Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Team from Abilene Christian University launch iPad app for The Optimist; version 1.1 already in the works

While many commercial newspapers wait and decide whether they will create their own iPad apps or contract with an outside firm to develop one, universities and journalism programs are moving forward, using the development process as a learning tool.
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Abilene Christian University is the first institution to have their iPad app approved and uploaded to the iTunes app store. Developed by a team made up of students across department lines, the app for the school newspaper, The Optimist, appeared on iTunes today. A hardy congratulations to the team from Texas, especially the two programmers who will now graduate as one of a very small group of people with actual iPad app development experience.

Dr. Brian Burton, asst. Professor of Information Technology, put me in touch with the programmers behind ACU's iPad app.

Rich Tanner, a senior, and information technology and computing major, said that the work was intense. "Every hour or 30 minutes we could find between classes and other obligations were spent in front of a Mac. For me, personally, in that last week before the app submission deadline, I put in over 60 hours finishing the app."

"It's a real exciting time that our app finally got launched on the iTunes store," Randy Beaird said. "We felt really accomplished when we had a finished app produced by students. Rich and I had many late coding nights finishing up the app for iPad launch."

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The project was completed over six weeks. The result is an app that displays the school's WordPress based web site, adding navigation tools. "(A)s soon as we submitted our final code to Apple, we started work on version 1.1. The new version will include fixes to some of the existing code and add in features that we intended to have in there all along," Tanner told me.

Features like landscape mode and bookmarking may have to wait until version 1.1, but many developers are finding this to be the norm. Many iPhone developers essentially beta tested their apps through their initial users, releasing updates whenever they discovered bugs, or adding features based on customer input.

This way of developing apps may not work well for commercial media companies because user expectations have grown over time. But for ACU, attempting to produce a finished app was itself a learning experience as the team worked to develop the app against the deadline of the April 3rd launch date.

While the programmers did the coding, the whole team included students across departments. "The editors and staff of The Optimist were almost 'clients' in that regard," Tanner said. "They had the initial vision and they worked very hard to adapt their existing models and web-content to work with the app. The Art and Design department provided us with amazing graphics and concept pieces that went right into the app."

Colter Hettich, a senior and journalism major, and a member of the team, said "the faculty have said we don't want to do this because the students are the ones that are going the ones out there 20-30 years doing this." Hettich, who is also editor-in-chief of The Optimist, wrote a story for the paper concerning students who crowded the Campus Store on Saturday to look at Apple's new tablet.

The university obviously sees the value in being associated with cutting edge media development because they created the video below which I'm sure will be shared with prospective students.

Dr. Susan Lewis, asst. Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications, said in the video that "every student that we approached about joining our team dropped what they were doing and came with us. They were excited because they knew that this was the future of media."

"They had not worked on a project this large, involving this many people, from so many different angles and perspectives," said Dr. Burton.

The experience and enthusiasm shown is proof enough that while media pundits continue to debate whether tablets and mobile devices are the future of media content delivery, young people and institutions of learning are moving ahead already convinced.