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A Broken iPhone App in the Wild

Around November last year, I embarked on a project that I may someday regret. I started programming, to build an iPhone app. Then, it morphed from dabbling to an obsession. I originally allotted no more than 10 hours a week to the project, then, for two months, I pour nearly every minute of free time into it.

The idea for the app started from a conversation with my father, who did some research in speech technology for IBM. Text to speech, or speech synthesis, is an old concept. Computer could read text out loud for decades, but most of us remember the robotic voices associated with bad science fiction. Over the years, speech synthesis has steadily improved, but it found little practical use except specialized applications like automated response by phone for customer service and devices like GPS. Is there a way for the average person to make use of it?

With the rise of mobile computing, text-to-speech takes on new importance, because smart phones have small screens but powerful computers inside. Technically, it’s possible to have very good text-to-speech on an smart phone. But what content would an average person want to listen to? As I looked at text-to-speech apps for the iPhone, what I found missing is the acquisition of content. All the text-to-speech apps are a bit idiosyncratic: “Have your phone say something silly as a prank to your friends…”

If many people want to listen to the same piece of text, like news or a popular book, you can always find audio versions read by real human beings. Human voice will always be superior to computers generated voice. So the kind of content fit for text-to-speech is the kind of content that nobody would find it economical to record a real human being reading it. The obscure stuff, like professional journals, blogs, papers, etc.

I’ve been using Instapaper on my iPhone and iPad for a long time. When I see a good but long article in a Web browser, I’d mark it to “Read Later”. Typically, before I get on an airplane, I’d download these articles on my iPad and iPhone. Then, during the flight, I would be able to catch up on my reading. Additionally, Instapaper stripes out the advertisement and other extraneous stuff on the webpage, leaving just the juicy content. The idea of combining Instapaper and text-to-speech came to me.

But what kind of people would want these articles read to them, rather than reading them on a screen? Commuters, of course. They spend a lot of time in a car, like I spent a lot of time on airplanes. Unlike an airplane, a driver can’t read on screen (except for a few people I used to work with — always caused great terror when I sat in the passenger seat). So I have the target segment: commuters who want to listen to articles not meant for mass consumption.

This idea had been stewing for a while until the dark arctic winter during which I needed to do something while it was dark outside. I had not done any serious programming for 18 years, so I was rusty. Very rusty. Technology had changed in a big way. It was like I knew how to ride a bicycle, but I had to figure out how to ride a motorcycle.

When the app was finished around the end of last year, it not only could acquire content from Intapaper, but also another popular bookmarking service, Read It Later, and it could acquire content from PDF files, text files, and cut-and-paste. It had a playlist feature, so a driver can set up a list of articles to read during a commute. The content is stored locally on the iPhone and iPad, you can listen even if you lose Internet connection.

Two days ago, it got on the Apple App Store. It’s been out for 2 days, during which 100 people bought it, quite surprising considering I did no promotion. Yesterday, I got an email from a woman in Sacramento, who said that she couldn’t get Read It Later to work with the Reader. I asked her to checked a bunch of things without avail. I was stumped. Today, I started to get a terrible, nagging feeling that something may be very wrong. So I pretended to be a customer and bought to app myself from the App Store. I downloaded it, and lo and behold, it wouldn’t work with Read It Later. I wouldn’t work with Instapaper, either. It was a moment of sheer panic. I put this piece of software out there and it doesn’t work! I furiously went through the code to find out what could go wrong. After a hour, I found it. One stupid line of code. When I built the app for testing, this line of code got executed. But when I built the app for the app store, this line of code got ignored. I changed the description of the app to tell people that this feature doesn’t work, and a fix is coming next week.

People ask, so this means you’ll stay on Rødøy? No. This is a hobby, not a career. I don’t see how this app can ever generate enough income to support my family. But it’s fun for now, when my wife is supporting the family. Thanks wife.

  1. Kirrily #

    Congratulations in getting it finished bar this hiccup. I can think of another perfect use for this and it is for people whose reading ability has been affected by strokes, for example. It sounds like something my dad could use.

    February 11, 2012
  2. It sounds like an excellent app, how long before the Android version though! – or will that take another sabbatical?

    February 11, 2012
  3. Yes, I was going to write about this but my blog got a little too long. I got an email from a teacher who used this app for a student who had reading disability (severe dyslexia). Text to speech can be a great education tool for those students. Dyslectics are usually very smart, if only they can digest information read to them. If your dad has an iPhone or iPad running iOS 5, I’ll send you a promotion code so he can get the app for free.

    February 11, 2012
  4. Rosa #

    It sounds like a great app. And you have the other half year to write the Android version!. As for the revenue, it also started as a hobby for the developer of Instapaper …..
    Above all, it seems like something you had fun with.

    February 12, 2012
    • If this goes well, I’m going to asking for someone to write an Android version for me. I already learned one programming environment (Objective C, Cocoa, Xcode…). I’m too old to learn yet another (Java, Eclipse…).

      February 13, 2012
  5. Joe #

    I’m tempted to say you should focus on something more certain of success–like catching codfish. But this app actually sounds pretty cool. I don’t commute by car, but when I ride the metro in DC, I find it’s almost always too crowded to read very comfortably, and it just gets really tiring on my eyes to read for a long time from an i-phone screen. Besides, so many of us spend huge parts of our lives just staring at screens, so it would be really great every now and then to just look out the window, or gaze around the metro, while the article is read to you. Hell, maybe you could even use it while you’re doing other mostly physical tasks–like folding laundry, cooking dinner, etc…. Maybe I’ll even use it to read your blog to me. I’ll let you know how that works…

    February 12, 2012
    • Unlike customers, cod doesn’t complain when something doesn’t work. I was thinking about the subway and trains. A couple of people from the UK thought they’d use it when riding the tube.

      February 13, 2012
  6. Linda Bagby #

    I’ve known you a long time Winston, and you’ve always impressed me with your talent and creativity….and here you go again! Congratulations for getting it up and running! When you’re a tech gazillionaire don’t forget we little folks with small brains. 🙂

    February 12, 2012
    • Thanks Linda! As I said, this is a hobby. I’ll be happy if the proceeds can pay for a family vacation every year.

      February 13, 2012
  7. Howdy neighbor!
    I purchased and tested your app on my iphone 4s, and I’m very impressed. I’m using a PDF version of an unpublished book that I have translated from Norwegian to English (Jeg vil leve by Oscar Magnusson, Gyldendal 1967). It sounds great and is absolutely a viable alternative to reading it off my iphone display. The only “glitch” I am experiencing is that it stops at the end of each line of text and has a brief pause before continuing to the next line. This can be a bit awkward when there is one word left, and that final word needs to be included to keep a good flow in the reading. Of course, I understand that this is what you mean when you point out that human-read text will always be better, but it just sounds so natural and flows so well otherwise…! One option would be for me to edit a version of the entire book with no hard returns, but I’m hoping that one of your app updates will eliminate this problem.
    Otherwise, great app with lots of potential uses.

    February 12, 2012
  8. Just a quick additional comment so that I could tick off the options to receive follow-up comments and new posts! 🙂

    February 12, 2012
    • Hi Neighbor! Yesterday I hike up to the hut on top the hill here and I could see Bolga, the island where you live. Thanks for your comment. You’re right, I do insert a period at the end of a hard return. Otherwise, if you have list, it’d ramble on through the list with no pause. Maybe this can be an option.

      February 13, 2012
      • An option to have the app continue reading through a paragraph or section of text until reaching a hard return would be nice to test out because the app is already proving to be very useful based on my need for a convenient way to review my translation in PDF-format. Your reader, Heather, does a great job of reading the story on the whole, and the app did not hesitate to take on the entire book! It would be great to eliminate those pauses at the end of each line as they really do hinder a more natural flow. Please let me know if that option will be available anytime soon. I can actually see myself setting up my contact at Gyldendal with your app so that she can hear the story being read aloud in the English version! My translation is currently being presented to potential publishers over in the UK, and one of my goals is to help get it released as an audio book. Your app does a great job of letting us get a preview of how the audio book might sound, in somewhat rough terms. Thanks again for making it available.

        February 13, 2012
  9. Marjolein #

    If you do want to start promoting it, it would be a wonderful app for people with dyslexia.

    February 12, 2012
    • I’m starting to think that. It’s a good education tool. I’m going to wait until it stabilizes a bit before I starting tell the whole world. Thanks.

      February 13, 2012
  10. Trine #

    It’s great! As a teacher I see a lot of things with these up, who could help students with dyslexia but also the students who are more “audio strong” than visually and the students who have problem to concentrate. I’m impressed:)

    March 5, 2012
    • Trine #

      I meant app;)

      March 5, 2012
      • Thanks! The next release will have an Norwegian voice also!

        March 9, 2012

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