Elia Freedman used to have it made. He was a mobile app developer in the days of the Palm Pilot and he scored bundling deals that got his sophisticated calculator software into the hands of more than 15 million people. Differentiating his product from competitors "wasn't something we had to deal with for years," he says, because of the favored position his app got in pre-loaded bundles.
Now those days are gone. Today Freedman's PowerOne Professional Calculator ($5.99 in iTunes) was accepted into the very crowded iTunes App Store, where competition for visibility is fierce. Freedman's strategy: PowerOne now focuses on being a tool-building app. Template creation for complex custom calculators in sales, medical, real estate and other markets is what the app is all about. He says he wants to solve the "there's not an App for that" problem that many professionals experience when they try to use their iPhones at work.
Calculators: Not Just For Nerds Anymore
Our phones are becoming increasingly capable of finding meaning from and adding value to more types of data than most of us could have imagined just a few years ago. Our physical location, the direction we're facing, our proximity to other peoples' phones and soon the temperature our phone finds itself in are all fields of data that have become platforms for developers to build usable tools on top of.
Now imagine training your phone to perform the complex calculations that you need while out in the field for your unique occupation, just by entering new spreadsheet-style functions into a program and saving them as a template.
Freedman says he's talked with a crash-test engineer who finds the custom calculator he's built with PowerOne far more useful than carrying a clip board. Commercial real-estate agents in the field with clients have standard operations they can perform, but often have to pull out and enter printed formulae that slow them down and introduce a risk of error. There are millions of equations used in the medical industry, and miscalculation by nurses, doctors and pharmacists cost a shocking number of people their lives. Put the particular equations they need into their hands along with the ability to easily run equations on the fly in the field, and it could be a changed experience for all kinds of people. A phone you can train to perform the specific calculations you need in the field is a smart phone. A calculator app that helps you build calculator apps is very meta.
Possible Next Steps
Freedman says he's working on developing a more robust Web-based back end where users can share the templates. (Right now he's making-do with a GetSatisfaction page for sharing.)
He's hoping to enable a feature where organizations can push out formulae and updates to multiple users. These kinds of social features and network effects could increase the value of the service substantially, but remain a separate challenge to implement effectively. A marketplace for reselling custom-developed equation templates? Freedman says he's been contacted by multiple people inquiring about just that.
Could PowerOne function like a social, mobile, customizable version of Wolfram|Alpha? That seems like one possibility as well.
The app comes today with more than 50 pre-built templates, some quite sophisticated. Calculation results can easily be emailed to yourself or a client.
A customizable, mobile, computation application is a great example of the kind of lightweight platform that will come in handy in an increasingly data-centric future. That's the kind of development that makes this era of mobile applications so much more exciting than the old days of bundled incumbents, no matter how good that period was for Elia Freedman. You've got to hand it to him, though - his new iPhone app is thought provoking relative to the challenges of the day.