Going Pro

Back in December 2011 I had this great idea. Using the recently discovered Settings URLs, could Notification Center be hacked to create a widget-like experience and give quick access to Settings? After working with my friend Justin Youens on a quick prototype, the answer was an emphatic yes! As it turned out, launching other URL shortcuts via Notification Center also worked quite well.

So, we built Launch Center in a week and pushed to get it approved before Christmas. But Apple rejected it. The app used Notification Center in a way that didn’t violate a specific rule, but fell under the blanket of “inappropriate use of Notification Center, which does not comply with the iOS Human Interface Guidelines”. We were heartbroken, but decided to remove the Notification Center functionality and release Launch Center as a simple shortcut app.

We were somewhat surprised as people started telling us how much they liked the concept. So, we decided to give Notification Center one more shot and see if Apple would allow scheduling of shortcuts. By scheduling shortcuts instead of forcing them to persist in Notification Center, the feature turned into true reminders with an associated action instead of just a launcher hack. And Apple approved it.

That’s when Launch Center blew up. Federico Viticci posted a review of 1.1 on MacStories which spurred a frenzy in the press. It briefly hit the top 100 of the App Store and sold quite well for a few days. We still didn’t quite know what we were onto, but kept iterating on the app — adding things like the Action Composer, which let you quickly add shortcuts to supported apps.

As feedback started pouring in, it became clear that we had touched a nerve. The iOS home screen is very clean and simple for launching apps, but managing the home screen is a pain and getting things done in iOS can be frustrating for the more productivity minded. The shortcuts and reminders in Launch Center turned out to be very handy for getting around iOS.

But Launch Center didn’t really work very well once you created more shortcuts than would fit in the 9 visible rows. Most people who used the app didn’t need more than 9 rows, but plenty of advanced users started emailing asking for all sorts of crazy hacks to make more than 9 shortcuts easily accessible.

Justin and I agreed that something needed to be done and we spent hours and hours discussing various options. The interesting thing is, we kept coming back to the fact that a grid of icons — like the iOS home screen — was really the best, most intuitive solution. Then Justin came up with the brilliant idea of using gestures to access additional shortcuts. We iterated on the idea a bit on paper, then Justin opened Xcode and hit File -> New Project.

At first the plan was to just experiment with this new launching paradigm and fold it back into Launch Center as an “experimental launcher” that could be turned on in settings. But after a few weeks of work, the code just never made its way back into the old Launch Center project. With all the new concepts we were iterating on, trying to merge it back into Launch Center just didn’t make sense. As a completely new project we were free to revamp the Action Composer and other core concepts that had been hastily implemented in Launch Center. And after a few months of work, very little code made its way from the old project into the new one.

It quickly became clear that we were painting ourselves into a corner. The new project would have to be a new app. Trying to upgrade users from the old version to the new would be a huge hassle given how much had changed. And the more we discussed it, completely ditching Launch Center didn’t seem like the right thing to do anyway — so many people found the app useful even with the 9 row limitation.

It was a very tough decision that we spent weeks debating, but we ultimately decided to release the new project as Launch Center Pro and keep Launch Center in the App Store at 99¢ for those who wanted to try out the concept of shortcuts and might not ever need more than 9.

Now that Launch Center Pro is about to hit the App Store, we do have one major regret: we really wanted to update Launch Center around the same time Launch Center Pro was released. Unfortunately, creating great apps is crazy hard and we just ran out of time to go back and work on Launch Center. But we want to make it clear that Launch Center will see an update this summer and get several of the improvements we made in Launch Center Pro. It wont get them all, Launch Center Pro is, after all “Pro”, but there are several changes that will make Launch Center a better introduction to the concept of shortcuts.

Some have suggested that releasing Launch Center Pro as a separate app is a user hostile money grab. I hope this post has made it clear just how much thought and work went into Launch Center Pro and the decision to release it as a new app. Justin and I are passionate about creating great apps for iOS. Neither of us are App Store millionaires and we both took huge financial risks to build Launch Center Pro. We think Launch Center is a great app and worth every penny anyone paid for it, or will pay for it. And we’re incredibly proud of the work we’ve done to iterate on those ideas in Launch Center Pro.