Birth of an app

Members of the team that developed the Spotlight app are (from left) Danny Park, Htet Moe, Samantha Goldstein, Kelly Hilliard, Alex Bell, Karen Meidlinger, and Kevin Brophy.
Members of the team that developed the Spotlight app are (from left) Danny Park, Htet Moe, Samantha Goldstein, Kelly Hilliard, Alex Bell, Karen Meidlinger, and Kevin Brophy. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 03, 2014

How does an idea - a way to do something, learn something, make connections or community - become an app?

This is the story of Spotlight ( www.spotlight.is), a social media app that went live on the Apple Store and Android on Friday. It's roughly a two-year-long arc from patent (August 2012) to thing (August 2014).

(Full disclosure: Since October, the developer of Spotlight - a little start-up called VUID Inc. - has had offices in the same building as The Inquirer. Interstate General Media, which owns the newspaper, is providing office space and staff support to promising start-ups as part of the Project Liberty Digital Incubator.)

It started with an idea from founder Kevin Brophy: "What if a social medium were based, not on how often you post, but on good, well thought-out posts?" What if a user could post only a limited number, one to five a day, say? And what if the community of users could vote on the posts they liked? What if there was a monthly prize?

A continuous excellence contest! Thus Spotlight's slogan: "Think. Post. Win."

Spotlight is "intended to motivate people to post high-quality content," Brophy says. "Great artwork, photos, personal stories." It's a "populist" app, he says, for everybody. And that includes "underserved groups, such as inner-city users." To snag some of those users, Spotlight is reaching out to groups like Mighty Writers (a writing program for Philadelphians ages 7 to 17) and City Year (an AmeriCorps educational program).

Brophy invited former business partner Karen Meidlinger to come in, and VUID was born. Initial offices were at 17th and Sansom Streets. "It was the classic start-up," says Brophy, "everybody doing what they could on a lean budget."

Now the app had to be actually created. Needed: a head engineer who knew how to write and design an app. Good luck intervened. Meidlinger was a judge at the Swat Tank business design competition at Swarthmore College. "I was sitting next to Richard Wicentowski, head of Swarthmore's computer science department," she says. "I mentioned the kind of person we were looking for, and before long. . . ." Before long, they were interviewing Swarthmore student Craig Pentrack.

While finishing his degree, Pentrack started making Spotlight. "Once you know what you want to do," he says, "you plan the architecture, figure out the smartest way to make a system that can accomplish your goals. What existing tools are out there? And what do you have to create from scratch?"

Many common features are available off the shelf. For example, software for "push notifications" - in which the app can, even when the user isn't using it, send the user a message that "stuff is going on over here, come on in" - exists ready made. "Some are great," says Pentrack, "and some can cause headaches. You have to choose wisely." And, of course, everything gets modified.

To make the app available both in Apple's iOS system and in Android, the same app had to be written in two different languages. "It's a process of iteration and reiteration," Pentrack says, "reworking and improving."

After building came in-house testing. "An article I read said, 'Devote three-fifths of your time to build, and two-fifths of your time to test,' " Pentrack says. "We threw all sorts of requests at it, seeing its capabilities, testing for usability and technological soundness."

Then came word of the Incubator program. VUID applied and was accepted. Free office space at Eighth and Market Streets.

Time to open accounts with Apple and Android. Pay the application fee and upload the app. Then the nerve-racking wait while the folks on the other end tested it. (All contact was by e-mail. "We never spoke to a person," Brophy says.) Pentrack says Apple was far more stringent: "They have very specific requirements for font size, where the buttons are, the color scheme, the whole human interface."

After acceptance came "beta testing," in which the app was test-run among people. This took the form of a series of weeklong contests, with the winner getting $250. Tayarisha Poe of Philadelphia, a Swarthmore graduate filmmaker, won the first one, attracting more than 1,700 likes for her work.

Winner of the most recent test/contest was David Bowser of Phoenixville. He calls Spotlight "the American Idol of social media." Using Spotlight along with his sons, he says, "I took it upon myself to furnish non-cat, non-pretty-girl, nonfood posts." One popular photo showed a bunny in a six-pack of beer, with the caption, "I like a little extra hop in my beer."

As of kickoff at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, a big August-long howdy-do contest is underway. The prize: $10,000.

After that, Spotlight will be in the spotlight. "We're trying," says Brophy, "to carve out a space for something that doesn't exist yet." The users out there will determine how far Spotlight's beam illuminates the darkness.    


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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