Tyler Jordan Pluhacek—but he goes by the name of TJ—is a 16-year-old high-school student from Lake Oswego, just south of Portland, Oregon. His favorite subjects are Math and Spanish, and he's an accomplished guitarist and harmonica player with a passion for Blues and Ragtime from the '20s and '30s. He lives at home with his Mom and younger sister. Oh, and he's designed a $.99 app for the iPad.
You might expect a teen developer to come up with a frivolous app—a game, perhaps, or something more throwaway. Not TJ. NoteLook is a pretty serious tool aimed at both students and business people, and it helps you organize your note-taking. But then, TJ is not your average teen. He's extraordinarily focused—when asked what he wanted to do after school, this was his response. "I've spent more time than most people looking at my options. When I go to college, I want to obtain degrees in both computer science and business management, and my plan is to become an entrepreneur and start up my own software development business."
Obtain? What kid says that?
TJ's interest in computers began at an early age. "I used to fool around with my parent's old computer," he tells FastCompany.com. "I used to spend hours on it trying to fix it up and get it working." Although he started up on Macs, he shifted to Windows, "because it's what my family used, and I seemed to understand it more." A musician for the past seven years, he plays under the name of TJ Moor ("easier to pronounce") and used the money from his gigs to buy his first Mac after people started asking him for CDs. When he realized that most of his music-related computer activities weren't done on a Mac, he considered going back to Windows full-time—until, that is, he discovered programming for Mac OSX and the iPhone OS.
"I thought my interest in computers was on the whole hardware side of things until I began to spark an interest in programming about a year ago," he told me. "Over the past year, I've spent my free time learning about software development for Mac OS X (and more recently the iPhone OS) and it's turned from a hobby into a passion."
When Steve Jobs announced the arrival of the iPad in January this year, TJ's interest was well and truly piqued. "I knew that I had to develop for it. I had begun working on developing an application for Mac OS X that would make taking notes much more efficient, and the iPad's portability and ways of interacting for the user is such a perfect device for doing this on that I knew my ideas would suit the iPad perfectly."
Yes, but first, obtain your iPad. Kids as young as nine have garnered attention developing apps for the iPhone, but dreaming up programs for a device that wasn't actually available was a much bigger challenge. Given Apple's stringent security arrangements, very few developers were allowed access to the Apple tablet, TJ included. "In order to get access to the iPad development tools before the iPad's launch date, I had to become a member of the iPhone Developer Program. One of the tools included is an iPhone/iPad simulator that allows applications to be tested without the device itself. Not everything runs perfectly on the simulator, but it's the closest thing to the device itself."
The week before the launch, TJ submitted NoteLook to Apple, and it was approved for the App Store. Then, nine days ago, he lined up for three hours in the cold Oregon rain in order to get his hands on the device he'd designed an app for. Was it worth it?
"At least, for the first week of owning it, I've found myself using it during any spare time I have. I'm bringing it with me everywhere. It's perfect for normal, everyday tasks that most people do on the go, and it does so much more, too. My only complaint at this point is multi-tasking, but that won't be a problem for long, since Apple announced that it's coming in iPhone OS 4 this Fall. It's such a perfect mobile companion that I haven't even taken my notebook computer off my desk since buying the iPad."
Pretty much all of the built-in apps get TJ's seal of approval, and the two games he downloaded, Asphalt 5 and Super Monkey Ball 2 are "addictive," even though TJ isn't a gamer. "I love how they all work—especially the iPad-specific editions of the Mail and Calendar apps. I'm actually very fond of the way that Pages—the word-processing app that's part of iWork—works on the iPad, however, I would never use it for taking notes dute to its very inefficient way of organizing documents, which is where NoteLook comes in—well, in the classes of mine that I'm even allowed to pull out an electronic device in."
As you'd expect, TJ took his iPad into school every single day last week, as it's so much more practical than his notebook computer which he occasionally took to class. It was, he said, "a pain in the rear. I had to carry an extra bag for it over my shoulder to protect it, and I had to pull it out and reboot it up every time I wanted to use it."
Compared to that, he says, the iPad is "perfect. I can do everything I was using my notebook computer for in my iPad now, and it's small and reliable enough (no spinning hard drive inside) that I can put it in my backpack easily and not worry about it."
And what was the reaction from his profs and classmates? "Although a share of Microsoft fanboys have just rolled their eyes and said that I wasted my money on a giant iPod touch, almost everybody in my classes and in the hallways has stopped to ask me about it and/or play around with it. Even a couple of my teachers asked to use it before class or during quizzes!"
You could be forgiven for thinking that TJ is just your average over-excited Apple acolyte. But you'd be wrong. "Most people tend to think that Apple products are the best of the best, which unfortunately puts many other great products out of people's consideration. The iPad really is an amazing product, and I say that from a non-fanboy perspective—I use Windows and Linux on a normal basis too, I just use them for different tasks."
Many people in the computing industry are not happy with the fact that Apple's hardware and software is so locked down. Does TJ think that the company is killing the art of tinkering on computers? "I actually believe that it's a good thing that Apple's hardware and software has limits because it keeps their products in order. If the App Store didn't have a whole approval process, any terrible thing could get onto any device running the iPhone OS, which would only cause harm to both Apple and its customers. There's a lot of buggy software out there today, and piracy is more of a problem now than ever, and Apple's doing what they need in order to keep this in order for their products as much as possible."
Has TJ's age (or lack of it) had been an issue with other developers? Seems not. Had he come across any similar souls? "I haven't run across any other teen developers like myself," he says. "In fact, I don't personally know any software developers. While it has been very difficult having to teach myself everything, I can get occasional questions answered on online developer forums, who don't seem to even care about my age or think that it's a drawback to be a developer at this age. In fact, I believe that I actually have a leg-up on what I'm doing with NoteLook, since I have to take and organize notes every day, so I know what does and doesn't work."
TJ is already working on an edition of NoteLook for Mac OS X, as well as improving the iPhone OS version. And how does he find NoteBook works on the iPad? "Using it on the device itself has given me the ability to critique it more. I've gotten quite a bit of user feedback about it, and I'm already working on including many features that both myself and customers want to see in the next version."
The first time I asked TJ how many people had downloaded NoteLook, he sidestepped the question. When I pushed him, this was his response: "At this very early point in NoteLook's availability, I do not want to disclose information about sales just yet. However, I have found that the market for it has been a mix of both students and business people." Apple PR would be proud.