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Exclusive: Interview with BBSmart's Neil Sainsbury

By Kevin Michaluk on 9 Aug 2007 08:02 am EDT
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Neil Sainsbury, of BBSmartIt's not everyday that a new BlackBerry application becomes available for download and immediately becomes a best seller, but in the case of BBSmart's Email Viewer that is exactly what happened. More than that, BBSmart's Email Viewer has remained at the top of the best sellers list for weeks, and I have the feeling it's going to stay that way for a while!

Neil Sainsbury (NS) is the brain behind BBSmart and the company's Email Viewer. I first talked to Neil a few months ago, when he was still in the beta testing phase of his yet-to-be named email application. And even now, in the current state of busyness Neil is experiencing (that's what happens when your first BlackBerry application is a huge success), he was kind enough to take some time to talk to CrackBerry.com (CB) and answer a few questions...

CB:  How long have you been a berry user?
NS:  I've been using the BlackBerry now for about 2 years.

CB:  What was your first BlackBerry? What device are you currently running?
NS:  My first one was an old chunky 7230 and I'm currently using the 8700. I still have the 7230 sitting around actually and even pull it out on occasion - they really got the keypad right with that model!

CB:  Where are you based out of?
NS:  We're based out of sunny Brisbane, Australia. Beautiful location but with all the great weather not exactly the most conductive to sitting inside and programming!

CB:  I understand BBSmart Email Viewer is your first Blackberry Application.  How did you get turned onto developing for BlackBerry, and how did you identify the opportunity of making BlackBerry's plain old email application look great?
NS:  Yep, this is BBSmart's first application. I actually started out developing for the BlackBerry through my work. I was a software engineer working in the finance sector and developed an application to deliver quotes, news, emails, etc. to traders on the go (they ALL have BlackBerries). I really enjoyed this work and must have shown a real knack for it as well - the feedback we received from traders was amazing and now the user base for that application just keeps growing and growing. Right now some of the biggest financial companies in the world are using this application religiously. After this, I just knew the BlackBerry was for me. Prior to getting into the BlackBerry also, I'd done quite a bit of development work with other "mobile" devices. I say "mobile" because I'm talking here about EFTPOS terminals, the things you use to swipe your debit or credit card in stores. Try though I might, I could never come up with an elaborate money rounding/siphoning scheme! Smile

You probably wouldn't believe it but the original inspiration behind our email viewer was simply to show graphic emoticons! I was working on some other applications and my partner was looking at one of my emails on the device and asked me why it only showed text smileys. Later that night I sat down and was thinking about this myself and started asking myself some other questions: Why does the email look so spartan and devoid of color? Why do we see these big long hyperlinks sitting in the email? Why are email addresses duplicated? Previously I had asked myself these questions about the BlackBerry also (the standard user interface is not exactly a wonder to behold) but had never really followed up on them and asked myself "What can I do about it?". This time I did. After several days of talking about it with my partner, bouncing ideas back and forward, we mapped out a first concept of what the application was going to look like.

This was a very challenging and creative process - right from the get go we knew we were pushing boundaries. The BlackBerry is a very challenging device to develop for owing to the limited access RIM gives you to the real "good stuff". This is unlike developing for most other mobile devices where you almost have free reign to do what you want. Developing for the BlackBerry is a long and painful sequence of compromises and as part of the journey we had to continually reshape our expectations of how the application was going to work. At the end of the day I'm a user interface design nut - it's something I care very deeply about in software and I'm continually disappointed by how much software is out there that shows little to no thought in this area. So the gospel phrase when developing this application was "Make it simple. Make it usable. Make it beautiful". I think all developers should live by this.

CB:  In your own words, provide a quick explanation/overview of the BBSmart Email Viewer, and let the CrackBerry.com community know about some of the bells and whistles that make it a must-have application.
NS:  BBSmart Email Viewer is an application that enhances the display and functionality of email on the BlackBerry. The default email viewer does a clumsy job of displaying emails which can often make them difficult to read meaning you might accidentally miss important details. The purpose of this application is to allow people to see emails exactly how they want to see them, right down to the finest detail (should you be picky!). The default email viewer also does a clumsy job of displaying HTML emails so again we correct this so that you can see images in your emails, links, graphic emoticons, etc. We also enhance the functionality of regular email so now you can do things like adding your email as a task (a todo item created from the email) or to the calendar (to make an appointment). You can even attach notes to your email just like you can in Outlook.

BBSmart's Email Viewer

CB:  BBSmart Email Viewer became an instant success in terms of individual downloads/sales. Were you surprised by the response?
NS:  While developing it, we had some sense that it was going to be big. At the same time though, you have to convince yourself that no, it's not very good. That's the sort of mentality that makes you keep pushing, keep thinking up new ideas which will make it better and better. Even now I look at it and think "It's alright". If I start thinking it is a great application then I'll become less motivated to make it better. Still, nothing can prepare you for the real thing. The response really swept us off our feet. One of the major surprises was how tight the BlackBerry community is: Say one thing to a BlackBerry user who is active in the community and all of a sudden what you said is appearing all over the Internet even in other languages. The community has been fantastic also - very supportive and extremely helpful. It's been a very fascinating experience.

CB:  Have you had any enterprise interest in the application, or has it mainly been individual downloads/sales?
NS:  The enterprise side of things has been fantastic so far - typically it just starts with one or two users in a company and then is filtered right throughout. A good percentage of BlackBerry users (particularly in the US) are in an enterprise environment - that's an area where the BlackBerry itself has really gained a strong foothold, so this is obviously an environment that a lot of our users are in too. While developing the application we really tried to put ourselves in the shoes of a typical business user and ask "What do I want from my email?". That's really what motivated the inclusion of functionality like the ability to add emails as tasks (todo items), as calendar entries (appointments) and also the ability to attach notes to emails. We offer some great bulk discount rates too so it certainly makes sense for businesses that want to enhance the productivity of their mobile employees.

Another interesting thing has come from the enterprise side which is moving BBSmart simultaneously in another direction. Some quite large companies in the field of email archiving all almost simultaneously approached us with a potential application of our email viewer. In big corporate environments, emails are moved off the primary email server onto cheaper third-party bulk storage. The volume of email necessitates this for many reasons. While they had all come up with systems so that the end-user doesn't know about this behind the scenes stuff when using Outlook, they had thus far been unable to come up with a workable BlackBerry solution. Using the techniques we developed for the email viewer we have been working with them towards developing custom versions of our application to solve this problem which they've had for years now. This has been really exciting for us here and not a use for our product we had at all anticipated in the beginning.

CB:  I even heard a rumor that RIM was as impressed with your software as the rest of were, and that a few divisions at RIM are now running BBSmart Email Viewer. Any chance we'll see this application come standard on a BlackBerry in the near future?
NS:  Yes, people we've been talking with at RIM have been showing some real enthusiasm about the product. Some sales people at RIM we've been talking to even go around and show people BBSmart Email Viewer and say "Look what the BlackBerry can do!"  Smile The biggest potential for seeing BBSmart Email Viewer come standard with the BlackBerry is not actually from RIM though, but the big network carriers themselves who have their own branded BlackBerries - that's where we have seen the most amazing interest and biggest opportunities come our way. I think we've been contacted now by almost all of the major carriers in the US looking to bundle the application with devices they sell as a value add-on.

CB:  Shortly after the initial release of BBSmart Email Viewer you released an updated version. It's obvious you are driven to continually improve the application and make it the best it can be. Are there any further updates coming that you can tell us about?
NS:  Our focus is always going to be towards making this application better and better. We haven't even scratched the surface of what we want to see this application do. And because we have a policy of making all our updates free forever, people can jump in now and it will only get better and better. We are right now working towards version 3 which I think is really going to raise the bar to another level. Some of the things we are doing with this we just had no idea would be possible in the beginning - really radically changing the way you view certain emails. But as I touched on earlier, it's all about managing our perspective internally. The more we convince ourselves here that the application is just "alright", the more we are motivated to get innovative, experiment and work hard because there is no such thing as being "done".

CB:  You set the bar very high with the release of your first BlackBerry Application. I can't believe that you would stop after such great initial success. What can we expect next from BBSmart? Any hints?
NS:  For now, we are happy to focus working on BBSmart Email Viewer and pursuing some of these enterprise business opportunities. We do have a lot of other application ideas - something I used to do was force myself to come up with one good idea every night before I went to bed...Probably why I always look tired! Smile  While we have other ideas which we have started working on, they are not our primary focus. Sometimes, I sort of wish they were because I think some of them may even be as big (or bigger) than this - but we can't take on too much at once. Hints? There are a lot of things people do every day but don't realize it. Systems they interact with but then loose convenient access to when they go mobile, out in the field. We'd like to bring these to life, making the transition from desktop/laptop to mobile more seamless. Bad hint? Tongue out

CB: Neil, Thanks for taking the time to talk to the CrackBerry.com Community. I wish I could have interviewed you in person in sunny Brisbane!!!
NS: My pleasure.  Keep Crack'n!

For more information or to purchase BBSmart's Email Viewer, click here.

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