He's the 'high priest' of app design

Loren Brichter's smartphone is running Letterpress, with the code on the computer screen.
Loren Brichter's smartphone is running Letterpress, with the code on the computer screen. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 19, 2013

For anyone with a smartphone or tablet, it is the most fundamental of gestures.

A simple swipe or "pull" of the finger, and the screen is "refreshed" - revealing the presence of new e-mails, tweets, messages, whatever.

The brainchild of some vast corporation? Nope. Meet Loren Brichter, a low-key 28-year-old who lives in Bella Vista.

"Pull-to-refresh" was a feature of an app that he created in 2008, which allowed people to use Twitter with their iPhones. Twitter bought him out in 2010, and after working there for a year or two, he now has created another company. First product: a word game called Letterpress, which has been downloaded millions of times.

Along the way, Brichter has become a sought-after adviser in the upper ranks of app programmers and designers, who tout his willingness to help others.

"He doesn't seem like he's in it for the profit," said programmer Samantha John, cofounder of New York-based Hopscotch Technologies. "My impression is that he actually really just likes programming and making awesome things."

Brichter moved here from the Bay Area about the same time as the deal with Twitter, which he said netted him a sum in the single-digit millions. He exemplifies the freewheeling spirit of a certain sector of the digital economy. Companies can be created from scratch with little overhead beyond a computer, and its players are pretty mellow about such old-economy notions as intellectual property - willing to share ideas in order to promote the gospel of cool stuff.

"It's really a rising tide lifts all boats," said Brichter, who this year was dubbed "the high priest of app design" by the Wall Street Journal.

The creative energy is abetted by the increasing popularity of smartphones - now owned by 56 percent of U.S. adults, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. The ways that we interact with these handheld computers may now seem intuitive - dragging things on a touch screen or tilting the device to activate a feature - but such gestures were largely unknown a decade ago.

When it comes to writing apps, Brichter is strictly an Apple guy. After all, he used to work for that company before striking out on his own - as a member of the team that created graphic "stack" software for the original iPhone that came out in 2007.

He operates out of a small home office with a Macintosh workstation and a Star Wars clock on the wall behind it. The office is on the second floor of a redbrick rowhouse where he lives with his wife, Jean Whitehead, who is getting a master's degree in food science at Drexel University. The couple moved here because her family lives in the area.

The two met at Tufts University, from which Brichter graduated in 2006 with a degree in electrical engineering - though he almost left early to start working for Apple. His father, a contractor, and mother, a restaurant owner, had different ideas.

"My family convinced me to finish," he said.

The name of his company is atebits ( www.atebits.com), a techie play on words. Eight is the number of bits of digital information in a byte, and it also is the same sound as "ate," as in eating. Or taking a "byte."

"It's kind of a geeky joke," Brichter admitted.

Letterpress, his word game, is sort of a cross between Boggle and Othello. As with many iPhone apps, a scaled-down, teaser version is free; a version that lets you play multiple games at once is $1.99.

Brichter's overriding philosophy is to make interactions with iPhones simple and intuitive. With the pull-to-refresh gesture, "it's almost like you're pulling those new tweets in from wherever they're coming from," he said.

Other industry standards have emerged. In many apps, for example, when moving images on the screen come to rest, they "bounce."

"Everything that appears on the screen should have some physical basis," Brichter said. "Everything is physics-based."

There are two flavors of people who create apps: the designers who decide how things look and feel, and the programmers who write the code that makes it happen. Usually people are better at one skill than the other.

Not Brichter, say his peers.

"He's really a master at both," said Michael Simmons, cofounder of California-based Flexibits, which developed a popular calendar app called Fantastical.

It began, as so many tech careers do, with a childhood fascination with Legos. By the time he was in public junior high school in New York City, Brichter was programming with a language called Logo.

His primary goal is making creative things that excite others. He was flattered by the "high priest" nickname, but is quick to say there is a lot of talent out there.

"I feel very lucky, being in the position now where I can devote most of my time to making stuff," he said. "Hopefully stuff that inspires other people."

Contact Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com.

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