In today’s interview, I’m talking to Zac and Nik, the developers behind the very highly regarded Acqualia Software. Acqualia are responsible for two excellent Mac applications — Picturesque and Soulver — as well as the associated iPad and iPhone versions.
Today, Zac and Nik are offering a little insight into their development process, being an intern at Apple, their series of iOS workshops, and a few updates that are currently in the pipeline.
I hope you enjoy the interview!
Tell us a little bit about the Acqualia team – where are you based, how many of you are there, and what motivates you as a company?
The Acqualia team is basically just me (Zac) & Nik. We rent an apartment not far from the centre of Sydney, Australia which is both our home and our office (5 steps to the desk beats peak-hour traffic!).
We’ve been writing Mac apps together since high school, where we taught ourselves to program and got inspired with the idea of creating our own software. We love our Macs and we write apps that we want to use ourselves. It’s really exciting to come up with an idea, work hard on it, and see it crystallise into a product which we and other people can use.
You won an Apple Design Award for Best Mac OS X Student Project in 2007. Have you now finished your studies/education, and is Mac development something you’ve now moved into full-time?
Almost. I completed a course in philosophy last semester, and Nik has one semester left in his bachelor of electrical engineering and computer science double degree.
Over the last 4 years of university, it’s been difficult sometimes to find spare time during the semester to pour into development. So generally we would have intensive spurts of productivity over the holiday periods, when we didn’t have assignments due the following week. We’re looking forward to being able to dedicate more time to our apps in 2011.
What did you learn during your internship at Apple, and would you ever want to work there long-term?
The internship at Apple was a really valuable experience. I think we really improved our coding style as a result of the three months there. It was the first time either of us had ever worked in a large company, which is a fairly different lifestyle from working from home. We also really enjoyed the food at Cafe Macs.
We might end up back there in the future. On the one hand, it’s really exciting to be working inside the mothership on cutting edge products, but you naturally lose some freedom and that sense of creative ownership which you get from writing your own apps. For the time being, we’re having a lot of fun developing our own stuff.
The market for graphics applications is fairly jam-packed with apps. What makes Picturesque different to all the other tools out there?
We noticed that images on Apple.com and other sites looked great due to some simple effects that had been applied to them, like reflections and shadows. We wanted an easy way to make our images look that nice, but the only way we could do it was to create the effects manually in Photoshop, which was slow and cumbersome.
We made Picturesque to be a drag and drop beautifier, so we could make one or many photos look really nice with just a few clicks. Picturesque is very focused on tasteful beauty, so we don’t have hundreds of filters that don’t look good and won’t be used in the real world. Apple liked the concept and the simplicity of Picturesque enough to give us an Apple Design Award for it.
Soulver is an incredibly unique idea, and a refreshing take on a very traditional concept. What lead to you conceive and develop this app?
We just found it really strange that calculators on computers mimicked physical calculators, with big buttons and a limited one line display. A calculator is kind of clunky, but your Mac has all this screen space and the power of the GUI. A calculator also can’t remember anything, so you need to use paper or a text editor alongside to write down your answers.
Our idea for Soulver was to combine the calculator into the paper: to be able to type out numbers line-by-line like you would write them on paper and to instantly get results. We wanted to make Soulver really smart, so you could use words and numbers together, and do things like currency conversions using simple language.
We fell in love with the idea of Soulver, and it’s the app we’re most proud of so far. We use it ourselves everyday and so we’re always trying to think of ways to make it smarter and more useful, without taking away from its simplicity.
As developers, do you feel the need to always be running the latest hardware, or are you happy to run a simpler setup with fairly basic kit?
Nik & I are still using the MacBook Pros that Apple gave us back in 2007 as part of the Apple Design Award. They were maxed out at the time, so they’re still very usable, and at home we plug them into 23″ displays. We both also have Macbook Airs for the road and university, which are fine as development machines too.
Will you be adding Picturesque or Soulver to the Mac App Store, and how do you think it will affect your sales?
The Mac App Store is exciting, and we’d like to get all our Mac products on there. How people find out about your apps is one of the biggest problems for indie Mac developers. There are millions of Mac users who don’t go looking for third party software, and don’t have much of a chance of finding out about your app other than word of mouth.
I think this will change with the Mac App Store, as people will apply what they’ve learnt about buying apps on their iOS devices to their Mac too.
You recently started offering development workshops in your local area. What do these cover, and how have they gone so far?
We’ve been doing iOS development workshops across Australia & NZ since early last year, and they’ve been really fun. Over three days we take about 25 students per workshop through the tools, the language, and the everything else you need to know to begin writing your own apps.
We taught ourselves Cocoa and it was quite difficult for us at first. So we know what aspects of it are the most difficult to grasp, and we were able to develop our own slides and teaching material, along with some really good hands-on exercises and challenges to propel people across the learning curve. We plan to do more workshops next year.
For someone interested in developing their very first Mac app, where would you recommend they start?
Being inspired by an idea that you want to bring to reality is a great way to start. That way you will be ravenous to learn new aspects of Cocoa as building blocks to help you build up your app.
Just like learning a new foreign language, you don’t want to be intimidated by the amount of new stuff to get your head around, so we recommend starting really simple and building up your knowledge by doing simple examples and tutorials.
Do you have any interesting updates in the pipeline that you can give us a sneak peak at?
Right now we’re finishing up a 2.1 version of Soulver for Mac, which has much smarter tokens, and much better exporting and printing.
We’re working on a great new version of Picturesque too with a new image engine. It should give us better quality images in perspective, and allow us to create some new image effects that we’ve been dreaming about for years.
We’ve also got some other new Mac apps that we’ve been working on for a while, and hope to get out next year.
Thanks, Zac and Nik!
Thanks to both of you for taking the time to complete our interview – I really appreciate it! It’s always fascinating to find out what goes on behind the scenes of our favourite applications, and I wish you all the best for the success of Acqualia in 2011!