Interview: Overcommitted on Ember (Campfire for the iPhone)
Right after I posted my Q&A with Morfunk’s David Kaneda a couple of months ago (I’m still a big Outpost fan!), I received a great outreach email from Overcommitted, telling me about Ember. Ember brings Campfire (the 37signals group chat application) to the iPhone – and fills a huge gap in my own productivity needs. I’ve been using the new version of Ember for about a week (in fact, a lot of the follow-up questions were discussed in Campfire), and I have to say it’s a noticeable improvement over V.1 in speed and feature set.
Ember features include:
• Streamlined user interface
• Multiple accounts: access all your Campfire accounts from one client
• Chat transcripts
• Inline browser
• Infinite scroll back to view previous messages in room
• Live image previews right within the chat room
• Inline viewing of popular file formats, Excel, Word, Powerpoint…
• Unlimited chat rooms: access to all your Campfire rooms
• Take and upload photos directly into Ember using the iPhone built-in camera
• SSL accounts are fully supported
Overcommitted is three guys who completely personify the Getting Real philosophy. Like Morfunk, these three guys, Phil Cohen, Jonathan Younger and Harold Emsheimer, hold down day jobs and build their own business (remotely, they all live in different states/places) by working 6 days a week on what they love. In fact, they built Ember by working from 5:30 to 7am Mondays thru Saturdays for 6 weeks. I was really impressed by the way they initially contacted me and continued to talk to me about Ember and it’s growth. Also – any company that uses Abbott and Costello to illustrate how their app works absolutely gets my money.
> Tell me a bit about Overcommitted (best name ever, btw)- how did you start?
Overcommitted started with the simple desire to create applications for the iPhone that we wanted to use ourselves. The three of us have worked together for several years as part of a Rails development team in the Biotech sector. We made the decision earlier this year to finally jump into development for the iPhone and the rest is pretty much history. As far as the name goes, all three of us tend to be overcommitted in anything we do. Knowing this, my wife Brigit suggested we go with the name Overcommitted.
> Pricing apps has been extremely controversial – How did you decide what to price Ember?
It’s going to sound pretty simplistic, but we looked at what we would pay for it and priced it accordingly. Ember isn’t a one-off game or an app that people will use for 30 days and never again. The people that use Ember use it quite a bit, including us, so we priced based on that.
> The reviews for Ember have been pretty much fantastic – and I was impressed by your outreach efforts prior to Ember’s release. How difficult is it getting Ember noticed on the AppStore? And did having sale pricing for a week work?
It’s pretty difficult. Most people hear about Ember through non-AppStore channels, things like the Signal vs. Noise blog, Twitter and word of mouth recommendations. Ember’s sales seem to happen in chunks. We have a theory that this might be due to small teams that end up purchasing Ember all at once as they sign up for Campfire. Having the sale price brought an expected bump in number of purchasers, but the overall revenue was pretty much on par with our normal weekly sales.
> How do you guys use Campfire and why was that the app you wanted to focus on first?
None of us live in the same city and rarely get the chance to work together face to face. Campfire has been invaluable for helping us keep in touch across time zones and work schedules. We use it to discuss iterations for the various apps we’re working on, show sketches and talk through code. We developed Ember first because we knew we could get immediate use for it and felt other iPhone development teams could benefit.
> Tell me a bit about the development process – How closely were you able to work with the 37signals team? Was everything you needed in the API?
Once we decided to develop a Campfire client, we looked at the existing unofficial Campfire client API to see what was available and what would be involved in communicating with Campfire. Being an unofficial API, it’s not so much an API as it is a reverse engineering of what the browser client is using to communicate with Campfire. It’s mostly regular expression matching of HTML tags and other text. That being said, it hasn’t been terrible to work with. We’ve had a couple issues where the content we were expecting to get back from the service has been different because some cellular carriers reformat the content before sending it to the client, and because of that, it was breaking our regular expression matching. Overall, it has worked out really well. Wanting to come in under the radar, we decided to keep all development of Ember under wraps until it was just about completed. We didn’t work with the 37signals team at all until the product was pretty much completed.
> Any plans to take advantage of some of the iPhone 3.0 features, like Push Notifications?
In Ember 2.0, we’re using a lot of the new iPhone 3.0 APIs under the hood which has saved us quite a bit of time over what we were doing in Ember 1.0. The biggest feature by far that we’re taking advantage of is Core Data. Without Core Data, we would not have attempted to add Transcripts or loading previous messages. Obviously push notifications would be a big feature to take advantage of but we are not yet ready to comment on those yet.
> One of the big challenges I’ve seen on the AppStore has been supporting applications – we covered this with Morfunk – how is Overcommitted dealing with support issues?
Support is pretty manageable for us at the moment. We actually enjoy when someone contacts us through support because it gives us the opportunity to hear directly from our users. Like many developers, we’ve gone the route of using Get Satisfaction and email as our support system, which has worked pretty well for us so far.
> You just submitted a pretty substantial update to the AppStore -what’s included? Any new features?
We’re really excited about this release of Ember. It has been completely rebuilt under the hood to take advantage of Core Data. This provides better overall performance, and has laid the ground work for some additional features. The biggest feature in this release is multiple account support. We’ve planned to release this from day one, and we’re happy to have it out in Ember 2.0. Along with multiple accounts, we’ve also included support for Transcripts. Other notable changes in this release include a streamlined interface based on feedback from our users as well as inline browsing.
> What’s next for Overcommitted?
We have several applications in the works at different stages. Nothing we can comment on directly but we can say they won’t be in the productivity category of application.
Ember works on iPhones/iPod Touches running version 3.0 software or above and is available on the iTunes AppStore here.