Mitch Waite and the Computer Book Revolution from 1975 - 1995

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors

iBird Pro: Taking Flight on the iPhone

Birds for Kids

How strong can your passion be? My passion for birds that I wished to be born again as one. Whenever I was in the church, I asked Jesus to turn me into a bird. But that did not materialize, so in place of that I started to paint birds as you can observe in the illustration. My deep affection for birds never left me.

As a child of nine years, I used to spend my weekends looking for birds' eggs. My best friend and protector John Lanum thought of eggs as a work of art and extremely precious. Although birds were quite skillful in concealing their nests, John and I became adept in discovering them. We focused on the eggs of songbirds since, in comparison to the usual plain white chicken eggs, these were like rare gems with amazing colors and patterns.

A Butt Pilot*

The roots of iBird began in 2005 on Mt. Tamalpais, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was bird watching with the assistance of a Palm Pilot in my back pocket and a National Geographic Field Guide in my bag. A bright bird, one I had never seen before, appeared on a redwood stump, and I quickly grabbed my Field Guide. Unfortunately, when I looked up again, the bird had already left.

In a flash I realized that a Palm Pilot could be enormously beneficial to birders. The device could be used to filter down possible birds by various criteria, such as colors, location, size, beak shape, and crown pattern. It could play their songs, show you both photos and illustrations. My imagination kicked in. I wondered if this approach might even revolutionize the world of book-based nature guides.

*My Palm Pilot fit in my back pocket close to my butt, so that is what I named it "Butt Pilot"

One of the first drawings I made was of a Barn Swallow using colored pencils. I was 9 years old. +

Winged Explorer

The Microsoft Windows Smartphone came out a year before the iPhone and it was full color and powerful.

I bought the Microsoft Smartphone the day it came out and knew it could be used to create my vision. It had a small metal stylus and ran a scaled down version of Windows. The tiny size of Windows was not easy to use, but it worked, and it fit in your pocket. I came up with an app design in Photoshop for identifying birds, and my friend Rick Stephens, who is a fantastic Windows programmer, produced a workable program in only 3 months.

Unfortunately, the result did not look as nice as my design. Reason: he used the standard default interface elements which were flat, crude, and boring. I wanted a colored graphical user interface with shadows on buttons, etc. Rick agreed, but I had to create the graphic for buttons and scroll bars, and many months later we had a beautiful app. I made videos, uploaded to YouTube, created a box, a CD ROM, SD card with the app. Produced 500 packages and called it Winged Explorer. Launched the app in 2007. And not much happened. We sold about $1,000 worth a month   but given my investment, and hope, that just wasn’t enough to make it work.

We packaged Winged Explorer for Smartphones with a CD-ROM, SD Card and manual in this box.
The Microsoft Windows Smartphone on an HP device, let us build a birding app better than a book.

Clearly, we failed. I assumed it was because the app didn’t catch the imagination of birders.

Then the emails started, people that said, "saw the YouTube video, loved Winged Explorer, do you have it for the iPhone,"

My first reaction was no, but I did not know much about the iPhone. I checked out, it seemed interesting, but I missed the stylus, compatibility with windows and a standard user interface. On the iPhone everything was done with fingers.

Could the iPhone be a good home for Winged Explorer?

iBird for the iPhone

The year 2007 was a time of great upheaval - a period of colossal transformation. While Amazon released the Kindle and Google acquired YouTube and concocted Android, nothing quite compared to the dramatic arrival of the iPhone. One of the most important and ubiquitous inventions of our lifetime It was a revolution that left the world gasping in awe.

As the realization of the iPhone's magnitude dawned on me, I scrambled to find a programmer to convert Rick's Microsoft Windows app design to the iPhone. It was a daunting task because the iPhone boasted a completely new touch, drag, and scroll interface, and coding for it was uncharted territory. The challenge was immense, and I knew that finding a programmer who could handle it would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

But then, a miracle happened. A rotund, mustached Frenchman named Phillip Furlan appeared out of nowhere, living in a large trailer with his family in the depths of Yosemite California. In response to my rent-a-coder post, Phillip immediately claimed that he knew precisely how to make the conversion, reassuring me that "You separated the database from the user interface--that makes my job easy". With his help, I was able to create a prototype of the iBird app in just a month. And when it finally saw the light of day, it worked like a charm.

Gallery view is one of four ways to display the search results.

Apple's launch of the App Store added to the magic. It was an incredible innovation that allowed us to sell our app online and take a percentage of the profits. No longer did we need to box up our software and distribute it through conventional means. The ease and simplicity of it all were astounding.

But even with all these fantastic new developments, things were not smooth sailing. With over 4,000 other apps on the market, it was challenging to stand out. Although the sales of our new iBird Plus were better than our previous Winged Explorer, it still wasn't enough. Would I fail once again? The suspense was almost too much to bear.

Apple Calls

The day that Apple Legal called me was etched into my memory forever. My heart nearly stopped when I saw the caller ID. I couldn't imagine what I had done to warrant their attention. Panic gripped me as I answered the phone.

"OMG, what have I done," I stammered, trying to control my trembling voice. But to my relief, they only wanted to verify that I owned all the illustrations in iBird Plus. Once I confirmed that I had contracts for everything, I felt as if a great weight had been lifted off my chest.

But that was only the beginning. Soon after, Apple's ad agency, Chiat Day, contacted me to inform me that Steve Jobs was personally reviewing apps for the "We have an app for that" television campaign. And you know what? iBird was on the list!

I was ecstatic. The mere thought of birders worldwide discovering iBird on their television screens was enough to make me float amongst the stars. The anticipation was unbearable.

Then, a few months later, the video ad we have an app for that" was released. And there it was, iBird, playing the sweet melody of a Warbler. My mind exploded with excitement. I could only hope that birders watching the ad would realize that they no longer needed to lug their heavy field guides around, and rush to buy a new iPhone.

The effect was immediate. Our sales soared, and I knew we had hit a home run. Steve Jobs had entered my life for the second time and had turned everything upside down, setting me on a new trajectory of success. In less than a year, iBird Plus had become the go-to app for birders.

How to Avoid a Trademark War

As a tech entrepreneur, I knew that obstacles and barriers would be par for the course. But what I didn't expect was the absurdity of some of the hurdles that came my way. Still, I had learned to take every challenge seriously, or risk getting crushed.

Out of nowhere, a letter from the Trademark Office landed on my desk, informing me that a computer science professor was claiming to own the iBird trademark. My heart sank. This made no sense. I had trademarked the name and bought the domain years ago from an Italian reseller. I was confident he had no right to make such a claim.

But then, a week later, the largest law firm in Silicon Valley took on the professor's case pro bono and sent me a letter. I knew I had to act fast. I hired a trademark litigator, but it was a dead end. Mr. Professor was stubborn and refused to back down. The law firm left me with no choice but to face a lawsuit.

After two months of futile back and forth between our lawyers, I took matters into my own hands and decided to speak to the law firm myself, cutting out the middlemen. The attorney warned me that I was making a grave mistake, but I followed my instincts.

Within an hour, we had settled. I granted him some rights to use the name iBird in his student projects and wrote him a check for $5,000. It was finally over. But the lesson I learned was invaluable: always trust your gut feeling. You never know when it might save you from a full-blown trademark war that could bring your business down.

Shooting to Software Stardom on the iPhone

From humble beginnings to soaring heights, the iBird app was steadily climbing the ranks of the app store. Sales were good and I was always looking to add new features to make it even better. But it wasn't until 2009 when a reporter from the New York Times reached out to me that things really started to take off.

As a sucker for good press, I accepted the offer for a feature on iBird and its video with Apple. The article Shooting to Software Stardom on the iPhone was a hit, landing on a page of the NYT business section all by itself. Sales of iBird Pro that month almost doubled, and I knew that this was only the beginning of something big.

The Rest of the Story

As iBird gained traction, I soon realized that keeping an app going that depended on great content was a lot harder than publishing a book. It required a team of avian experts in various fields and skills, from ornithologists to digital illustrators and media professionals who could convert raw bird calls and songs into playable files. It was like running a miniature National Geographic.

But the most fun part was adding new features to iBird, and some were incredibly challenging. For example, we wanted to help users narrow down the list of birds to search by only showing those within a certain radius. However, the only source of North American location data for birds was controlled by a large university that charged an exorbitant royalty for small companies like ours.

That's when James Tavakoli, a brilliant programmer who worked on iBird for several years, came up with a solution. He suggested using the super-detailed range maps we had created for each species and mapping the user's GPS location to a point on the stack of range maps. By drawing a line from the GPS point through every range map pixel and checking the color at that pixel, we could identify which birds were located at that spot. It was a Eureka moment, and this new feature proved to be a hit with users. With each new challenge, I was reminded that success comes from hard work, determination, and a little bit of creativity.

I looked like a total dweeb in this photo. Read the full story +