CMU startup expedites the process of converting apps

Due to compatibility differences between smartphone platforms, apps for mobile devices can often only be developed for a single operating system. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon are working on ways to expedite the process of converting apps between operating systems through their startup and computer platform: Apportable.

Collin Jackson, an assistant research professor at Carnegie Mellon CyLab and the Information Networking Institute (INI) on the Silicon Valley campus (CMU-SV), developed the idea with co-founder Ian Fischer and Chinmay Garde, a graduate student at CMU-SV. The startup, now located in downtown San Francisco, has grown in popularity and translates apps from iOS to Android platforms. “We solved a problem and helped developers so that they don’t have to individually deal with the hassle of always translating the coding for one device into another language,” Jackson said.

Jackson came up with the idea for the startup while looking up apps on an iPhone and realizing that they were not available for Android, the most commonly used mobile platform worldwide. He noticed that it could take developers a long time to release the Android version of some iOS apps due to technical barriers that hinder cross platform development. These technical barriers are a slow and expensive process to overcome because they require the developer to rewrite the app in a new language and maintain a second code base for the Android version. Apportable helps make the process of translating between platforms faster, cheaper, and easier, while maintaining the quality and functionality of the original app.

In the early days of Apportable, Jackson and his team members developed a version of Objective-C, the language used to build iOS apps, that runs on Android phones. The team then developed prototype applications in iOS and ported them to Android using this technique. The prototypes were presented to Google Ventures, the venture capital investment arm of Google Inc., in order to fundraise for the project. The funding was then used to recruit technical teams to develop Apportable, a commercial product that grew to have 10s of millions of users.

Currently, many game developers use Apportable and subsequently help promote Objective-C as the language for building apps across all platforms. Future directions for the company involve implementing the user interface framework used by certain photo sharing and music apps, like Bjork’s Biophilia album for Android, which is the first music app to be released for Android that was first written in Objective-C. The team is also helping non-game developers launch apps for Android through Apportable by building Android development tanks into their platform, allowing it to receive automatic support from a wide range of devices.

Making Apportable compatible with various devices was challenging. “Major challenges involved paying attention to a large number of little details to get Apportable to run perfectly,” Jackson said. In one particular example, “Apple developed an app that provided a ton of functionality, but the team had to provide equivalent functionality for Android hardware that was not designed to run iOS code, which required a lot of time,” he added.

Although much of their work focuses on converting apps for Android, Apportable is aimed at letting customers translate apps between different programming languages. The team’s favorite part of the startup? According to Jackson, it’s simply helping people overcome a time-consuming hindrance.