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What’s Cooking? (Part 2) – Mobile Apps

May 10, 2011

One of the questions I get asked all the time is “When are you doing an iPhone app” or the more assertive, “you really need a mobile app!”  Well, this is something I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about.  There are a few challenges, from both a business point of view and the technological point of view, which has thus far delayed the development of a mobile KitchenPC presence.

Is it time yet?

The point of a mobile KitchenPC app would be to extend the functionality of KitchenPC onto the mobile platform.  However, this begs the question of whether or not KitchenPC is mature enough as a website to even extend onto another platform.  Does it target real problems?  Does it have a real, active user base?  So far, the answer has been no, which has led me to focus on the actual business side of the problem rather than worry about what platforms I happen to be on.

If the site continues to not go anywhere, it may be time for a major pivot and go in another direction.  If that’s the case, I’d just be wasting cycles developing a mobile app right now.  If I had thousands of active users managing their cookbooks, organizing their pantry, creating shopping lists and scheduling which recipes to make this week, then I’d have a real thriving business model that can be brought over to new platforms successfully.  Right now, I’m still struggling to figure out what the hell I’m doing.

This has not, however, kept me from jotting down ideas and thinking about what I want to bring to the mobile world.  During my spare time, I’ve been looking at other competing mobile recipe related apps and trying to think where I can contribute, and more importantly how to take advantage of the KitchenPC platform to do things the other guys can only dream about.  During my research so far, I’ve discovered there are really two types of apps in this arena; recipe finding apps, and shopping list organization apps.  No one product seems to do both things very well.

First, the major recipe websites have their own apps.

AllRecipes has an iPhone only app (I haven’t used it since I don’t own an iPhone) and an iPad app.  Both apps let you dig up recipes, get step-by-step instructions, read reviews, etc.  The iPad app has the obvious benefit of being a great companion while in the kitchen, as the device has a big enough screen to read recipes while you work.

Epicurious has a great little mobile app that works on both iPhone, iPad and Android.  I really love the interface, and plan to steal a few of their features.  Searching is really easy, you can simply browse through categories or search for specific items.  The results list is very intuitive; you just see the first result, and can “swipe” through each recipe until you find one you want to drill down into.  You can add recipes to your favorites, add them to your shopping list, or even email them.  The shopping list doesn’t really seem to aggregate and is grouped by recipe, so this feature is rather clunky.  Also, the app doesn’t really appear to tie into the Epicurous site itself (ie, you can’t “logon” with your Epicurious name and password), so I can’t organize recipes on the website and then access shopping lists on the go.  It seems the only common link between the mobile app and the website is they happen to share the same database of recipes.

Then, there are shopping list organizers such as OurGroceries and What’s For Dinner?  Both are available for the iPhone and Android.

OurGroceries is an app one of my users brought to my attention and she says she uses it quite a bit, and even brought up features she wished it had!  It’s heavily geared towards managing grocery lists, and is quite good at it in fact.  You can add a new ingredient, and see a quicklist of common things one might find at the grocery store (staples, if you will.)  Or, you can type in any text you want with the onscreen keyboard.  Once you have your list, you can click on something to cross it off.  You’re also able to email your list or send it via a text message.  There’s also a list sharing feature that allows you to sync a list between two phones, which could come in handy if your spouse needs to pick something up on the way home from work.  However, this app doesn’t really have anything to do with recipes; it just handles shopping lists very well (the shopping lists don’t even have to be about food for that matter!)

What’s For Dinner allows you to search for actual recipes online and create shopping lists from them.  They seem to have developed their own little recipe searching backend which will dig up recipes on popular recipe websites.  I’m guessing they use microformats as well to extract the ingredients from each recipe.  When you have a list of your favorite recipes, you can check or uncheck the ones you’re planning on making in the near future, and see a shopping list of ingredients you need across all the recipes.  Of course, it’s unable to aggregate common ingredients very well so that part is a bit cumbersome.

Both of these apps are pretty stand-alone, so everything must be done on your phone to really get any use out of.  One of the primary goals for the KitchenPC mobile app will be to tie together the extensive meal planning and organizational features of KitchenPC into a really great mobile app that does everything these other apps do, only better.  You’ll be able to logon to your KitchenPC account, see your calendar and shopping list, add new things to your list, and search for recipes within the KitchenPC database.  This will allow users to create their data on either their computer or their phone, and access it from either.  Unlike the Epicurious and AllRecipes app, it will provide excellent shopping list management features out of the box.  Unlike OurGroceries and What’s For Dinner, it will be “backed” by an actual website and allow people to logon to their KitchenPC account (or create a new one) and access their existing data.

However, providing feature parity with these shopping list management tools will probably require some changes to the KitchenPC database.  For example, on KitchenPC, to add a new item to your shopping list requires you to find the ingredient, select the form, select a unit, and type in an amount.  Translating this to a mobile experience would be horrid, and no one is going to have the patience for that.  Two changes I have in mind for the shopping list design is to support custom ingredients and to make amounts optional.  You should be able to type in any ingredient into the shopping list (or things like “dishwashing detergent” since the mobile app is more about reminders) and even leave amounts blank.  If someone just wants to put “cheese” without specifying how much cheese they need, so be it.  Hopefully, some of the NLP features discussed in Part 1 can come in handy.  Both major mobile platforms support text to speech, so I can even imagine a scenario where you can speak, “a dozen eggs” into your phone and have that added to your shopping list, the data even normalized in the backend.

In short, the goal of a KitchenPC mobile app is to compete with both recipe apps and shopping list apps, doing a better job than each, while bringing over the power of KitchenPC into the mobile space.  It will be a challenging problem for sure!

Technological Challenges

The other problem I’ve been trying to solve first is the question of which platforms to target.  Obviously, iPhone is a must and Android is a close second.  Windows Mobile (and Windows Phone 7) would be nice, but don’t have the market share to warrant any serious consideration at this time.  Unfortunately, all the major platforms require expertise in their proprietary frameworks.  iPhone uses iOS, which requires developers to write code in C or Objective-C.  Android uses a Java based API, and Windows Mobile is of course all .NET.  I’d really need to hire several developers if I had any shot at building native mobile apps across all the platforms.

Luckily, there’s several solutions to this problem that are becoming all the rage these days.  First, other companies are developing compilers that can compile other languages into native iPhone apps.  Novell developed MonoTouch which is a commercial development platform allowing developers to write iPhone apps in C#.  These are native apps so no runtime or anything in required.  A compiler for Android was also just recently announced.  Maintaining a single C# code base for iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile would definitely be a huge win, so it’s something worth considering.  However, since Attachment seems to not be too into the whole Mono project, we’ll see how these things play out.

There’s also platforms such as PhoneGap.  I’ve been keeping my eye on this one for a while, and it seems to be growing in popularity.  The idea here is to write your mobile app with HTML and JavaScript, and PhoneGap provides a thin “wrapper” that hosts a web browser and exposes local phone functionality to your app via browser extensions.  For example, you’d be able to access the phone’s camera or accelerometer via some JavaScript APIs.  The PhoneGap guys currently target 6 different mobile platforms, and even offer jQuery extensions to wrap a lot of common phone functionality into APIs familiar to those with a jQuery background.  Very cool stuff!  Unfortunately, in my opinion these apps are still somewhat hacky.  They behave like a mobile website, sluggish and not native feeling.  A lot of extra work has to be done to “trick the eye” into making the app look truly native.  Furthermore, they’re still running on a remote web server so doing anything without an Internet connection would be difficult.

One last platform that I’ve really excited about is a project called Rhomobile.  This platform is truly innovative.  After watching an hour long video on the newest version, I was definitely a fan.  These guys basically wrote Ruby runtimes for all the major platforms (or used existing open source runtimes when available.)  They provide an MVC style framework to write your mobile app in Ruby code, and allow you to compile that code to Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Symbian.  These apps are native and don’t require any Internet connectivity to run.  They also offer a hosted build server to build and deploy these apps across all the platforms and various app stores.

After developing Qwk.io using Ruby, I feel comfortable enough in this environment to quickly ramp up on the Rhodes framework and test it out in more detail.

I think using one of these frameworks would save me a lot of time, and even if the app wasn’t perfect it would at least be useful enough to attract a user base until I had the resources to build full, native apps on each platform in their native language one at a time.

So when can you expect mobile apps for KitchenPC?  It will probably be the next major project after the web crawler, so please email me if you have any ideas or features you want to see in this area.

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From → Business, Technical

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