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5 mobile apps created by SLO college students and alumni

Developers with ties to Cal Poly and Cuesta College tap into spirit of innovation and creativity to create fast-selling mobile applications

Special to The TribuneMay 7, 2014 

Search the top productivity apps in the Google Play Store, and you’ll find one that turns your tablet into a handy note-taking device. In the Apple App Store, a program helps music novices compose a tune.

These innovative apps did not originate from a Silicon Valley powerhouse. They were conceived on local college campuses.

Cal Poly and Cuesta College were among a handful of U.S. colleges to offer mobile application development classes when they started their programs in 2010. The classes caught on quickly, appealing to students for reasons that included career advancement, the novelty of learning a cutting-edge skill, and the potential for creating the next Angry Birds.

Both colleges now offer iOS (iPhone) and Android programming classes. Each class involves the creation of an original app, most of which are released in the Google Play Store or Apple App Store. Not all have been profitable, but some have opened doors to jobs, internships and other business opportunities. The talented young programmers emerging from these courses have attracted the attention of tech firms such as Google, eBay and Apple.

Here we profile current and former Cal Poly and Cuesta students who have created ingenious apps both inside the classroom and beyond.

Papyrus

Developer: Andrew Hughes
Where available: Google Play Store and Windows Phone Store
Rating: 4.5 stars in both Google Play Store and Windows Phone Store
Price: Free, with in-app purchases priced at $2.99 and $4.99

If Andrew Hughes has his way, Papyrus will be a standard tool in every boardroom and classroom.

His Android app, named for the paper-like material produced from the papyrus plant, allows users to take handwritten notes on a phone or tablet. Among its many features are pressure sensitivity to mimic the feel of writing on paper, as well as the ability to cut, copy and paste items.

Other handwriting apps exist — such as Handrite Note and DioNote — but Hughes said Papyrus might be the only one that allows a user’s finger to work as an eraser when an active pen is used.

As a senior majoring in computer engineering, Hughes had enrolled in Cal Poly’s first Android class, taught by David Janzen. He developed the app after graduating from Cal Poly with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. His thesis on active pen technology, a type of stylus that communicates with a touchscreen device, was completed before such technology appeared on devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note.

Hughes launched the app in 2012 in the Google Play Store, where it was downloaded about 100,000 times in its first year.

A year later, after being featured as a top productivity app, downloads exceeded 300,000 in a single week. The count now sits at just over 1 million. Hughes recently released a version of Papyrus for Windows Phone, as well as an update that allows users to import PDF files.

Papyrus is a full-time business enterprise, said Hughes, who never intended to be an entrepreneur. In 2012, he formed Steadfast Innovation LLC with Janzen, an adviser on the project. He employs three part-time independent contractors and would like to develop more apps.

For now, one is enough.

“We’re not currently working on any other apps because we have so much to do with Papyrus,” he said.

SLO Bus Tracker

Developers: Zach Negrey, Jeff Brown and John Osumi
Where available: Google Play Store and Apple App Store
Rating: 4 stars in Apple App Store, 4.5 stars in Google Play Store
Price: Free

As luck would have it, Zach Negrey and Jeff Brown were standing at a bus stop in January 2011 when they began brainstorming project ideas for their Cal Poly mobile application development class.

Having missed the bus on at least one occasion, they decided to create an app that allows users to determine the location of San Luis Obispo city buses using real-time vehicle positioning data from San Luis Obispo Transit servers.

SLO Bus Tracker was released in March 2011. Users now have access to route schedules and the estimated time of a bus’ arrival at a stop. They also can create notifications so they don’t miss a bus.

The app is also useful for transit managers who can audit vehicles and drivers, modify listed routes, maintain publicly available schedules and deliver transit news.

In February 2012, Negrey and Brown, now Cal Poly graduates, formed Bishop Peak Technology LLC, focusing exclusively on transit apps. In June 2013, they brought onboard former Cal Poly student John Osumi as chief executive officer.

The team released an iOS version and multiple updates of SLO Bus Tracker. An update released this spring made the app “faster, more accurate and now includes dynamic bus statuses (noting whether a bus is early, late or on time),” Osumi said.

Since the team began tracking usage statistics two years ago, the app has been downloaded more than 21,000 times and is active on about 11,000 devices. It averages more than 6,000 users daily.

Bishop Peak Technology now employs six people and plans to hire more software developers this year, Osumi said.

The city of San Luis Obispo uses SLO Bus Tracker for free because of budget limitations, Osumi said. However, Bishop Peak Technology has lucrative contracts with other municipalities and private transportation systems. Among its client portfolio is the city of Vacaville.

“We’re partnering with some of the largest fleet management companies to take our services to a national — and soon international — scale,” Osumi said.

iFixit

Developer: Stefan Ayala
Where available: Apple App Store and Google Play Store
Rating: 4.5 stars in Apple App Store and 4.3 in Google Play Store
Price: Free

Stefan Ayala was hired as a quality assurance engineer at iFixit, a San Luis Obispo company that sells repair parts and provides free online repair guides, about the time he enrolled in Randy Scovil’s iOS course at Cuesta College “for fun.”

After the course, he continued to expand his knowledge of iOS programming. His efforts paid off two years ago.

“iFixit needed someone to add some features (to its mobile app) that customers and companies wanted,” he said. “Since I was one of the only developers at iFixit who knew how to program iOS, I sort of by default became their lead iOS developer.”

The app, originally developed by David Patierno, is an offshoot of the online repair guides at www.ifixit.com.

“If you’re doing a repair on the go, having an iFixit application on your smartphone becomes more appealing than lugging around a computer to access our website,” Ayala said.

The app offers access to thousands of free how-to guides, which give step-by-step instructions on subjects ranging from hemming pants to replacing the motherboard on your computer. It is also “open source,” meaning the source code can be accessed and modified by anyone.

Among the improvements implemented by Ayala are improved category navigation, the ability to download videos for offline viewing, and improved search functionality.

The app is downloaded about 1,000 times daily. It has more than 800,000 unique downloads and is in the top 50 applications for reference apps, Ayala said.

Ayala, who hopes to finish his upper-division software engineering courses at Cal Poly, has worked on several projects independently as well. AED Finder was a Cuesta College class project initiated by Ellery Conover and developed by Ayala. It allows users to find the nearest AED (automatic external defibrillator) among 14,000 locations worldwide. VS Scorekeeper is a simple smartphone scorekeeper. AutoText Plus, another class project, allows users to schedule automated text messages to be sent at a future time. All are available through the Apple App Store.

Blips Melody Maker

Developers: Derek Halman and Max Linsenbard
Where available: Google Play Store
Rating: 4.2 stars
Price: Free

Derek Halman was an amateur guitarist and songwriter with one primary complaint.

“The mere fact that I was able to learn so many complex riffs and solos written by guitarists I admire yet struggled so deeply with theory and composition was quite troubling,” he said.

This prompted Halman to create a simple music composition app. Then, in his Cal Poly Android class, classmate Max Linsenbard, an accomplished musician, suggested they refine that app as their class project.

“I jumped at the opportunity to implement all the features I’d thought of but didn’t have time for,” Halman said.

Blips is a melody-maker geared toward users with a range of skill levels. Advanced musicians can create complex compositions with the variety of scales and instruments available. Novices can build melodies without knowledge of music theory because of “scale association,” presenting notes that work well in relation to one another.

Although there are many melody-maker apps available, Halman believes that theirs “takes mobile melody sequencers in a new direction” with features intended to help users learn music theory and develop pitch recognition.

The app was released in December in the Google Play Store as “Blips Beta” but is now known as “Blips Melody Maker.” It has been downloaded more than 3,000 times and has about 1,000 installs.

It was decided that free apps “are the best way to reach the largest audience, and we didn’t like the idea of popup ads all over the place,” Halman said. However, the team hasn’t discounted the idea of generating revenue by adding advertising or in-app purchases in the future.

Linsenbard and Halman continue to work on Blips, but they have also created apps separately. Linsenbard created Flux, a game that placed second at the Cal Poly Global Game Jam this year. Among Halman’s current projects is soon-to-be-released Atlusion, which is both a social media website and mobile app designed specifically for cross-platform gamers.

Both are working to complete their computer science degrees and have internships: Linsenbard at Apple and Halman at Google. Both plan to pursue careers in software development.

Free Candle

Developer: Marty Ulrich
Where available: Apple App Store
Rating: 4 stars
Price: Free, with in-app purchases for 99 cents

Marty Ulrich hadn’t yet decided on a major when he took his first introductory programming course at Cuesta College with Randy Scovil. After that, “it was an easy choice,” he said. “He made the material interesting and exciting. I learned enough of the basics in that one term to be able to start taking on freelance projects as soon as the course finished.”

He transferred to Oregon State University and began working on his undergraduate degree in computer science. Meanwhile, he continued developing apps on a freelance basis. He designed several for Southern California graphic design company Poets Road, including Free Candle.

Free Candle is basically what it sounds like — a virtual candle for your phone. When a user blows on the screen, the phone’s microphone picks up the movement and causes the flame to flicker or be extinguished. The program is simple, which was good for Ulrich, who says he was “still going through the learning process.”

The app was released in the iTunes app store in fall 2011, and “it had a modest start,” Ulrich said.

Then, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died in October of that year. Free Candle was used in tributes to Jobs outside Apple stores around the world, receiving widespread news coverage.

“It got about a million downloads the day after it was first shown,” he said. “It was the No. 1 app in the Lifestyles category in a few countries at one point.”

The app has now been downloaded 2.3 million times. Since its release, Ulrich has added features including a flashlight and additional candle sets. More upgrades are in the works.

Last summer, Ulrich was an intern at eBay in Portland, where he worked on the company’s iPhone app. He now works remotely for eBay from Corvallis and plans to continue work on its iPhone project “for the foreseeable future” while he completes his undergraduate work. He still develops apps for Poets Road on a freelance basis and plans to continue his career as an iOS engineer.

Reach Rebecca Juretic at rajuretic@sbcglobal.net.

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