Home How Urban Airship Saved Tapulous’s Bacon on iPhone 3.0 Day

How Urban Airship Saved Tapulous’s Bacon on iPhone 3.0 Day

Three weeks ago M.T. Richardson’s job disappeared, his employer ran so far out of money that it said no one was getting paid and offered computers from the office as compensation instead. Yesterday, M.T. had one of the best days of his life. He’s the junior-most developer in a still unlaunched company riding high behind the scenes of the iPhone 3.0 launch.

M.T. works for Urban Airship, a mobile company that most iPhone users will be touched by, but will never hear of. The company powers the new push notifications and in-app purchasing features for app-making client companies who can’t or don’t want to do all the heavy lifting themselves to implement these new capabilities of the mobile device. Three weeks ago Urban Airship was an idea and some code, a side project of one of the men who would become a co-founder. Yesterday Urban Airship helped Tapulous, its first customer and one of the biggest gaming companies on the iPhone, launch push notifications before almost anyone else.

I found Richardson at the Open Source Bridge conference this week in Portland, Oregon. He had a huge grin on his face. He told me the story about how Urban Airship landed and executed on a bigger implementation of their technology than they imagined coming their way this early, in faster time than anyone unfamiliar with the company’s service could have imagined possible. It’s a good story.

Push and in-app sales were known to be in the works on the iPhone, they’re the developer-fantasy equivalent of copy-and-paste or MMS for users. Push notifications, like when Tapulous now tells users who don’t have the app running that they’ve been challenged to a music playing match by a friend, are something developers believe will increase ongoing engagement long after the initial download of an app. In-app sales will help monetize that engagement, something developers have found challenging after an initial flurry of sales, once they are lost in a sea of options in the app store and no longer making money sitting beside countless other apps on peoples’ phones.

But developers did not expect to see the new version of the operating system with push and sales launching this week. That news came out at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) one week ago Monday.

Urban Airship was at the WWDC and they were ready. They worked 18 hour days getting the code ready to function, getting a booth ready and making the muffins they passed out to booth visitors. Half the team had been living off of two unique unemployment funds; the state of Oregon has a fund that pays unemployment to people whose employers close without paying them (the state then seeks to get the money back from the employer if they can) and Oregon is a voluntary participant in the Self Employment Assistance Program, which compensates the unemployed while they start their own businesses, so long as they are working at least 40 hours a week on it. All this work was going on while several members of the crew were shipping bacon to customers of Richardson and co-founder Scott Kveton’s other recently launched company, an online bacon sales shop called Bacn. (No one said these were normal people.)

Meanwhile, in Palo Alto, upstart iPhone gaming company Tapulous was pondering what it meant to have a week and a half before 3.0 day. The company’s primary game, called Tap Tap Revenge, is one of the hottest on the platform. It’s a music and rhythm game, like Guitar Hero, but for your thumbs. The company knew it wanted to use the new push notifications to let users challenge each other to competitions, but could it be ready in a week and a half?

Then on Tuesday, Tapulous found out that the new version of its app needed to be submitted by Friday in order to be approved and available on 3.0 launch day. “I had about an hour on Tuesday afternoon to sort out whether this was something that could even be attempted,” Jess Kahn, Engineering Director at Tapulous, wrote on the company’s blog, “and subsequent to that, a deadline of end of day Wednesday to say definitively if we were going to be able to make the Friday midnight ship date.”

“Not shipping wouldn’t mean the end of the feature,” Kahn wrote, “it’d simply leave Push Notifications in the sizable bucket of things we’d like to do for our next big release of Tap Tap Revenge. Shipping, however, would be of strategic interest and benefit to Tapulous, and so clearly, the pressure was on to get Push implemented, and in record time!”

That’s when Tapulous got on the phone with Urban Airship. The two companies shared what they knew about the requirements and possibilities and at the end of the call, they decided to give it a shot together. The two teams had from Wednesday morning until Friday at midnight to integrate Urban Airship’s infrastructure into the Tapulous software and make sure everything was solid enough to deliver what was expected to be a huge number of messages. “We knew this was the biggest opportunity we could get,” MT Richardson says, “a defining moment for our company.”

“By Thursday Tapulous was slamming the system with tests,” Richardson recounts. “It was proving reliable but a bit slow, so we worked to optimize the technology while Tapulous worked on integrating it. They loved it. We implemented a few things that were on the roadmap but not done yet, we just bumped those things up by priority. We were able to do that because we were using things like Django and rapid development platforms.”

The team of teams submitted the new version of Tapulous by the deadline on Friday night and by Saturday Urban Airship had in place a queue system on its servers that could handle large amounts of data. Urban Airship thought there were a few more days until everything went live, but then, Richardson says, “on Sunday we were working on the servers and all the sudden we saw a bunch of messages coming through. We thought it was Apple testing, but then we got a notification that next version of Tapulous was live and all the developers testing 3.0 were using the Tapulous challenges!”

Come Wednesday, Apple released 3.0 to the public and a huge crush of downloads challenged even Apple’s servers. Urban Airship saw their push notification numbers skyrocket from Tapulous users but Richardson says it all went off without a hitch.

After the action, Tapulous wrote in an account of the harried dash: “It’s as if we added that Push provider support to our back end, but without it taking three or more weeks, and without the risk that if we’d done something wrong, we’d be compromising the uptime of our existing systems and the products and features that depend upon them…Integration with Urban Airship was a breeze…The level of professionalism and support was the likes of which I have rarely seen.”

Urban Airship isn’t launched to the public yet, but will soon release a set of open source libraries for easy integration of their service with apps. It’s all come together very quickly. Co-founder Steven Osborn had been working on the code for some time, but the implosion of identity provider Vidoop, where several of the Urban Airship team members worked, was the sign they needed to make the company come to life.

Through surprise unemployment, through muffins and bacon, through a big surprise that launch day was coming as fast as it was – the Urban Airship team made their infrastructure play happen, thus letting other developers integrate important new features faster than they could have themselves.

The coast isn’t clear for Urban Airship yet. The company has to finish building out its developer interface, documentation and its business model (“It’s probably going to be tiered pricing after an initial bulk of free messages for testing,” Richardson told us). At least one other iPhone developer infrastructure company, PhoneGap, has struggled to get past Apple approval processes. And Urban Airship is aiming largely at small app developers who don’t want to build out push and in-app sales themselves and who don’t want to go with big app publishing companies – that might be a hard market to get a lot of money from.

Those concerns noted, Urban Airship has one big customer already. And they’ve got one heck of an adrenaline-fueled glow from their success this week.

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