TED’s iPad App: Q&A with developer Matt Drance

Posted by:

TED iPad App developer Matt Drance.

The TED iPad project was inspired by a number of requests coming in from TED fans wishing to see TEDTalks on mobile devices. In the past, the development community has graciously volunteered building various applications on both iPhone and Android platforms. When the iPad came out, we saw an opportunity to try our hand with our first foray into mobile platform development. The larger screen real estate of the iPad is a promising feature for viewing TEDTalks. We were also excited about what users may want to do with the content in offline mode, as well as what a TEDTalk playlist could look like. With assistance from OjingoLabs in the preliminary design stages and Matt Drance from BookhouseSoftware on final delivery, we hope we’ve brought to life a product that enables our fans to enjoy TED beyond the browser experience.

Matt took some time off from his busy day of coding to share with us thoughts on the project from behind the scenes.

Tell us a little bit about yourself: how did you come to be in the iPhone development space, and perhaps a glimpse into one shining moment in your career?

I grew up on Long Island, and I’ve been professionally involved in software development since I moved to California in 1999, with most of that time spent at Apple. I was the Application Frameworks Evangelist while the iPhone SDK was initially rolled out, which was obviously a tremendous learning opportunity. I helped companies build the first few generations of iPhone apps day in and day out until I decided to go off on my own and try life on the other side of the fence.

I think the decision to go independent has certainly been a shining moment for me. I loved every moment of my time at Apple, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it, but I think everyone dreams of doing their own thing, and that journey has been incredibly rewarding. It’s working out wonderfully so far, which certainly helps. This project has definitely been a highlight, and I’m sure it will continue to be for a long time.

When you were working on the TED iPad App, was there an a-ha moment, a breakthrough during the process that you’d like to talk about?

You need big obstacles to have big breakthroughs, and thankfully there were not many of those with this first release. Once I got familiar with the project in its then-current state, everything was pretty smooth. It’s been fun all the way through.

What feature are you most excited about with this app?

I’m really excited about the playlist browser, which you can see in the Inspire Me section or by tapping the info button when you’re watching a saved talk. It gives you some insight on what you’re about to watch before you watch it, and it’s just generally cool to play with. Thaniya Keereepart from TED had a great idea and it was a lot of fun to bring that to life.

What feature do you think will be a favorite among TED fans?

My money’s on Saved Talks. The ability to hold onto some videos for offline viewing when I’m on a plane or train, or otherwise offline, is awesome. You can get quite a few hours queued up. I also think people will like discovering new content through the Inspire Me feature. I know I had a ton of eye-opening experiences while building and testing it. I never thought I’d learn so much staring at my iPad for hours at a time!

What were a few of the tools that you used, and would you like to give some shout-outs?

The standard SDK tools of course: Xcode, Interface Builder, Instruments, Pixie, etc. We used git for source control, which really is a joy. (As much “joy” as source control can be at least.) For graphics work, I used Photoshop and a great, inexpensive Mac tool called Opacity.

I also think Apple’s Preview app is really underrated for rapid cuts and crops, and inspecting the app’s appearance. I take screenshots of the iPhone Simulator with the control key held down, which puts the image on the clipboard. Then I fire up Preview, hit Cmd-N to create a new image containing the screenshot, and take a close look at the elements on screen: their alignment, their distance from the edges, their color values, and more. When I’m done, I just close the window without saving, and I don’t have to chase down or delete any files. You can get a lot done in Preview, and it launches in about a second.

I definitely need to thank my old friend Ken Hill for introducing me to TED and kicking all this off. Mark Bogdanoff and Thaniya at TED have been amazing to work with throughout.

What would be a radical idea for TED to adopt on the mobile platform moving forward?

I’d really like to see something that provided TED content related to current events or headlines. A lot of the topics discussed at TED are timely if not ahead of their time. Jeff Han’s multitouch demo from 2006, a full year before the iPhone was introduced, is a great technology example, and there are plenty in the social and political spheres as well. It’s more an editorial challenge than a technical one, but it would be a great way for people to discover the amazing breadth of talks that TED has made available.

Along the same lines, I think there’s enough content at this point to provide some location awareness. You could point users to talks about issues in the user’s area, or maybe just a great talk by a person who lives / works / grew up nearby. It’s a way of inspiring people to step up and do something great themselves, by showing them something close to home.