Developer Spotlight: Mike Smithwick of Distant Suns

TiPb's developer spotlights are like DVD/iTunes Extras for the App Store -- a weekly look behind the scenes at the programers and designers that bring you the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad apps and games you love. This week Rene talks with Mike Smithwick of Distant Suns.

What's your name? Mike Smithwick

What's your company's name? First Light Design, LLC, I was hoping to name it something like "Apple," I know, dumb name, but someone already had it.

Where are you located? San Jose, CA. Within walking distance of Cisco (really!), Intel, eBay, and only a few miles always from the Mother Ship.

What's your website address?

What's your Twitter name? @distantsuns for any hot breaking news about, uh, Distant Suns (duh!). And @lazyastronomer for general space and astronomy geek stuff.

Why @lazyastronomer? When people ask me why I wanted to write Distant Suns, I just told them I was way too lazy to haul a telescope up a mountain and freeze off the stuff I wouldn't really want to have frozen off just to see something I could create on my iPad while I am watching Lassie reruns on Nickelodeon and eating Cheeze Whiz out of the can. I'm sure your readership can relate to that.

What apps do you make? Distant Suns-Lite, the freebie, Distant Suns 2, the iPhone only version, and Distant Suns 3, the super-double-maga-licious universal version. Then there is WeatherPlanet, Grand Tour-3D and the Live365 music client and a Cisco client for their Pulse software that helps people large companies connect based on specific experience tech expertise needed at the time.

What apps, other than your own, are currently among your favorites? I am a sucker for clock and weather apps. My favorite clock apps are CloqWork, one of the most charming apps I have ever seen, and one of the hardest to describe. You just gotta get it to "get" it. Then also in clocks, there is Observatory. It is just a stunningly beautiful piece of art to look at.

Weather HD is just nice to look at and have running all day

In the game department, I don't own many games as I am just too busy, but I had to get this one: Ancient Frog, for the shear force of the artistry on part of the designer. Plus it is a very charming game.

But the one I have to show everyone now is the History Channel's Civil War. On the 150th anniversary of start of the Civil last April, History Channel launched their app which gives you a daily dose of Civil War news told in present tense. There is new each day describing the events exactly 150 years before which include a short article, diary entries from 15 different people including scans of the original entries, Lincoln's notes and letters of the day, scans of newspaper front pages, maps, photos and body count. Just an extraordinary amount of content. And they intend to keep this going until @#$$!# 2015!

How long have you been a developer? Since 1981.

How long have you been an iOS developer? Since the day of the first SDK release when angelic voices rained down from on high.

Do you develop for any other platform in addition to iOS? If so, which one(s)?

Commodore Amiga, Windows, Old-school Mac, TiVO with their java based app kit, Symbian (oh, excuse me @**#& Symbian), Windows Mobile 6, early Sun equipment, and early SGI systems.

What primary computer setup do you use for your iOS development? MacBook Pro 13, with two external monitors. iPad 2, 2 iPad 1s, four iPod Touches, iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 and an Apple III.

With all of this new shiny replacing the old, sometimes late at night I think I can still hear my gold iPod Mini softly weeping from the darkened corner of my old gadget drawer.

What iOS device(s) do you personally use most often? That'd have to be the iPad 2, "Sagan", which I waited four hours in line to get from the Palo Alto store.

What mobile devices, other than iOS, do you currently use? That'd have to be my red iPod Nano in the car, it qualifies as it doesn't run iOS. Can't use the iPhone as it doesn't have any tactile feedback needed so I don't have to look down at the thing while selecting a new podcast to listen to.

What's your favorite thing about developing for iOS? It's just fun. The quality of the tools, documentation and frameworks let me spend much more time adding awesomely cool new features, instead of wishing I had the time to figure out how to add awesomely cool new features. And that's just awesome.

What's your least favorite thing about developing for iOS? When I first started and told people I was working on iPhone stuff the reaction was a hushed respect. Now when I do so, the response is "well, who isn't?"

What feature would you most like Apple to add to the iOS 5 SDK? A means of tactile feedback to the screen that could render Braille and/or other basic graphics to help those with limited sight.

What feature would you most like Apple to add to the App Store? About two years ago Apple had their mini-one day long iOS developer's road show. The first stop was here in their back yard. I was chatting with one of the Apple people there about ideas for improving the App Store, and he was rapidly jotting down notes with my suggestions. The one I want most is to get some basic analytics so as to give us page views vs. purchases on each app. So, for example, if I am getting 100 pageviews a day, but am only selling 5 units, I'm doing something wrong. He looks at me and says "you mean we don't do that already?? That makes so much sense!" And as I was leaving to get some of the free food, I asked him what he did for Apple, and he responded, "uh, director of the App Store".

They still haven't implanted the analytics though, although one of the other things I suggested made it in there. Whenever I had to remove an app from sale for whatever reason, it took only one click. That in turn automatically toggled all 80+ regional app store entries off. But that didn't happen in reverse. To reactivate it I'd have to turn each store checkbox on one at a time. What a pain. So now I can finally turn them on with just one click. And what was really nice was when that feature was pushed I got a note to give it a shot and see if that was what I was looking for.

If we were to eavesdrop on you while you were coding, what curse word would we hear you use the most? What kind of frakk'n question is that? Oops! Can I say frak here?

What do you do when you're not coding iOS apps? Vintage ballroom dancing. That is, recreating 19th century grand balls in costume. I am going off to Newport, Rhode Island shortly for a week of balls in the Gilded Age mansions along the shore

What should we look for from you next? Oh you little minx, I'm not going to give it up that easily.

Thanks Mike!

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.