June 8th, 2009
Urban Airship: Providing air cover for independent iPhone developers
While everyone points to the prevalence of open source as the primary reason for the renaissance of the Web affectionately titled “Web 2.0,” there are two particular components of Web development that have played a critical, albeit under appreciated, role. Those unsung heros? Frameworks, a means of simplifying common development tasks that allows developers to focus on the apps they want to build rather than the stuff they have to build, and Web services, a means of extending functionality and infrastructure by using services in the cloud.
Those two things have empowered small independent development teams which, in turn, has created the Web we know today.
Now, Portland-based Urban Airship is taking flight at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in hopes of providing similar support to independent Apple iPhone developers. And just like their Web app predecessors, the impact could be huge.
Setting the stage
Before I get all giddy about Urban Airship, let’s take a step back. What’s all this “framework” and “Web services” hooey?
Frameworks are based on the concept that every developer has to have certain functionality for a Web application—and that it’s ridiculous for them to continue to build these functions from scratch every single time they build an app. Why not gather a library of those components that could be reused time and time again? Not only does it speed development, it allows the developers to focus on the functionality that made the app different—and delightful—not the boring, must have components.
Web services use the connectivity of the Web to take computing resources from other organizations and share them with other entities who may want to use them. Perhaps the best known is Amazon Web Services, which millions of people use every day without even realizing it. So, instead of an independent developer having to build out expensive infrastructure, they can “use only what they need” and—perhaps even more importantly—scale on demand.
With Urban Airship, iPhone developers can focus on flights of fancy, not Store Kit or Apple Push Notifications
Okay, okay. Enough with the history lesson. What are our super intelligent local folks doing with that concept that’s so darned exciting?
Well, Urban Airship is taking those same concepts to Apple iPhone development, providing developers with components and services that simplify the development drudgery so that they can focus on building awesome apps.
Today, they’ve announced support for two areas in particular: Apple Push Notification Services (APNS) and Apple Store Kit. APNS allows application developers to deliver messages to their applications running on their users’ phones. Store Kit gives developers the ability to sell content within an application without having to send the user back to iTunes or the App Store. Both of these features extend the life of applications and make them more interesting for users.
But they also have some inherent issues that could hobble developers. The costs of services like push and development surrounding Store Kit could crush small development shops. Because they introduce a new issue: scalability.
The problem with push, at least from a developer point of view, is scaling. Background computing doesn’t need to scale…. Push computing does scale. Whether you have 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 users matters. That’s because developers must provide a service layer that handles the operations for every unit sold. The more users supported, the greater the costs will be. Consider that these services need to be completely reliable and that consumers will not be tolerant of extended downtimes.
While push notifications are an exciting feature in the upcoming iPhone OS release, they need to be thought of in a very different manner than the client-side application development aspects of iPhone development. There are a host of both apparent and subtle costs that come with developing and maintaining independent server-side components.
Enter Urban Airship.
“Store Kit and push are very basic implementations that don’t have a lot of features but that also have large development costs in terms of infrastructure and time—so much so that many have speculated that this is going to push out indie development shops,” said Michael T. Richardson of Urban Airship. “We not only take on that burden, but we also add in additional features that make the service much more usable—things like content versioning, store fronts, and a web interface to view your users.”
A true Portland story
The best part of this story from my perspective? This continues to place Portland at the forefront of mobile development—while engaging some of our local all-stars in the mix.
But perhaps the biggest coup is their launch partner, Subatomic Studios.
Urban Airship has partnered with Subatomic Studios to bring the richest possible Storekit implementation into the gaming experience. Subatomic’s hit strategy game, Fieldrunners, has won numerous awards, including being one of Time Magazine’s Top 10 Video Games of 2008. Subatomic Studios’s partnership with Urban Airship will allow them to integrate important network services with minimal hassle while creating an elegant and functionally intuitive StoreKit implementation. By using Urban Airship’s web service infrastructure to handle the latest iPhone features, like StoreKit and push notifications, Subatomic can focus on what they do best, writing incredible games.
Long story short: Urban Airship could be huge
It’s not often that you get to see something of this magnitude come to fruition—especially in your own backyard. And, as if my horribly long post isn’t an indicator, I’m fairly excited about the potential it holds.
There are any number of amazing technology efforts that are putting Portland on the map. In my opinion, Urban Airship has the potential to sail above all of those.
Marshall Kirkpatrick from ReadWriteWeb covers Urban Airship, saying:
Will Apple play nice with startups helping startups to develop on the fabulous platform that is the iPhone? We sure hope so. There’s a long and rich history of web services amplifying the innovative work of developers on the web – having these kinds of services available for the iPhone as well sounds like a great way to take mobile to the next level. We’ll be keeping an eye on Urban Airship.
Kveton says that he along with his former colleagues saw a gap in the industry where developers could get bogged down in the nitty gritty development issues concerning push notifications to the iPhone and updating content to apps. The service will handle the delivery of notifications to Apple, will provide aliases for your users so you can send specific messages to users, and will create a web interface to send targeted or broadcast messaging for updates or other information.