Dave Howell is the founder of Avatron Software, the mobile app developer that created Air Sharing, Print Sharing, and Air Display. Before starting Avatron, Dave was a senior engineering manager at Apple, where he worked on the Pro Apps and Productivity Apps teams. Dave has Computer Science and Music degrees from Case Western Reserve University and a Cornell MBA.
In this conversation, Dave discusses using their Air Display product to use an iPad as a presenting tool.
Geetesh: Tell us about Air Display – how did you conceptualize and evolve this product?
Dave: We made Air Display for ourselves. We are all big multi-monitor users here. We typically have a couple of 27 or 30-inch displays on our desks. But we also use laptops, and are routinely frustrated by the ridiculously tiny screens on them, especially on the 11″ MacBook Air, an otherwise fantastic machine. There’s just not enough screen real estate to work effectively. So when the iPad was announced and we got our hands on the updated SDK, we decided to experiment at writing virtual video drivers for the Mac and sending the pixels over to the iPad.
At first it was pretty slow but we devised a proprietary video codec that dynamically changes compression quality depending on what’s happening onscreen. We paid particular attention to optimizing perceived performance, which requires tracking mouse movements without a noticeable lag. We managed to achieve that on all but the noisiest WiFi networks. As soon as the Mac version was in QA, we started on the Windows drivers, and delivered that soon thereafter.
Originally all of this was in the hands of one senior engineer, while the rest of the team focused on our Air Sharing app and other projects. Now we have different engineers working on different pieces of Air Display, including quite a bit of shared technology that is used by multiple apps. One engineer is working on network communication protocols, another on Mac components, another on Windows ports, another on the Windows drivers, one on Android ports… and so on. With greater focus we’re seeing greater productivity. Most engineers need to take ownership of some body of code in order to have the freedom to build and remold it optimally, and in order to feel motivated and challenged.
At this point, Air Display pretty much does what we want it to do. We’re focusing our development efforts less on features and more quality: optimizing frame rates and image quality, improving robustness on flaky networks, compatibility with new operating system releases, ports to other platforms, and so on.
Geetesh: Do you get surprised hearing about how people use this product in a way that you did not imagine then?
Dave: All the time! People never use software of any complexity the way you expect. And our apps, including Air Sharing as well as Air Display, afford a wide range of different uses. Air Sharing in particular is something of a Swiss Army knife.
We’ve heard from dentists and physicians who use Air Display to provide a wireless monitor for things like dental cameras and endoscopes. They hand an iPad to a family member during a procedure or show something to a patient on an iPod touch.
There are some musicians who use the touch surface to control soft mixing boards or virtual instruments. Photographers take an iPad onto a photo set to preview a picture while adjusting subjects or lighting. A number of flight simulator users are using Air Display for some auxiliary control panels. There’s a great YouTube video demonstrating the use of Air Display to control theatrical stage lighting. Programmers put debugger windows on the extra screen. And office users will drag some app window onto the Air Display screen and take their iPad over to a colleague’s office to demonstrate something.
And of course there are the users who just geek out at having a sixth monitor or at putting a chat window on a little iPod touch screen.
Finally, a customer just contacted us this morning saying he was deploying iPads in pizza restaurants for online order taking systems. I hadn’t seen that one coming.
Geetesh: Your Air Display product has thousands of usage scenarios, but for presenters it lets them use the iPad along with a live PowerPoint or Keynote presentation to navigate between slides, look at notes, and more. How important is this feature for you, and can you share some feedback about this feature that you have heard from users?
Dave: It’s interesting. We really envisioned Air Display being most useful for extending a small desktop onto two screens. But we’re seeing a lot of people use Air Display in mirroring mode for presentations. There are a few different common presentation use cases.
One field sales guy meets a client at a coffee shop, runs Air Display to mirror his PC to his iPad, and hands the iPad to the client. We have a setting in Air Display to disable touch interaction, so in this case the client can’t tap the screen to interfere with his presentation. The result is a very personal presentation without the distraction of crowding around a laptop. Another user, an accountant, reports meeting clients in coffee shops, mounting the iPad behind his laptop facing away from her so that the client can watch what she’s doing from the other side of a table. Then she goes through spreadsheets and charts in Excel to explain.