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Inside One iOS App Developer’s Quest To Get Onstage At Apple’s WWDC

For ambitious app developers, trying to get stage time with Apple can be a careful dance of heady highs, heartbreaking lows, and sudden death.

Inside One iOS App Developer’s Quest To Get Onstage At Apple’s WWDC

It’s better than any advertisement, social campaign, or press write-up. Appearing onstage at an Apple press event is the dream of every iOS developer. It can almost instantly lift a tiny bootstrapped company from obscurity to name-brand status. It can also be the beginning of a long-lasting and lucrative relationship with Apple.

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But as the folks at Scrollmotion, a New York-based iOS app developer, can tell you, getting there is a long, careful dance that can be full of heady highs, heartbreaking lows, and sudden death. The company marshaled a laborious campaign to present its app onstage at an Apple event last spring, and while the campaign was unsuccessful, the company says it would do it again in a heartbeat.

It’s not the only one. Every year scores of app developers vie for stage time at an Apple event or special placement in the App Store. Many developers tailor their apps with cutting-edge features for Apple’s operating systems, and a very lucky few do it so well that Apple invites them onstage. Even if they don’t make it to the big stage, hitching one’s product roadmap to Apple’s star has its own rewards. It ensures that a developer’s app leverages Apple’s best thinking at the OS level. It also seals their image–year after year–as Apple true believers, and that loyalty can go a long way.

For Scrollmotion, getting featured at an event, or in the App Store, was a major factor in its development and marketing work from the beginning. “We time the releases of our new features around these events to take advantage of the promotional bump,” says Josh Koppel, the company’s founder. “We build demos that show off the most amazing aspects of our new features, which also have the double benefit of promoting the newest features in iOS.”

This year, for instance, Scrollmotion’s Ingage app–which is used by salespeople to create and deliver media-rich iPad presentations–highlighted new features made possible by Apple’s new iOS 11 .

Apps that showcase features in new operating systems in compelling ways sometimes get stage time at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, which is held each spring. But only a lucky few make the cut. Scrollmotion wanted badly to be one of them this year: It invested significant resources to build an update of its Ingage app for iOS 11, which highlighted a new feature Apple was adding to the OS for iPad–the drag-and-drop touchscreen gesture for moving content around.

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Bleeding Six Colors

Scrollmotion, it’s worth noting, is no stranger to Apple events. Koppel was given the chance to demo an app onstage back in 2010, an experience that gave Scrollmotion a taste for the kind of mojo that appearing at an Apple event can bring. Apple lives under a bright spotlight, and getting a little time under it can be a powerful thing for a small company.

That year, Koppel and his team were called to Cupertino a week before WWDC to present their app (at the time, it was a digital publishing platform for books and magazines). “It was like nerd Survivor,” Koppel said. “There were maybe 14 companies, and you’re all sequestered in these rooms and you’re pitching to the Apple team.”

“You’re working like crazy to get your pitch down; you’re working with the devs at home to make changes [to the app],” Koppel added. “There were two big demos–Tuesday and Thursday–and then WWDC was on Monday, and you can get cut any second.” Scrollmotion survived both rounds, but, Koppel said, his (now finely tuned) presentation could have been dropped from the program any time, all the way up to showtime at 10 a.m. Monday.

And then, five dazzling minutes later, it was over.

“I couldn’t even believe that it happened,” he said. “I’d been so nervous, and when it was over I was delirious.” The amount of preparation Apple goes through for its events is astounding, Koppel says. Nothing is left to chance.

Even though 2010 seems like a long time ago, Koppel’s appearance put him and his company on Apple’s radar. It also may have impressed upon some at Apple that the people behind the Scrollmotion product “bleed six colors,” as Koppel puts it–that they are Apple true believers, committed to Apple’s platforms and its way of thinking.

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The Apple Tax

Scrollmotion’s relationship with Apple has also led to some key hires for the New York-based company. Scrollmotion’s current CEO, Alan Braun, came to Scrollmotion from Apple in early 2016 and took over the top job in January 2017. Braun built a large team within Apple to help Fortune 1000 customers (Walmart, United Airlines, Pepsi, and Bank of America) build user-friendly iOS apps. He worked with Scrollmotion when he earlier led a team that helps Apple Mobility Partners design apps.

At Scrollmotion, Braun has been in charge of the development of the Ingage app. Part of his job is aligning Ingage’s development roadmap with Apple’s roadmap for iOS on iPad.

He also spends time trying to leverage old relationships at Apple. “We all dream of getting the Apple love,” Braun said. “That’s what we do.” But it’s not a game for everyone, he adds. “It requires significant resources.”

It’s a big development expense and a big marketing expense, too, when you factor in the time it takes to court Apple. “You have to pay the Apple tax,” Braun said. “You have no choice but to drop everything and build the features that Apple wants to see.”

A Not-So-Near Miss

For Scrollmotion, featuring the new drag-and-drop functionality made Ingage easier to use, but it also helped align Scrollmotion’s goals with those of Apple, which wanted to showcase how well iOS 11 worked on the iPad.

“If you really want Apple to support you, you have to think about the problem they are having,” Koppel said. “People still don’t believe [the iPad] is a content creation tool, but iOS 11 goes a long way to make it more of a content creation tool.”

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Koppel and, more recently, Braun, have learned a lot about how to engage with Apple, and how to communicate with Apple people. “You have to know how to talk to Apple,” Braun said. “Visuals talk louder than anything else.”

When it came time for Scrollmotion to send Apple a demo video about Ingage, Koppel and Braun made the video using Apple’s Clips app right after it came out. The medium, sometimes, can make an impression before the message.

Braun says Apple likes simple and pithy presentations. “Polished doesn’t matter so much; they care more care about the ideas and the meat,” Braun said. That’s another reason why Scrollmotion chose to make their video using Clips, and not send it out to a professional video production firm.

Not In Vain

Despite company’s work to highlight drag-and-drop in its app, and despite Braun’s best efforts to make sure Apple was aware of it, Scrollmotion wasn’t offered a spot in the two-hour presentation at WWDC. In fact, Scrollmotion didn’t make it to the final rounds, which should give you some idea of the ferocious competition among developers.

But it’s hard to detect much disappointment in Koppel and Braun. That’s partly because this is a game Scrollmotion plays every year, and success is something to hope for but never to expect. Getting stage time at an event is always a long shot–for any developer. Moreover, Scrollmotion thinks of its yearly Apple courtship as part of its normal business operations.

Still, I suspect the pangs of disappointment may have been a little stronger this year because Scrollmotion had a particularly compelling case for appearing at an event. Apple was more keen than usual this year on highlighting a new software feature (drag and drop) for the hardware platform (iPad) on which Ingage works best. It seemed like a perfect match.

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Still, drag and drop is a truly useful feature in the app–event or no event–so Koppel and Braun don’t see the time spent developing the feature as wasted. And in the end, the whole process did put Ingage on Apple’s radar. Apple noticed Scrollmotion enough to feature Ingage in a video hyping the iPad Pro at Apple’s website.

Best of all, on September 28, the app was featured at the top of the Apps page at the App Store. Apple is constantly looking for apps that make its operating systems and devices look impressive, Koppel explained. “It’s a team in Building 3 in Cupertino, and they’re responsible for specific categories in the App Store,” he said. “Every week they’re out finding new apps and showing them at the top of pages at the App Store.”

Koppel sent me an email that day containing a screen shot of Ingage in one of the featured spots in the App Store. He was obviously thrilled about the distinction. “Every one of those spaces are highly coveted,” he said.

“The opportunity to get our product in front of millions of App Store users and get the Apple bump is the reason that we spent all this effort,” he said. “It’s the reason we pay the Apple Tax.”

Scrollmotion did indeed see an uptick in attention to its app, although Braun and Koppel declined to give numeric details. And 2017 is just one year in a long-term strategy of creating, developing, and marketing products for the Apple ecosystem–one year of one developer’s life guided by the push and pull of Apple’s orbit.

“We see it as an ongoing effort to market our products to the mothership,” Koppel said. “Every year there are multiple opportunities like WWDC. We always shoot for the stars, but sometimes we only make it to the moon.”