This BBC News Mobile app in the Windows Phone Marketplace for your Nokia Lumia smartphone is as slick, functional and easy to use as you would expect from one of the world’s great news organisations.
Except, it has nothing to do with the BBC.
It is the work of 23 year-old Lawrence Gripper, an economics graduate with no formal computer or IT training.
Launched on the Windows Phone Marketplace in October 2010, Lawrence’s BBC News Mobile app has been downloaded over 200,000 times and last month was awarded the Best News prize at the 2012 Community App Awards.
Not bad for someone who grew up on farms in England’s west country.
Now on the Microsoft graduate training programme and living in Reading, Lawrence talks to Conversations about how he started building apps, what we can expect in the Windows Phone 8 version of BBC News Mobile and what advice he would give to other developers.
How did you get involved in developing apps?
When I left school, I started working for a firm doing IT in schools. While I was there the job got outsourced and I was offered a job working on some SharePoint stuff for them. I had a go and really enjoyed it.
Then I did an economics degree at Exeter University and carried on working part-time as a SharePoint developer. I wrote in C# for that and those skills let me write a couple of mobile apps while I was at university.
What apps did you create in university?
It was a train times application back on Windows Mobile 6.5. The second one was the BBC one and that’s just carried on from there.
Why create an app for BBC News?
It was a combination of things. I liked Windows Phone and I knew that it was going to be a really good platform.
I like reading the news and there wasn’t anything to do it with on the phones, so I thought I would give it a go and make one. Since then, it has been driven by the people who use it.
The good feedback I get from it keeps me going to make it better. Everyone seems to enjoy using it.
The first version took 3-4 days to write. Since then I have spent many more hours just tweaking it and it has gone through a couple of major revisions as well.
Is it easy to develop for Windows Phone?
The development environment is really nice to use and actually very user-friendly compared to some of the other platforms.
So when you sit down to do an app, there are all the resources you need to just get it done.
It’s all in Visual Studio – it’s a really nice interface and the process is very streamlined. Write a bit of code, hit the play button and it will get deployed to an emulator that looks like a phone and you can test it quite easily. You just keep going round that loop until you end up with an application.
What can we expect in the Windows Phone 8 version?
It’s still in the works at the moment. It’ll be a similar flavour but I’m looking to take advantage of the larger tiles. The Windows 8 SDKs are out now so I am working on it in the hope that I can bring it across.
I’m looking to make better use of the ‘In Pictures’ feeds and hopefully adding the ability to leave comments on stories. Loads of stuff but I just need to find the time.
Did you ever think the app was going to be such a success?
Nope. Not a clue. I wanted it to be used and for it be liked but I did expect that somewhere down the line someone was going to come along and make a better job of it.
My only expectation was that I could wake up in the morning and read the news in a nice app. It was quite a selfish motivation, I think.
Now that you are working at Microsoft has that been a help?
Working on apps is completely separate from my work but there are clauses in my contract that allow me to write apps for Windows Phone because obviously they are looking to encourage people to do that on the platform.
They definitely support me however and there’s a lot of enthusiasm from my managers and my colleagues around the app. But they don’t give me time off!
What other apps have you been working on?
I released one with a colleague called Square, which is for sharing pictures or contacts.
You go on your phone, find a contact or a picture that you want to share and it generates a QR code on your phone and then you can scan it with anyone else’s phone and that lets you download the picture.
The bonus is that it works from a Windows Phone to an iPhone or an Android phone so it’s cross-platform.
What advice would you give to budding developers?
Find an app or something that you really want to be able to do on your phone. Then try and make it. Don’t aim too big. Create something with just a small number of features, get it released and then get feedback and build on it.
I think a lot of people try to set the bar too high and say, ‘I’m going to do this and it’s going to have a Swiss-Army knife of features.’
Actually, you end up getting bogged down with a laundry list of features and you don’t actually release anything.
You’ve got to be happy to work on it in your free time and it is something you’ve got to have a real passion for.
Image credit: MonkeyMyshkin