For seven years, Mike Schneider was an IP attorney in the Seattle office of the prestigious law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. But during his spare time, he wrote iPhone apps. Some became very successful, such as a $0.99 app called TouchType that allows one to type e-mails while an iPhone is in landscape mode. After he sold tens of thousands of apps, a Seattle publication profiled him last October in an article titled "Lawyer Strikes Gold Rush with iPhone Apps." Mike now has 16 apps in the app store, and he decided last month to resign from Wilson Sonsini and concentrate on being a software developer. He also runs a nice technology blog called This is Tech.
I recently caught up with Mike to ask him about his experiences as an iPhone developer.
iPJD: What type of law did you practice at Wilson Sonsini?
Schneider: My practice was focused on technology and intellectual property related transactions. I worked primarily with software companies on building and commercializing their technology and content. Real world examples would be helping draft and negotiate large customer contracts and engaging developers or artists to create content.
iPJD: Tell us about your experience with smartphones and software development before the iPhone.
Schneider: When I was in law school, I used a Handspring Visor and then an HP Jornada. I started working on a few applications for the Palm platform, and then spent some time trying to learn to write for the Pocket PC platform, which has evolved into Windows Mobile. For the most part, this was an intellectual exercise. I have always been fascinated with computers, and software programming is a challenging puzzle to try to crack. In my early years as a lawyer, I used a string of Blackberry devices that were standard issue at my firm.
iPJD: When did you start using and writing software for the iPhone?
Schneider: I started using an iPhone when Wilson Sonsini rolled them out as an option for their attorneys. Shortly after the SDK was released [in March of 2008], I downloaded a copy and started familiarizing myself with the platform. In July of last year, my wife and I spent a week and a half in Hawaii. I spent a fair amount of time during the vacation reading and experimenting with the SDK.
Schneider: TouchType hit the store in October of 2008 and spent about a month in the top 25 apps on the store. I was used to typing with two thumbs on previous devices I had used, and was frustrated that couldn’t be done on the iPhone. As I got more familiar with the iPhone SDK and what could and couldn’t be done on the platform, I realized that information could be passed into the email application using a URL scheme. From there, it was fairly simple to create TouchType, which allows users to type email messages using a large keyboard and send them to Apple’s email application for dispatch. The app has expanded to include a spell check function, which helps when sending email messages to clients, since the iPhone’s predictive spelling system is not always sufficient to catch misspelled works, or suggest good alternatives.
iPJD: You recently told Popular Mechanics how important it is for a developer to be first in the app store because anything successful "will be fully knocked off in
a couple weeks. It just seems to be the nature." Tell us about your experience with copycat apps and TouchType.
Schneider: Shortly after TouchType came out, a wave of competitors hit the app store. For a while, there was a new landscape keyboard application on the store every day. TouchType is still among the top Productivity apps on the store, but the imitators have captured a good portion of the market. My goal was to try to stay one step ahead of the copycats. Ideas are generally only protectable through the patent system, which means that unless I want to start filing patents on the inventive aspects of my applications, there isn’t much that can be done to stop copycats. That said, I try to establish a degree of brand recognition around the applications I create, and am perfectly willing to pursue competitors that try to copy my trademarks or copyrightable elements of my apps.
iPJD: Perhaps the biggest, ahem, complement to the usefulness of your app is that Apple itself is adding landscape e-mail typing to iPhone Software 3.0, due out this summer. What does this mean for the future of TouchType?
Schneider: I am excited for the 3.0 software to be released. It will eliminate the need for an application like TouchType to compose email messages using the landscape keyboard, but TouchType’s spell check functionality will still be worth having. Also, the 3.0 version of the iPhone OS will allow email composition to be incorporated into third party apps, meaning that once TouchType users compose their message and spell check it, they won’t have to leave the application to dispatch the message but instead will be able to do so from within TouchType. I think this will make the experience better for users.
iPJD: TouchType was your first app, but you have developed many more. You recently released a number apps -- Relax, Build Confidence, Disconnect, Quit Smoking, Lose Weight and Visualize Healing -- that you developed in connection with hypnotherapist Andrew Johnson. What was the impetus for these apps?
Schneider: I have been listening to a copy of Andrew’s deep relaxation CD on and off for a few years. Whenever my mind was racing and I couldn’t fall asleep, I would put the CD on and it would put me right to sleep. When I started working on iPhone applications, his content seemed like a perfect fit for the platform. I reached out to Andrew and we started working on the iPhone apps within the week. The Andrew Johnson apps have done incredibly well. I get multiple email messages every day from people telling me how much they like them. I would urge your readers to check out Relax with Andrew Johnston - Deep Relaxation. People love that app. There is also a free version, Relax with Andrew Johnson Lite, for any of your readers that would like to give it a try.
iPJD: Your GPS Thief Tracker app is innovative -- an app with an intentionally intriguing icon that, when tapped, discretely sends the owner an e-mail with the iPhone's location. Tell us more about this one.
Schneider: The theft tracker app did much better than I expected. The concept is a bit of a novelty. Because the iPhone doesn’t allow third party apps to run in the background, the app requires a thief or person who finds your iPhone to open the application (which triggers a silent email to you with your phone’s location). Fortunately, people have still felt like it is worth the $0.99 and the app has been very popular. To date I have only heard of one person that has recovered a stolen iPhone using my app. It turned out that her brother-in-law had stolen it, and with the police, she was able to get it back.
iPJD: Your most recent iPhone app helps people to teach tricks to a dog. What can you tell us about this app?
Schneider: Best of 101 Dog Tricks includes step-by-step instructions on how to train your dog to do eight different tricks (e.g., sit, down, fetch). Each trick has great photos and a video demonstration. It is the best looking app I have made. I would recommend that app to anyone with a dog.
iPJD: What are your favorite apps on the iPhone, besides your own?
Schneider: I am a big fan of Tweetie and Evernote. Air Mouse is also really impressive.
iPJD: Have you ever thought of developing an app for lawyers?
Schneider: I made a desktop app for lawyers once called Clause Locker. The app allowed lawyers to save snippets of text to a database that was easy to browse and search. I think I am the only person who ever used it, but it worked great for me. Now that I have left Wilson Sonsini to try my hand at entrepreneurship full time, my immediate plans are to launch a few more iPhone apps, but then I hope to turn my attention to writing more traditional (non-iPhone) legal software.
iPJD: You recently spoke at the 360|iDEV conference in San Jose, talking about legal issues in iPhone development. What are some of the issues that you discussed and that the attendees asked about?
Schneider: iPhone developers range from one man shops to venture backed companies. These companies face the same types of issues that any startup would have. What type of entity should be formed. Putting good agreements in place with employees and contractors. How to build and protect intellectual property rights, and not infringe the rights of others. It was a great discussion. I learned a lot at that conference about iPhone development, and was glad to be able to contribute something of value.
iPJD: How can a lawyer with a full-time law practice find time to write apps for the iPhone?
Schneider: That is a great question. For about six months I was working long hours at the firm and then writing code in the late evenings and on the weekends. Once the apps started taking off, I started transitioning out of the firm. Now I am working about 70% of the time on iPhone applications and 30% of my time building my own independent legal practice.
iPJD: How successful can one be as an iPhone developer?
Schneider: The iPhone presents a unique opportunity for individuals to make a living for themselves. Companies with lots of employees don’t yet have a big advantage over one or two person shops. Successful applications can create a very comfortable living for an individual, but instances of people retiring on the money they make on the iPhone are not going to be common.
iPJD: How do you compare working as a lawyer at a law firm to working as an iPhone developer?
Schneider: The latter is a much better creative outlet. I have and do enjoy working with clients to help solve their problems, but there is something much more satisfying about working on whatever I think is interesting.
iPJD: And finally, what are your thoughts about the upcoming iPhone Software 3.0?
Schneider: I am very excited about the 3.0 software, and most excited about in-app purchases. I think that will open the door to some programs that wouldn’t otherwise be worth doing. I have an app that has been sitting on the back burner because I didn’t want to have to figure out how to charge people on the iPhone; entering a credit card would have been cumbersome for the user. With the in-app payments, users can purchase products and services in the app and have the payments charged to their iTunes account.
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A big iPhone J.D. thank you goes to Mike Schneider for taking the time to share his experiences. Thanks to authors like John Girsham and Scott Turrow, many a lawyer has dreamed of quitting his day job and becoming an author. The updated version of that dream for some may be to quit working for a firm and become an iPhone app developer. I wish Mike the best of luck as he pursues his dream, and I can't wait to see what he brings us next.
Mike Schneider's apps include:
Phone Tree Navigator - Direct Line ($0.99) -- a directory of customer service numbers for major corporations, and when you tap a company name to call, the app automatically presses the buttons needed to get to a live person.