOS 7-like by changing the icons, and incorporating some of the features like background updates and we hope to be iOS 7 ready on launch day.

What advice would you give to aspiring iOS developers?
AC: Let me first just say that we are also new to iOS development and the App Store - we only got back to it full time this February. These are some of the things we have learnt and some of the principles we are trying to follow.

Focus on Design / UXDo not underestimate the value of good design. Faizan asked Craig Hockenberry at WWDC 2012 for advice on how to make great apps, Craig told him to get a designer. It’s important that your app is well designed so that it can stand out in the very crowded App Store. At the same time, design is not just about how it looks, it has to work well too. So design keeping the user in mind always. Keep it simple for the user.

ShipIt’s also very important to ship. Building the perfect app for version 1 is impossible. It’s better to ship the minimum viable product and iterate on it quickly. User feedback is also extremely helpful and you might be surprised by what users want or don’t want.

Market: It’s not enough to make a great app. It’s very important to market it too. So interact with developers and bloggers online. Attend as many conferences as possible.

Don’t give upRarely do apps become super successful on day of launch. Perseverance is key. You have to keep improving and trying. The final result could be pretty interesting. 

Pixter Version 1.3 is available in the App Store for free. The 1.3 update brings new features such as: new filters, comments, support for Push Notifications and more. Subscription plans are available for at limited time at introductory prices from $0.99 for 2 months to just $3.99 for 1 year. You can follow Anirudh on Twitter and App.net, and find out more about Pixter at Pixter.in.

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