Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Interview with Kevin Cawley, smartFeed
Kevin Cawley is the creator of smartRead and smartFeed (www.smartfeed.org), two products that were just acquired by Denver-based NewsGator. Kevin is a developer who built the products late at night at his Boulder home as a personal project, and we thought it would be a great interview to hear how the acquisition came about, and the story behind the acquisition.
Techrockies: Congratulations on the acquisition. How does it feel to have built something up to the point where someone wants to buy your projects?
Kevin Cawley: It feels fantastic. I always knew that my products had value because I use them on a daily basis and they add value to my life. Whether I am riding my bike, driving my car, riding the bus, or spending cycles at the coffee shop or gym, I want to be able to fetch and consume Web content on my mobile device. I can do that and get my feeds and podcasts with smartRead and smartFeed. I figured there were others out there like me who had the same needs, and that is why I built these products.
NewsGator understands the significance of mobility and the value it adds to their existing product suite and it feels great that they have confidence in me and my products.
Techrockies: For our readers who aren't familiar with your applications, what does SmartRead/SmartFeed do, and how does it fit into the whole RSS/blog space?
KC: smartRead is a mobile news aggregator/reader that fully integrates and synchronizes with NewsGator’s RSS platform and products. smartRead is essentially an extension of your desktop RSS experience out to your mobile. smartRead allows you to view your feeds, typically blog posts, on Microsoft Mobile devices and keeps your activity in sync with your primary reader whether that is FeedDemon on a PC, NewsGator Online in the browser, NetNewsWire on the Mac, or NewsGator Inbox in Outlook. So, for example, if I am sitting on the bus and reading Brad Feld’s blog on my Smartphone and posts are getting marked as read or deleted, those changes will be reflected when I open up my primary aggregator on the desktop. I currently subscribe to over 100 feeds and smartRead is a great tool for me to prune the volumes of content while away from my PC.
smartFeed is a mobile podcatcher, or podcast client. smartFeed is like a lightweight version of iTune’s podcast client that lets you subscribe to podcasts, download the media file(S) called enclosures, and consume the media right on your mobile device. Theses enclosures are typically MP3 audio files, but can be any form of consumable media including video, documents, and images. I have smartFeed set to fetch all my podcasts during the night. On my commute to Denver, I can listen to folks like Adam Curry, the former MTV VJ, talk about technology, bio-diesel, or politics or listen to Mike Arrington discuss the technology scene and Web 2.0 on TalkCrunch. There are podcasts that cover a wide spectrum of interests to satiate all types of consumers.
I see both of these products as a natural extension of the RSS/blog space out to mobile devices. And with the capabilities of the devices and networks today and the synchronization capabilities in the NewsGator engine, the experience is quite good and will continue to get better.
Techrockies: Tell me a little bit about the whole evolution of your products -- how did you get the idea to develop the software, and how'd you manage to develop these while working a full time job?
KC: The part about developing my products while working full time was easy. The products were solutions to pains I had in my day to day routine. In addition I enjoy programming, and I have been blessed (or cursed) with the ability to sustain on little sleep and lots of coffee. Put those ingredients together and that is 80\% of the battle. Passion and determination take over the remaining 20\% and make it all come together.
The evolution of my products has been in the works for several years. I have always been a believer in mobility. As a Computer Science graduate student at CU, I focused on mobility with the expectation that mobility and mobile applications would have a significant impact on society as devices evolved and wireless networks improved. I think we are on the front end of this revolution today.
So, back to the question… About two years ago I became very intrigued by the power and simplicity of blogs and simple syndication enabled by Atom and RSS. I thought this was a clear winner to extend this capability to mobile devices. Having a penchant for entrepreneurship, I built a fully functional RSS mobile reader with the possibility of a new venture in mind. I found the application to be of little value as it was difficult to manage my feeds on device and was missing the key ingredient – synchronization with my primary news reader. What I really wanted was a mobile reader that was simply an extension of my desktop experience. That technology did not exist and it was too big for one person to tackle, so I shelved the project.
At the tail end of that experience, I got hooked on podcasting and recognized mobile podcatching as a clear winner. At the time, there were a few desktop podcatchers but nothing available for mobile clients. So, I wrote smartFeed, and it soon became a critical part of my daily routine. smartFeed was a clear winner to me and I thought the community could benefit from smartFeed as well. In March 2005, I put up a public site and started to give smartFeed away as an alpha product. smartFeed has gained a large audience, continues to evolve, and with support from NewsGator has amazing potential.
In about November 2005, I read a post from Greg Reinacker, NewsGator founder, about NewsGator’s API and the synchronization engine. My hopes for smartRead were revitalized. I refactored smartRead to integrate with NewsGator’s API and smartRead was reborn with vigor. I use smartRead every day as an extension of my RSS/blog behavior and see smartRead as an essential application in one’s mobile software portfolio. In the three weeks that I have been at NewsGator, I have already been able to make significant enhancements. With support from NewsGator, I am confident that smartRead is going to be a killer application for Microsoft Mobile devices.
Techrockies: How did the acquisition come about -- and how did it go from a garage project to getting purchased?
KC: Well, it came about quickly and unexpectedly… I had an incredible opportunity in Seattle and was pretty much committed to moving when Seth Levine from Mobius Ventures sent me an email to see if I’d like to talk with JB Holston, NewsGator CEO, and Greg Reinacker, NewsGator founder. I had a conversation with Seth about smartFeed the previous summer and we kept in touch.
Just days before the email from Seth, I recall getting a voice mail from a friend of mine suggesting I couldn’t answer the phone because I was online buying galoshes (it had rained for like 30 days in Seattle). His intent was well received, and I was eager to meet w/ JB and Greg…
From there things went very fast. I really liked the team, was already thoroughly impressed with their products, and when they later suggested a possible fit, I was thrilled. NewsGator was very excited about mobility and saw me and my products as a value add to the organization. From that point on, JB and Mark Nass, NewsGator VP of Finance, did an incredible job of moving things along effectively. I think we came to an agreement over a couple of weekends.
Techrockies: I think people are often impressed by what a single software developer can do -- why didn't NewsGator just go and build their own software?
KC: I think NewsGator could have built their own mobile client and, given the talent in the organization, I am sure they would have been able to do an excellent job.
I think there are several reasons why they chose not to do that. First, I would like to think that I not only bring along products, but I bring with me valuable experience in mobility and lots of energy and enthusiasm. NewsGator has invested in me as well as my products. Second, NewsGator is committed to mobile and wanted to make a splash in the mobile space as quick as possible and my products certainly accelerated that process. Third, I suspect the cost of in-house development was taken into account. Finally, there was just a good fit and feeling from both sides when we met. The synergy felt right.
Techrockies: Thanks, and congrats on the acquisition!