Out of the Shell

David Murphy

DM: So Sebastian, give us the 60-second intro to SPB if you would please.

SS: Sure, so SPB has 120 people in lots of countries, mainly in Europe, but also in Sao Paulo, New York and Bangkok. Then we have a design office in Thailand, a development office in Taipei, and offices in Berlin, Vienna and our financial HQ in Hong Kong. And 70 per cent of our people are software developers.

The company started out in 1999 as a development team, developing one app for phones that was called Palbum, which was around customising photos, but they couldn’t sell it. Then I joined and we decided to work on improving the Windows Mobile experience. We started out with SPB Pocket Plus, which offered tabbed browsing and smart scrolling, and then when Windows Mobile 5.0 came out, we did our first version of SPB Mobile Shell.

DM: What was the idea behind SPB Mobile Shell?

SS: The homescreen on Windows Mobile 5  and previous versions were blank, so with SPB Pocket Plus (our previous best-selling product) we created tabs and features to customise it, so you could have a wallpaper, see your battery capacity and things like that. The other thing we did was to create a way to close applications. It might seem unbelievable, but if you clicked on the ‘X’ button before the Windows Mobile 5 version, the application did not actually quit, so eventually you had too many things open and the phone would crash.

So then we got to thinking, we could put another homescreen on top of it, instead of fixing the existing one. That’s how SPB Mobile Shell 1.0 was born, and with the launch of that, we wanted to encourage people to use their fingers, rather than a stylus, to drive the phone.

SPB beta testers were concerned that the screen would get dirty if you used your finger. A couple of weeks before the SPB Mobile Shell official release, the iPhone came out, which was a coincidence, but even so, people started to buy Mobile Shell because of the iPhone push. Even the beta testers were convinced that a finger is a better tool to navigate a mobile device. Version 2 added wider functionality, such as Weather and Time full-screen dialogs, photo speed dial etc.

By version 3, we had had the idea of having a Leisure screen and a Work screen to split those two areas of your life, so one screen for meetings and work stuff and one for your personal stuff, with homescreen links to Twitter etc. Then with the 3.5 version in 2009, we added 3D integration and a lot of widgets.

Then on 5 October 2010, we launched V5 for OEMs and carriers for Android, Symbian and Windows Mobile. Because the app is only the top of the iceberg, and we have the UI engine that sits under it, so that means you can develop the user interface with no connection to the platform and then port to the platform. If a carrier wants a Meego version or a bada version for example, we can do one for them.

DM: And what’s new in version 5?

SS: We’ve improved the speed significantly, so when you’re scrolling or sliding between screens, it is incredibly fast and smooth. Every pixel is done in 3D, which means there’s no switching from 2D to 3D so it’s very, very fast and smooth. We’ve also made it easy to create widgets, and we’ve improved the way Folders work. Folders are great for organising things, but they can make it harder to find the stuff you want to use, so in V5, the stuff you use most frequently shows up first in the folder to make it easier to find.

DM: But for the moment this is for operators and device-makers only?

SS: Yes, we have had great success in the past working with operators and device-makers. V3 was preloaded by 15 device-makers and operators, including Sony Ericsson and O2 in the UK.

DM: But there’s more to SPB than SPB Mobile Shell, right?

SS: Yes, we also have our SPB Mobile TV solution. We have a free app which is ad-funded, that users can download direct, or we have a version that operators pay for, where we customise the user interface to the operator’s brief.

With the operator deployments, the business model can be very flexible, depending on carriers’ needs. We also provide technical support, so the operator provides the content, and we provide the technology platform.

Then beyond this, we also have apps, which are games, business or productivity apps that we sell direct to end users and also pre-install on devices. So all O2 devices running Windows Mobile in the UK, for example, will come pre-installed with a free version of SPB Wireless Monitor, which measures data traffic via all types of connections and calculates network usage costs according to the user’s data plan.

DM: And how does all this break down in terms of revenues?

SS: We try to balance the income of our business lines. However, today SPB Mobile Shell makes up more than 50 per cent of our revenues, and SPB Mobile TV, more than 20 per cent.