Harnessing WinRT APIs

Developers are gaining experience with Windows Runtime (WinRT), an API set that provides a framework for Windows 8 and Windows RT applications.

Microsoft provides the WinRT APIs for building Windows Store apps. Those apps differ from traditional desktop apps in a couple of ways. For instance, Windows Store apps incorporate a set of default styles that aim to make user interface components work well in touch scenarios, according to Microsoft. Supported languages include C++, C#, JavaScript and Visual Basic.

“There are several things that are significant for WinRT API,” says Ilya Kretov, delivery manager and Microsoft Certified Professional Developer at DataArt, a custom software development company.

For one, WinRT API provides the means to easily develop all the features the Windows 8 application needs to have, Kretov says. In addition, the API set is integrated into the operating system and provides a convenient and effective way of working with resources, he adds. “It is possible to develop fast native applications,” he says.

Kretov also notes that WinRT development has much in common with Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Silverlight. That commonality makes it easy for any developer familiar with those technologies to master Microsoft’s newer offering, he says.

Michael Lake, vice president of engineering at WillowTree Apps Inc., a developer in Charlottesville, Va., suggests that making WinRT easy to pick up will be important for Microsoft in convincing developers to adopt its technology. “They really need to…make use of developers’ existing know-how,” he says. “Any time you ask developers to familiarize themselves with something new, that is going to mean more time, and more time means more money.”

WinRT Pluses
Brian Lagunas, product manager at Infragistics, a company that providers design and development tools and related services, says he has gained familiarity with the WinRT APIs and likes to use them on WPF applications.

“It is so much easier to access devices like webcams and audio devices” using WinRT versus Windows COM Interop, Lagunas says. Accomplishing tasks also requires less code when using WinRT APIs, he adds.

In a recent presentation at the 2013 Intel International Sales and Marketing Conference in Las Vegas, Eric Sardella, senior software engineer in Intel’s Software and Services Group, cited WinRT for its “rich set of multimedia high-level APIs available for Media Apps.” Sardella noted that the APIs capture audio and video from live sources, process image files, play/preview audio and video, and transcode video files. He says a WMV-to- MP4 transcoder involves just a few lines of code. [Disclosure: Intel is the sponsor of this content.]

Using WinRT to Exploit Sensors
Developers can also use WinRT to tap the numerous sensors built into Ultrabooks and other mobile platforms.

“WinRT makes the work with sensors more convenient than before,” Kretov says. “Previously, the only way to work with sensors was using the vendor’s API. This way is, obviously, device specific and in some cases it could be rather difficult to obtain all the necessary information. So, the sensor-related functionality should have been rewritten for different vendors' API during development and verified in course of configuration testing.”

DataArt has gained some experience with WinRT APIs. The company has been using them since July 2011, soon after the Windows 8 developer preview was released. “Since then, we have been following the evolution of the system and have already completed several projects,” Kretov says.

Sensor-related classes are available in the Windows devices. Sensors namespace include: Accelerometer, Compass, Gyrometer, Inclinometer, LightSensor and OrientationSensor.

Lagunas points out that, in order for WinRT to access those sensors, a sensor’s driver must be marked as PC-integrated.

Overall, mobile developers seem to view WinRT as a tool to make their jobs easier. Kretov says the fact that WinRT contains standard APIs for sensors, geolocation and multitouch makes life simpler for software developers. He emphasizes that the potential use of the WinRT APIs isn’t limited to sensor APIs, however. The scope, he says, also includes “other cool features of Windows 8 apps like contracts, background services, multitouch, multiple orientations and resolutions.”

Mobile Technology Solutions for Customer Loyalty Programs

A range of enterprises -- from restaurants to retailers -- use customer loyalty initiatives to encourage repeat business. Customers might receive a free item based on a certain amount of visits and purchases, for example.

Developers now aim to get customer loyalty programs up and running on mobile devices. Many businesses already provide mobile apps to help users locate stores or find particular brands. So the task becomes helping businesses integrate loyalty programs into their existing mobile customer outreach efforts.

Different Approaches to Customer Loyalty
Approaches in this category vary. Punchh, which bills itself as a social loyalty program for restaurants, provides a mobile app version of the familiar loyalty program punch card. It also lets restaurants reward customers for referring friends and family via their social networks.

Sastry Penumarthy, co-founder of the Cupertino-based company, says he sees an enormous opportunity for restaurants and other enterprises to market themselves in a completely different way. “The technologies that allow them to do that are mobile and also social media,” he says.

If a restaurant signs up for the Punchh service, customers may download the mobile app which places a virtual punch card on their device. A customer launches the location-aware app when he or she enters a restaurant and the merchant “punches” the loyalty card when the customer purchases a meal. To validate a punch, the phone can be used to scan a receipt.

Recent Punchh customers include Max’s Restaurant Cuisine of the Philippines, which plans to use the service to reward customers for repeat visits and customer referrals.

To help restaurants dole out those rewards, Punchh taps Facebook to find out who suggested the restaurant to the user and whether the user has referred the restaurant to others. If new customers follow the original customer’s recommendation and eat at the restaurant, the merchant provides additional punches on the card. Penumarthy calls those perks “social rewards.”

In another take on mobile loyalty, PunchTab Inc. provides an on-demand incentive platform. Businesses and brands that subscribe to the platform can build “social and mobile-enabled” loyalty and rewards programs, according to the company. PunchTab’s customers include Atlantic Records, Arby’s and eBay.

Mehdi Ait Oufkir, founder of Palo Alto-based PunchTab, says he has seen solid traction for mobile-enabled incentive programs on the enterprise side. While some companies seek to cultivate customers, others use rewards programs to engage their own employees.

Oufkir cites the example of one customer who wanted to build a mobile app-based points program to encourage employees to attend training sessions. In another case, a company is using an incentive program to encourage employees to submit their billable hours via mobile phone. Oufkir says the company’s employees found their in-house reporting system difficult to use and, as a consequence, failed to submit all of their billable hours. In contrast, he says, employees find the mobile approach easier and more fun to use.

Beyond the Punch Card
Punch cards are the centerpiece of many a loyalty program. However, Steve Schroeder, chief executive officer at AppGage LLC, a mobile loyalty company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., says he believes mobile loyalty programs should push beyond the punch card.

“We take punch cards and stick it on the phone and call it a loyalty program,” he says of the industry in general. “Loyalty has nothing to do with digital punch cards.”

Instead, Schroeder says loyalty stems from understanding people and learning about their behavior. To accomplish that, loyalty programs need to harness a mobile phone’s sensors to gain insight into customer behavior and then feed that knowledge into an analytics engine to suss out the customer’s needs, he says.

AppGage’s AppGagement Loyalty Framework provides such a platform, according to Schroeder. The company’s first framework-based app, a project for Get Healthy Michigan, a statewide health program that aims to encourage health and wellness, is scheduled to launch in April.

App Marketing: How to Gain Traction in the App Store

Developing a mobile application is tough enough, but then comes the real challenge: getting noticed on a major app distribution platform.

Apple’s App Store and Google Play each topped the 700,000 application mark last year. An app maker won’t be competing with all of them, but each app, regardless of genre, may well face hundreds if not thousands of rivals. Climbing to the top of that pile using app marketing -- a task marketers call “gaining traction” -- is far from easy.

“If the volume of apps approaches anything like Android and Apple, the biggest problem everyone has is discovery,” says Chris Skaggs, founder of game development company Soma Games.

According to Skaggs, some independent developers have taken the “field of dreams attitude” -- if they build a fun game, people will find it on their own. That approach may have worked in the early days of app stores, when a developer could launch an original, quirky game and expect to grab some attention. But “that is just not the case anymore,” says Skaggs. “It was always going to be a closing window. We all understand that marketing is part of the deal.”

“The problem is, sometimes nobody is watching when you’re coloring outside the lines,” adds Scott Steinberg, a strategic innovation consultant.

Creating App Marketing Approaches
Deborah Tillett, president and executive director of Baltimore’s Emerging Technology Center, which houses AccelerateBaltimore, says technology developers tend to think of app marketing as an afterthought. Part of her organization’s mission is to get entrepreneurs to think about their points of differentiation and how to articulate them. “Can you convey concisely what it is you do?” Tillett asks young companies.

Steinberg agrees that developers should think about the audience and ways to reach potential customers from the very beginning. “Before you make the app, understand...who the customers are and how you are going to reach them,” he says.

The “how” of app marketing could include a mix of website marketing, search engine optimization and social media outreach, among other measures. As for social media, Steinberg recommends engaging influencers of all types: reviewers, high-profile members of a given community, and Facebook followers among others. “It’s an all-of-the-above strategy,” he says.

Skaggs, meanwhile, advises app makers to develop products for multiple platforms so they can tap multiple distribution channels. “Our position is that you don’t ever want to say, ‘I am making an Ultrabook game,’ if that means to the exclusion of other things,” he says. “To leave off Apple and Android and Steam is just a bad idea.”

Focusing on one platform and one online store ignores a lot of eyeballs and could leave a lot of money on the table, Skaggs notes. Soma Games’ Wind Up Robots title, for example, is available in the Intel AppUp center as well as Android and Apple online outlets. 

Best Practices of App Marketing: Aligning with Stores and Hardware Makers
Learning an online store’s hot buttons and aligning with them can also boost developer’s prospects of app marketing. This tactic depends on the ability to develop contacts at the app stores, which requires some degree of persistence and luck.

“If you are able to talk with a representative from the distribution portal, you may be able to tie in with marketing programs or content initiatives they are pushing or create apps to showcase features they are looking to promote,” Steinberg says. “Any given distribution portal will have its own strategic objectives.”

Hardware manufactures also offer partnering potential. Skaggs says those companies are looking for apps that will make their hardware shine. “The hardware people are really driving a lot of the conversation,” he notes. “If you can make their technology look good, you have a good chance of getting their attention.”

In a recent case in point, Soma Games’ Wind Up Football was built as part of Intel’s Ultimate Coder: Ultrabook Challenge. The challenge tasked developers with creating apps that harness Ultrabook device features such as graphics, touch and sensor technology capabilities. [Disclosure: Intel is the sponsor of this content].

“Showcasing hardware features is a great tie-in to a store, but it’s also important to help ensure the app description and submission clearly state the benefits,” says Alexis Crowell, product marketing manager for the Intel Digital Stores. “Given the volume of apps being submitted into any given store, we suggest making it as easy as possible for the editorial team to know the key differentiators. Clear descriptions are as important as eye-catching visuals and graphics that capture consumers’ attention.”

Riding the promotional strength of a major manufacturer can attract more attention in online stores. “Align with distributors and manufacturers,” Steinberg says. “No one can open more doors of opportunity than they do.”

What Makes a Great Operator Developer Program?

These days, it’s no longer enough for a mobile operator to have a fast network, exclusive handsets and competitive pricing. An operator also needs thousands of developers using their APIs and SDKs to develop apps that work better on its network and devices than on the competition’s. 

That’s why most major operators now have extensive programs that typically include websites, conferences and support teams, all designed to foster a community of devoted developers.

“Community engagement absolutely is one of the ways that we differentiate ourselves,” says Carolyn Billings, assistant vice president of AT&T’s developer program.

Creating an environment that encourages third-party development goes back to at least February 1999, when Japan’s NTT DoCoMo launched iMode. Eighteen months later, more than 20,000 websites were available on iMode because DoCoMo chose CHTML to make development easy.

That strategy tacitly acknowledged that developers are often better at figuring out what consumers want than mobile operators are. Giving developers the right tools and then turning them loose also saves operators the cost and risk and developing a lot of apps in house.

Plenty of Face Time
Most operator programs include events in developer hotbeds such as the Bay Area, as well as road shows and events co-located with major confabs such as CES. Regardless of the location, these events often provide a high-level roadmap of where the operator plans to go technology- and device-wise over the next years. However, they rarely include specifics such as when a particular device or technology will launch.

“They have their way of reading between the lines to figure out what the mix is going to be,” Billings says. “But it’s a no-no for us to be launching early there.”

Events such as hackathons also are an opportunity to get hands-on time with new APIs and work with the operator staff who created them. One example is Sprint’s October 2012 hackathon, which featured more than 175 developers working in teams to create apps in 24 hours.

“Among the various APIs and SDKs made available for use during the hack by Sprint and our partners was the Pinsight Media+ beta SDKs for Android, iOS and JavaScript,” says Brian Smith, Sprint director of product and development. “Pinsight Media+ is an advertising and analytics platform that we launched early in the fourth quarter of [2012]. It’s an opportunity for advertisers to engage in high-value targeted inventory and another opportunity for developers to monetize their applications.” 

With so many operator events these days, developers inevitably have to pick and choose. One thing to look for is the amount of operator staff in attendance. For example, in 2012, AT&T held a daylong conference about its new APIs at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Several hundred developers attended.

“We designed the event to have a 10:1 ratio: For every 10 developers in the room, there was an AT&T expert on hand,” Billings says.

Not every developer has the time and budget to travel to operator events. Operator portals provide an alternative, including facilitating virtual networking with fellow developers.

“If you like to integrate telephony, conference calls, messaging or interactive voice response systems (IVRs) into your applications, Deutsche Telekom´s developer portal is the place to go for APIs, sophisticated components, documentation, support, news, tutorials and events,” says Sascha Wolter, Deutsche Telekom developer evangelist. “You can [also] offer your own software components to other developers or easily find pre-built and pre-tested libraries in the marketplace.”

Give and Take
Hackathons also are an opportunity for operators to get unvarnished feedback. “This important and valuable feedback helps us to improve our products,” Wolter says. “Just to give you a small example: Recently we supported a partner creating a voice-controlled coffee machine. We found some issues, which we have been able to immediately fix thanks to this direct channel between our partners and our development team.”

Operators often help put the spotlight on apps, giving developers promotion opportunities that otherwise would be difficult or expensive to secure. One example is Sprint’s Place Your Ad auction, where developers bid for prominent placement in the Sprint Zone and the Sprint Tab in the Google Play store.

"Some companies tell us that they’ve seen a four-fold increase in downloads of their application from participating in the auctions,” Smith says. “Driving click-throughs and downloads means better monetization for developers. Cost per click through the auction process is as low as a penny, so it's cheaper than almost any other form of advertising.”

Photo: Corbis Images

How to Work with a Business Accelerator

Business accelerators are springing up around the country, providing seed money, advice, and the space to refine an idea.

Accelerators aim to help entrepreneurs quickly develop their concepts into marketable products. A 12-week time limit for participation in an accelerator program is fairly typical. That’s a departure from business incubators, which usually keep companies around for a longer period.

Accelerators now cover a broad swath of the U.S., including the major East Coast and West Coast technology centers. Examples include TechStars, which operates in Boston, Boulder, New York, Seattle, and San Antonio; Excelerate Labs, based in Chicago; and Kicklabs in San Francisco. 

Mobile app developers are among the many individuals and companies participating in accelerators. Deborah Tillett, president and executive director of Baltimore’s Emerging Technology Center, which houses AccelerateBaltimore, says the rapid development cycle of a mobile app works well with the accelerator’s three-month timeframe.

“You can get your viable product done very fast and head to the Apple store” or other outlet,” she says.

The first class of four companies graduated from AccelerateBaltimore, one of the many business accelerators across the country, in July. Two of the companies developed mobile apps: Kithly, an app for organizing social activities, and NewsUp, an app that discovers users’ interests and rewards points for reading suggested news items.

Andrew Schuster, chief executive officer of NewsUp.me, says his company initially was with the Emerging Technology Center incubator and then applied to AccelerateBaltimore. Once accepted, the company was given capital and access to mentors.

AccelerateBaltimore companies receive $25,000 in seed funding. As for mentors, NewsUp worked with Chris Brandenburg, co-founder and chief technology officer of Millennial Media, a mobile advertising platform company, and Michael Teitelbaum, managing partner at Right Source Marketing, a marketing consulting firm.

“The experience they had was just the best thing we could ask for,” Schuster says.

How It Works
Accelerators offer a mix of money and mentorship. In return, an accelerator may receive a small equity stake in the company, usually 10 percent or less. There may also be a requirement to keep the company in the accelerator’s geographic region for a period of time. AccelerateBaltimore, for example, initially included a 5-year residency requirement. However, the program no longer has a residency requirement.

Accelerator applicants need to have an idea they can quickly execute. Tillett says a company won’t be a fit for the accelerator if it can’t bring its idea to fruition in a couple of months and put the accelerator’s capital to good use.

“It is important that they can do what they say they are going to do in a short period of time and the money makes a difference,” she says.

A company that has a working prototype is a plus, as it will have a head start once an accelerator’s clock starts ticking. “We like companies that have prototypes -- maybe not the final product but it works and they are able to test it and they are now looking to polish their business models and start getting customers and users,” says Matt Menietti, director of operations at Capital Innovators, a St. Louis accelerator.

Capital Innovators recently launched its third class. The 12-week sessions have each had five to six participants. Companies each receive $50,000 in funding, mentoring, office space, and free hosting. They also have an opportunity to pitch investors when the program culminates in Demo Day.

The accelerator, in return for the funding and supporting a company, receives a five to 10 percent equity stake. There is no residency requirement.

Menietta says Capital Innovators takes a holistic approach taking companies through the program. Participants may avail themselves of marketing, accounting, and legal services. Marketing partners working with the accelerator help participants with their branding, website, messaging and differentiation, he adds. An accounting firm works with companies to set up accounting systems.

Capital Innovators’ companies include mobile app developers including IDC Projects, which makes location-based social games.

Managing Expectations
First-time entrepreneurs need to have realistic expectations as they approach an accelerator. Accelerators provide funding and mentoring support, but a business launch remains an arduous task. Tillett says the task involves “many pieces and part” including patent issues, licensing agreements, and, of course, the quest for additional financing.

“On any given day one of those can fall off the wagon and you have to put it back on,” she says. “The leveling of expectations is important.”

Accelerator companies should also take a hard look at marketing. In the early days of mobile apps, any product could gain customer attention. But with the market maturing and thousands of apps hitting app stores, a business needs to determine whether there are customers who want the product and develop a plan for reaching them.

“Adoption and traction is huge,” Tillett says.

The accelerators, meanwhile, look for applicants that they believe will get the most out of their programs. Capital Innovators aims to pick companies that “really understand the value of the program,” according to Menietti. “It’s not just seed funding. It’s networking...and connecting with other companies.”

Schuster also cites networking with peers as one of an accelerator’s main advantages. “Working with the other companies -- there were four companies in this program -- and being able to collaborate and talk to the other entrepreneurs and share information was a huge benefit,” he says.

In early October, AccelerateBaltimore kicked off an outreach process that will eventually fill the six slots in its upcoming class. Tillett says the accelerator plans to reach out to colleges and universities, and get the word out internationally as well.  “We are going to be very aggressive this time,” she says.

Photo: Corbis Images