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GLOBAL – Jake Levant is VP of marketing at fring and has been intimately involved in the creation of the well-known chat, VoIP and now video calling client, on both Symbian and other mobile platforms. Here we chat about fring’s creation, its development, the philosophy behind its programming teams – and fring’s future.

Note to readers(!): fring is deliberately spelt with a lowercase ‘f’ by its creators.

How did you get the idea for fring? What did it develop from?

fring is the combination of ‘freedom’ and ‘ring’. It was started by folks who helped break the communication shackles on the PC (from ICQ to social networks to IP communication) and who had a vision that the mobile phone could offer more fun, richer communication experiences. While fring started years ago with voice and text chatting over IP, the real growth has been driven with the video chat innovation that fring pioneered back in November 2009. fring was the first to launch video chat over IP – it was the opportunity to change the way we communicate on the go. No longer would friends have to make do with hearing about exciting things going on, now they could participate, regardless of where they are. With fring’s free video chat, users can see each other across any smartphone on any connectivity (3G, 4G, WiFi…), truly enabling people to ‘get together’ anywhere.

How long has it taken to create so far, in man hours? Hundreds? (Gulp) Thousands?

Hmm. Hundreds of hours. But who’s counting!?

First, it’s been fun. That’s cumulative. The first versions obviously were most intensive, but after that we understood the development environment. As Nokia’s development environment evolved, we found ways to work more efficiently, and with higher impact. Now, Nokia represents a stable eco-system that enables us to do the communication magic we want on a mass scale.

There is something about the user response where we see millions of users on a product and it drives us to be more aggressive with our development. This is the thrill of working in such a dynamic space – we innovate and release and get immediate user feedback. Starting from huge download numbers to hundred of thousands of video calls to hundreds of thank you notes to our support. This thrills us and motivates us. Talk about making an impact! So, while there have been many hours, they have been rewarding.

What have been the hardest and easiest parts of development?

The hardest part of development is the strategic choices. There is so much noise in the space that, while we can develop anything, we need to remain focused on our core consumer offering and put our energies into that. Those decisions are tough and involve lots of discussions and disagreements and working things through. Once we’ve selected a path, the coding is a challenge – efficiency, effectiveness and so on… While the challenging part is focussing our team on pursuing the strategic roadmap, its equally important to drive excellence through to the last bit of code.

The easiest part – motivation. We are a young, fun team that builds products that we love to use. Everyone gets up in the morning here to build a better product for themselves. The team loves that they work on their favourite products. They also get an adrenaline rush from working on products that are the day to day communication suite of tens of millions of users.

How do you test fring as it develops? How many testers do you have and how do you manage them and their feedback? Do you have an automated change management or fault logging system?

We create fun user experiences that we like to use ourselves. That is the first test. If we aren’t running over to the developers to try out the newest version before its even in QA, then we are working on the wrong product. There is an excitement about creating the next social communication service. It’s got to be addicting. If not, users won’t like it or understand it. So, we pretty well know the vibe of a product even before it’s even gone through QA.

As for formalities… sometimes we open it to friends of the company or heavy users to get broader feedback. But, in a world of creating new experiences, you’ve got to know your users and what they are excited for. In our case, our internal team is a key barometer of the uptake of the service.

How has fring evolved since your first versions – why and how?

Over the years, we’ve moved dramatically. While it used to be that mobilizing chat or enabling IP voice on a mobile was revolutionary, we’ve helped move users to new expectations. Why should someone be limited to an audio only call? Why not have video on their call? Why should video communication be trapped in a PC or expensive board rooms for businesses? We know that users want these fun, social communication abilities on their phones, anywhere. And this is leading the huge uptick of users (more than 1 million new users join fring every month).

fring will continue to make mobile communication richer, more fun, more engaging.

How have you reacted to Ovi Store feedback? Do you monitor it? Has it proved useful at all?

Sure – it’s important to get feedback about how users on different devices and countries use the product. It helps us on many levels, from the marketing aspects to new feature prioritization. If it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t know the gaps in market and be able to be as responsive as we are.

Where next for fring? Any major new features coming up?

Ha! What a question. Given the huge video chat traction we have, it’s clear that video communication will continue to drive our development. Also, as people start to communicate because they want to (vs. have to) we will continue to see more social communication. When we launched Group Video chats for 4 people, we saw these elements come together. Folks want to communicate, not only about mundane items like picking up groceries on the way home from work, but about fun things – about sharing the moment with several friends in a video-enriched way.

What’s your #1 tip (or tips) for someone wanting to get started in mobile app development?

Stay focused on what benefits you bring to users. Wow them.

And good luck!