“So it’s like a Pulitzer Prize for apps?”

It was almost noon. I woke up to find 20 missed calls from Hon Cheng, who’s currently at WWDC.

I had stayed up till almost 4 am for the Keynote. My phone was on silent, and there was little chance he could wake me up with those calls.

He left some messages for me:

“Just a normal call, free?”

“Not facetime. No ADA. Pick up. haha”

It was always Hon Cheng’s wish that we could one day walk up the stage together to collect an Apple Design Award. Before he left for San Jose last week, he had said that if Elk won an ADA, he would FaceTime me as he walks up the stage to collect the prize.

“Don’t embarrass me,” I warned him then, “I’d probably be in my singlet and boxers.”

I returned his call. It was 9 pm over at San Jose. It turns out he was taking a nap too. Jet lag and whatever had happened earlier at WWDC had exhausted him.

He kept his voice low as he spoke, careful not to let his friend sharing the room to overhear what he was going to tell me.

“We won,” he said. “The ADA.”

“So what’s the ADA about?” my wife asked.

“I guess you can say it’s the highest level of recognition an app can get.”

“So it’s like a Pulitzer Prize for apps?”

“Um, yeah, sort of,” I said, surprised at the analogy, “though it’s only for apps on Apple’s platforms.”

But we were suppose to keep it a secret for now.

The ADA traditionally takes place at the end of the first day of WWDC.

But this year, it was not even on the schedule of WWDC, prompting John Gruber to ponder if it had been cancelled or just renamed.

“I’m kind of afraid to talk to the press about Elk.”

According to Hon Cheng, Apple wanted to shake things up based on feedback received from previous years winners.

“They wanted more help with promoting their apps.”

That’s about all we know. Or all we can say.

“I’m kind of afraid to talk to the press about Elk,” Hon Cheng confessed.

Apple had arranged for select members of the press to talk to the ADA winners. It was also an opportunity for Hon Cheng to pitch Elk to them.

“A currency converter sounds so simple I don’t know if they’d be interested.”

Elk is the sixth app that Hon Cheng and I had worked on together.

It was also our simplest app in terms of technical complexity.

It couldn’t have been more different from our debut app, Dispatch, which took a full year of work.

Elk is our attempt to revisit making apps for the Apple Watch. And like all of the apps we’ve made so far, it solves a personal problem for us.

Elk is also unusual in that it was conceived as an Apple Watch app first. In fact, work on the iPhone app only started midway in the development, after the Apple Watch app was already functional.

Many people think of the Apple Watch as a companion to the iPhone. And so the approach has traditionally been to strip down an existing iPhone app to fit the Apple Watch. In fact, that was how most Apple Watch apps had started.

In the two years since Apple Watch launched, I don’t think we saw many memorable Apple Watch apps partly because of this approach. People kept wondering where the Apple Watch’s killer apps were. Of course, the other important reason was that watchOS 1 simply just wasn’t optimized enough for third-party apps.

To add insult to injury, high-profile apps like Google Maps, Amazon and eBay had removed watchOS support from their apps for months without anyone noticing.

Elk is our attempt to revisit making apps for the Apple Watch. And like all of the apps we’ve made so far, it solves a personal problem for us.

Pulling out my iPhone to convert currency has never sat well with me. It was not only a hassle, but also embarrassing to hold up the cashier or store owner whenever I needed to convert currencies.

I had to take out my iPhone, unlock it, launch an app and punch in the numbers in order to perform a currency conversion.

watchOS 2 brought us native apps, which meant that apps could actually run entirely on the Apple Watch without the iPhone. watchOS 3 brought us instant launch apps and Digital Crown access.

These, and an encounter during my trip to Hong Kong last year, got me to rethink about making apps for the Apple Watch.

A day after I returned from the trip, I mocked up the first design of how Elk would look and work, created a Slack channel named #currency-converter and sent it to Hon Cheng.

“With crown? Brilliant,” he replied.

The first design of how Elk would look and work.

Although we have shipped six apps together so far, we have at least two completed apps and a few more uncompleted apps that we decided not to ship.

We’ve always approached app making with a simple philosophy.

Every single app that we’ve made so far, we use them either on a daily or regular basis. I think that has allowed us to design them in a thoughtful manner.

At some point, we realised we were no longer excited about those apps. We got too carried away with the initial idea and dived right into development before we had a chance to really think carefully about it.

To save us from future agony, wasted time and effort, we spend a lot more time these days deliberating on an idea before we actually start any development work.

Whenever one of us brings up an idea, the other plays the devil’s advocate. Through this process, we’ve managed to put many ideas on hold so far.

Hon Cheng’s instant approval for Elk was encouraging, but also worrying. Did we miss something?

A day before WWDC, Hon Cheng sent me a message.

“Went to watch a pre-screening of a documentary called App: The Human Story.

“It’s like an activist movie,” he continued, “trying to change people’s perception about not paying for apps, and for Apple to do more to make app biz more sustainable for developers.”

“Very touching story. It’s like someone telling our story.”

While the ADA is a nod to our work, indie developers like us continue to struggle to sustain ourselves financially.

In an ideal world, we’d just concentrate on making the best possible app, and people would pay us a few dollars to download it.

The App Store today is a very different place since the days Hon Cheng and I started. It is a lot more crowded, and most consumers have come to expect apps for free.

A month before the launch of Elk, we had The Talk again.

“What was our monetization strategy for Elk again?” I asked.

It was a recurring problem we face time and again.

We’d spend months of work designing and developing, only to discover that we didn’t spend enough time thinking about how to monetize the app. Or worse — thinking about whether the app could actually make money.

In an ideal world, we’d just concentrate on making the best possible app, and people would pay us a few dollars each to download it. If enough people had paid, we’d be able to continue doing what we do best—making apps.

In reality, people find it extremely difficult to part with their money for an app, even if it costs less than a lunch or a drink at a cafe.

Since Clips, we have been toying with a free-to-download model to break down the barrier to download our apps, and an in-app purchase to unlock all features within the app.

The challenge then comes in balancing what we provide for free, and what we lock with the IAP in order to entice users to become paying customers.

It’s a balance that we’re still trying to find.

“One of the most beautiful things that Apple has done for us is to provide literally anyone with the platform to distribute their apps, and to succeed as a app developer.”

“How has the emergence of iOS and watchOS changed the way you code and create apps?” a journalist asked us.

When I was 13, I made a computer game with a bunch of friends. We were going to make another, but we wondered about how we could actually distribute our game after we’re done.

It was 1998. Games and software were distributed on floppy disks and CD-ROM and sold on the shelves of large computer stores.

One of them suggested that we could try to convince the owner of a shop near our school to sell our game.

After all, the shop is popular with students looking for pirated software and games.

“One of the most beautiful things that Apple has done for us is to provide literally anyone with the platform to distribute their apps, and to succeed as a app developer.” I told the journalist.

“On these platforms, anyone can succeed,” I continued, “whether you’re a one-man show or a large corporation.”

Financially, we still have a long way to go.

But today, we’ll just celebrate the surreality that a modest team of two, working out of a study room in an apartment on a tiny island called Singapore, can be recognized at the highest level alongside top developers and designers from US and Europe.

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