Today I’m talking to András Velvárt who is best known to the Windows Phone world as the creator of a SurfCube – a revolutionary 3D browser for Windows Phone. He is also a Silverlight MVP and an active community member. What else do you do, András?
In short: I am trying to express my passion towards User Experience – speaking at conferences, teaching and of course working on projects. I have a consulting company in Hungary (www.response.hu), which specializes in creating cool stuff using Microsoft technologies. We have won Microsoft’s Innovation award three times – a unique tablet application for travelling support technicians; our Silverlight-based Zoomery solutions; and SurfCube itself. We have also created some Kinect applications – Kinect Maps allows you to fly through 3D Bing maps like a bird, and our Kinect Quiz is ideal for exhibitions where companies can attract visitors through the novelty and futuristic user experience of Kinect. We are currently working on a third Kinect project that I cannot disclose for a few more weeks. You can see videos of these apps at our YouTube channel, and read about them on my blog.
You are from Hungary, one of the 2 new European countries on the list of directly supported Windows Phone developer countries. But when you released SurfCube Hungary wasn’t supported directly and there was no concept of Global Publishing Partners back then. So how did you do it?
We Eastern Europeans are a pretty resourceful people when it comes to working around the rules, but there is not much magic here – we have partnered with the Hong Kong company Kinabalu Innovation Ltd who helped us publish the app (and some others since).
Making a browser for a platform that doesn’t allow users to replace the default browser is a somewhat questionable idea. What was your motivation and did you have any commercial aspirations for the app from the start or was it just a science project?
When we started out with SurfCube about a year ago, it was going to be the first third-party browser for WP7, and the key point of it was to have better video support than the stock browser. As it happens, due to some other projects and sicknesses in the company, the project got delayed, and other browsers came out. That’s when we began to think hard about how we were going to differentiate our browser from the rest. Thus came the idea of putting it on a cube, and we started to experiment with this new interaction model. When we saw that it was actually usable and pretty much everybody I showed it to had a gasp of “wow”, we decided it had a chance in the marketplace, and made it a paid app, and added useful features, like Orientation Lock, Bandwidth Saver and a couple more.
You’ve managed to get attention of Engadget with SurfCube. Not many of the Windows Phone apps managed to do that. Care to share any secrets with us? 😉
The first portal to write about SurfCube was WMPowerUser, and Engadget saw their article. I think the secret was the 3D cube concept. Engadget found it cool, and it allowed them to be sarcastic about the newborn Windows Phone platform by playing the gimmicky card. They gave the article the title “SurfCube gives Windows Phone 7 the 3D browser it needed so desperately“, and said things like it comes from the 3D craze of the 90s, where everybody thought 2D interfaces would soon be the past. But, the overwhelming majority of the response to the videos was very positive. As the saying goes, any publicity is good publicity – especially having a video on the front page of a technology portal like Engadget. This coverage got us almost a 100,000 views, and while most of them didn’t have WP7 at that time, being featured on Engadget helped achieving a great initial traction.
Now you have a free ad-supported version and a paid version. How are these doing compared to each other? Both in terms of downloads and revenue. Have you managed to withdraw money from MS advertising?
Going with the hybrid model was both good and bad. Unfortunately, while the trial apps on Windows Phone are great in theory, many people only check the free apps. We have experienced 2-3 times as many downloads for the free app. Microsoft should modify the Marketplace so that non-crippled trials show up among the free apps, too.
On the other hand, the introduction of the free app caused a reduced the number of downloads with the trial/paid one, and the effectiveness of any campaign where wp7 enthusiast portals linked to both the trial and the free version. This caused us to slip down on the charts, and currently SurfCube is floating a bit below the #100 paid app position, while we had been around #20 earlier (with admittedly less apps in the Marketplace at that time). However, with the advertisement income, we are more or less compensated for the loss of sales.
We still haven’t withdrawn money from MS advertising – although they opened it up for quite a few countries recently, neither Hong Kong or Hungary is among them. They did tell us to stand by though, so we should be able to get our money in the future.
In my talk on Windows Phone app marketing and monetization I had one tip I can attribute to you, that spurred some controversy on twitter. I mentioned that it’s a minor tip during the talk but it’s not something you can see in the slides. The tip was not to submit your app on Friday. Do you still feel this way, can you explain why?
Yes. If you look at the charts from WP7AppList, you can see that almost no applications get verified and published during the weekends. So, it looks like MS does not test the applications after Friday. If you are ready with your app on Friday, submitting it right away won’t make it published any earlier. Instead, you can keep testing on Saturday and Sunday even more, maybe add some new features – and submit on Sunday night or on Monday. You essentially have two more days to test and make sure the app doesn’t fail digestion without impacting the publishing date.
Returning to SurfCube – the new version, SurfCube 4 just went live in the Marketplace. What is in V4, and has your marketing strategy changed with this launch?
With every version of SurfCube we are addressing the biggest pain points of our customers. They give us awesome feedback, and have significantly influenced the roadmap of SurfCube. For example, even though it started out as a browser focused on video playback, we didn’t add video playback until V3, since users demanded tabs a lot louder. With V4, we finally had the chance to invite beta testers – and once again, they gave some phenomenal feedback, without which V4 would have turned out to be a lot different.
With V4, we addressed one of the biggest pain points our users had. For a significant part of them, the learning of the new control schemes was too much – they just wanted a great browser. So, we added a new bottom menu which behaves almost like the menus in the OS itself, so those new to SurfCube can start using it right away. We have also added a new feature called “portal reading mode” – you can mark any web page so all of its links open up in a new or a background tab. For example, I open up Engadget, and just tap on every article I find interesting on the front page. They open up in a new background tab, so they will be downloaded and ready to read by the time I finished parsing the front page. We have a lot of other new stuff in V4 – much better landscape support, full HTML5 compatibility thanks to the new IE9 engine, pinning multiple sites to the Start screen so that they open up at launch, full Mango support, performance enhancements, etc. It is the biggest SurfCube release since V1, and we are very excited to have it in the Marketplace.
As for V4 marketing strategy, it is pretty much the same as what we had previously – except we plan to be even more visible. I have been publishing a blog post series called “SurfCube on Mango” that detailed some design and development challenges we faced. We will hopefully get decent coverage from our friends at the WP7 fan sites, twitter. I have created a new, even more dynamic demo video called “SurfCube Rocks” for the launch.
We have set up a Facebook fan page as well. We will try to contact people who previously reviewed SurfCube, and let them know about the new features that hopefully made their earlier problems disappear – maybe some of them will upgrade their reviews. We will use the help of AdDuplex to spread the word. And… we have prepared a surprise a few weeks down the road that may even get us back to Engadget, but it is bound to go viral in any case.
Thank you, Alan!