Meter Down is the rickshaw and taxi fare calculator iPhone app that's done pretty well for itself. It was number one on the “What's Hot” list in iTunes, in addition to other 'top app' type accolades received from various publications. We had a chat with the developer of Meter Down, Siddhartha Banerjee, who talked to us about his development process, as well as the development scene in India. Banerjee is a self-professed non-techy Mac-head. He worked as an advertising creative outside India for twelve years before returning to the country last year. When he came back, he decided he didn't want to carry on with advertising, but do his own thing and give back to the country in the process. He also decided he wanted to get into tech and Apple in particular, and had been following the App Store environment for quite a while.

Siddhartha Banerjee – one of India's first independent app developers

“The iPhone was launched in 2007. Come 2010, it's been three years that people have had the iPhone and no one's thought of a basic app for taxi fares,” says Banerjee, when talking about how the idea of Meter Down came to him.  Bannerjee, not being an app-baking whiz who went to coding school researched the Apple app making and selling process for about three months. He joined Apple's App Developer Group, bought books on developing from Amazon and slowly developed his coding skills. The challenges kept coming, including from people around him telling him the app won't work in India, but he trudged on anyway. He was pretty clear with his vision of the need that Indians had to have a portable fare calculator and was even pretty clear with his target demographic. “The platform is iOS,” says Banerjee. “Apple's best selling product is the iPod Touch. If you're a teenager, no one's going to shell out Rs. 30,000 plus for an iPhone for you, but someone will give you Rs. 17,000 for an iPod Touch. College students travel very frequently by public transport. A huge chunk of those college students use the iPod Touch”.

When Banerjee first released the app in the App Store, it was designed only for iOS 4. However, he received many requests for an iOS 3 compatible application. “Many people were are still using the original iPhone, jailbroken iPhones and other devices that can't support iOS 4. Within two weeks, I downgraded the app from iOS 4 to iOS 3. So the app uses the iOS 4.2 SDK but targets iOS 3.” Meter Down is updates as the fares in the city change. Banerjee performs all the updates himself for these price changes, submits the changes to Apple who then take two days to approve the changes. After an enquiry from Samsung, the app will be out for Android soon. “It's not a personal choice, it's for the masses,” says Banerjee, explaining that he will not be coding the app for Android, someone else will. He also says that depending on the Android handset used, the touch on Android in general will be different and harder. The UI will be the same but quite possibly, the scroll won't be as smooth as the iPhone.

After the success of his debut project, he received phone call after phone call with opportunities from both app developers as well as advertisers. The most compelling call he got was from Jack in the Box Worldwide, the content-for-brands arm of Bang Bang Films. Bang Bang Films is #2 on AllWorld Network's Top 25 Fastest Growing Companies in India 2010. The group wants to launch India in the app world. After making it clear that he doesn't want to get back into traditional advertising, Bannerjee took on the role of mobile app development for the company. “There is a huge brain-drain here and a lot of outsourcing happens. Robosoft is one of the largest app developing companies in the world but they're a company that doesn't make India-specific apps,” Banerjee said explaining his motive for joining a company. “Bang Bang Films should be launching their first app by mid-February and it will be an app catered to social media enthusiasts.” 

Banerjee explained that he doesn't code for Jack in the Box, in fact, the company outsources their app requirements to coding companies, however, having a passion for developing, he will have his next independent app out sometime in February too. “I can't give away too much but the app is focused on India, particularly women and fashion,” he said. “Need based apps work in India,” Banerjee adds, “If there is a need and you address it, people won't grudge 99 cents or $1.99. The only expectation is good quality.” He uses an example of his own app. He tried a version of Meter Down with both a manual input version (in beta) and a scroll version (which is what is in the app today). “When you stop in a rick or a cab, you have about 15 seconds to get your rate, pay your fare and get out. For this, I decided the app needed to be a zero tap, single click app.”

Picking back up on the development scene in India, Banerjee adds that he is a small person but there are coders who are born coders. “They're missing the bigger picture, they're working on someone else's direction. For me, it's harder, I'm not a coder, I'm a non-technical person,” says Banerjee, making it very clear that what he wants to see in India are more independent developers. “There's really no support in this country for developing apps. In the UK, there are app development workshops which really go above and beyond. Here, people try to teach things that are already on the internet.” He cites his own example of buying books from Amazon and joining the App Development Group.

Screenshots of Meter Down

Screenshots of Meter Down

While Banerjee's motive for creating Meter Down was not necessarily of financial profit, he maintains that independent application developing can be a full time job. He used his own money to finance the development process of Meter Down and it continues to be his passion project. “People need to relax and develop themselves. They can consult venture capitalists for financing but then the focus shifts to returns. The primary focus should be satisfying the needs of a customer.” Banerjee advises Indian developers to create 7 need based apps, not strictly iOS based and forget about games. He says that there are 3 factors that determine the success of an app: 1. There's a market, 2. The app is well written and 3. Marketing the app. The third step, however can be immaterial if the first two steps are adequately followed. “I spent $0 on PR,” Banerjee says, citing his own example, “Yet people are interviewing me about Meter Down.”

“The major problem with Indian developers is that the apps they create are not well written. The graphics etc are shoddy. When you put up an app in the App Store, you're not competing on an Indian platform, you're competing on a global platform,” Banerjee stresses. “Apps should be low on learning, high on enjoyment, and please, forget about games!”. Commenting on the 'chalta hai' attitude of Indians, Banerjee says, “We love following people. We're great followers. This is why there is no Indian Steve Jobs.” Speaking of Jobs, Bannerjee cites him as a hero. He says he has a poster of Steve Jobs in his bedroom, a sticker of the Apple logo on the chair in his office, and once a week he will wear an Apple t-shirt. “I'm a fanboy, Mac-head, whatever you want to call me,” he says. During his stint in the Middle East, he said he used to write for Macworld. 

After talking about Meter Down and app development, Bannerjee ventured into the rest of his tech tastes. The choice between iPhone, Android and Blackberry was emphatically shut down as ,”iPhone all the way!”. Mac versus Windows also seemed to be an obvious choice (Mac!). When asked about his favourite games he again emphatically said, “Angry Birds and Mirror's Edge on the iPhone,” confirming that he is a true iPhone fiend (in a good way of course). The Wii is his favourite video game console and he loves playing Wii Sports. “You get exercise from the Wii whereas with the Xbox you're just sitting,” he adds. His social networking tool of choice is Facebook but he does have a Twitter presence (@woodpencil).

He left us with a final thought explaining his success with Meter Down. “I left my 12 year set career. I'm still getting offers but I took a stand. Where there is a will, there is a way,” he said. Stay tuned on for Banerjee's next app, both his own independent app as well as the app he is developing for Jack in the Box Worldwide.

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