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April 8, 2011

Interview with Pico Brothers as downloads hit 20mn

BELGIUM – Creating applications for Ovi Store has become increasingly easier over the last two years. There’s been Flash Lite, then the Ovi App Wizard. More recently we’ve had the introduction of Qt Creator and now Qt Quick, which makes creating real, interactive apps accessible to the many. But not that many have created apps that have been downloaded a total of over 20mn times. We asked Pico Brothers for the secrets of their success.

NC: Thanks for joining us. Who are the Pico Brothers?

PB: No problem. The Pico Brothers are myself – Nick Karlström – and my co-founder Kristan Engsjö. We’re Finns, but I’m currently based in Belgium. So we’re not called Pico and we’re not brothers! We’ve been developing mobile apps together for two years – since April 2009. We’ve made around 80 apps for Ovi Store, and around 40 for Android and iPhone.

NC: Which of your apps have been most successful, financially?

PB: The most profitable have been the pro versions of Big Sound Buttons and Flashight Extreme. That’s followed by the free version of Revolver, which is monetised through in-app advertising. Almost all of our products are profitable in one way or another.

NC: What has that taught you about what sort of apps “work”?

PB: They have to be fun. They have to make sense. That accounts for about half the apps we’ve produced.

The other half are a mystery to us, still. They were crazy ideas that we just had to try. When we came up with idea for Cracked Screen trick, to be honest, I didn’t think it would be particularly successful. It’s just silly, right? But it became a bit of a word-of-mouth hit – people saw it on their friend’s phones and just had to have it. For that one, in particular, making a YouTube video to show people what it looked like, was also really useful. That video’s had over 362,000 views now.

NC: Describe your business model.

PB: Right from the start we’ve had free and ‘pro’ versions of our apps, with the free versions having in-app advertising. So everything we do makes money. The conversion rate from free to paid apps is pretty good. We price everything very cheap – normally £1 – so if you find the app remotely useful or entertaining, and you’ve got operator billing, then you’re going to convert. A lot of our apps are very simple and mainstream, so they do big volumes – and that’s when the advertising revenues on the free apps start to stack up.

NC: That’s something we were going to ask – and we hope you don’t find it insulting – a lot of your apps are very simple. How does that affect their saleability?

PB: Not at all – you’re quite right – they are deliberately very simple a lot of the time. We make apps that have very few features, but then we try to perfect those things so the user experience is spot-on. There’s really no need for a whole bunch of features in most mobile apps. What’s a lot more important is ease of use.

That means costs are low. We made a doorbell app in about one hour. It often takes us longer to make the graphics than it does to create the code. Mainly, the hard part is just having a good idea. The execution is pretty straightforward.

Of course, some of our apps are a bit more sophisticated. The YouTube Downloader app we released recently took a couple of months.

NC: What’s been the impact of moving to Qt for your apps?

PB: We used to use Flash Lite for the majority of our apps. Moving to Qt has allowed us all the speed of Flash, but also the ability to do more advanced apps. We can address the device’s capabilities in Qt in ways you just can’t do with Flash. We also appreciate the more integrated workflow between designing, coding and publication.

NC: How did you get started, and what advice do you have for other people who want to get started?

PB: Well, I’m not a trained programmer. I taught myself during the evenings to the point where I was able to take it full time. My advice is the only way is to sit at your computer and just do it. There’s no other shortcuts.

Try to start simple. Programmers often overcomplicate things, or are over-ambitious. Make something that does one thing well. Then, if you want, you can start building in extra features.

Hanging about on the forums on Forum Nokia is a really good idea. There are very helpful and clever people there. Developers are often introspective people and when they hit problems, they just get paralysed. Don’t do that – there’s bound to be someone out there who’s happy to help.

Thanks, Pico Brothers!

Pico Brothers are on Ovi Store, on the Web, on Facebook and on Twitter. Also, Forum Nokia has recently published a great podcast with Nick, if you want to hear more of his insights.