Meet the Box Team: Michael on Making Box More Mobile

Hey Box fans, it's time to meet another member of your Box.net team. This week we chat with Michael Smith who recently joined our Development team. He'll be focused on our mobile app efforts, so read on to learn about how he got into the mobile space, his past projects and some of the lessons he learned about "Human Computer Interaction" as a Master's student at Stanford University.

First off, what will you be doing at Box?

I'm working on both the engineering and product specs for Box's mobile applications - both iPhone, Blackberry and later, m.box.net.

Developing apps on the mobile side has been particularly exciting in the last year, especially with the iPhone and growing variants of mobile app stores from Apple, Blackberry, Google, Nokia and Palm. How did you get into this space?

I got excited about building mobile phone applications my senior year of college. I did my undergrad degree in EE and when you're working with a mobile phone you're much closer to the hardware. Designing mobile applications also opens up a whole new set of application types and use cases. That year I took a couple of HCI courses that focused on the challenges of designing applications for phones. We built applications and designed interfaces for the Nokia N-Series and Palm and Windows Mobile Treos. It was only 2 years ago, but the capabilities of smartphones and their ubiquity now has really changed the game - applications that were impossible to build and deploy are now commonplace.

I know you did a Master's at Stanford where you focused on human computer interaction (HCI). What are some of the projects you got to work on in that program? What direct lessons could you apply, if any, from things you worked on there to Box's mobile apps?

I got to work on several projects involving mobile phones. This was before the iPhone and Android, so we used Treos and Nokia phones. My favorite was an app for the Treo that provided a visual interface to voicemail as well as a text transcription of the message. It looked a lot like the iPhone's Visual Voicemail.

One of the things the HCI program stresses is learning by doing. You can only design "from the book" to a certain extent - a lot of the final shape of an application needs to come from putting the app out there and learning from people's reactions. I'm really looking forward to learning from people's reactions to the applications we put out this summer.

Like anything else, I'm sure that developing apps for mobile devices has its pros and cons. Could you talk about both what's fun and what's challenging in developing mobile apps?

First, the fun stuff. If you look at a desktop computer, you've got a very controlled environment that's carefully designed for great productivity. You can do a lot in that environment, but if you move, you can't do anything. Now take mobile - there's no control over the environment. You could be on a bike ride or running through an airport terminal. It's a fun challenge to really find that perfect set of features that will keep the app simple, but will still maximize the usefulness in any setting.

Mobile phone development environments have come a long way, but building an application that can be deployed across a wide range of devices is still one of the biggest challenges in building apps for mobile phones.

When you're not working on the next great app, what do you like to do to kick back?

I'm a big cyclist - road and mountain, although when I don't have time, I run. I'm trying to get into windsurfing this summer though. It seems like a safer sport..

Finally, I have to ask - what's your phone of choice?

iPhone, hands-down. I love the experience, and how it looks and all that, but the real dealmaker is the competence Apple has demonstrated in their development process. When I think about how well-thought out and easy it is to develop for the iPhone, I have supreme confidence that the company is doing everything else right.

There you have it, folks. Hope you enjoyed the chat with Michael. If there are other topics or roles you want us to cover in our "Meet the Box Team" series, tweet us your ideas @boxdotnet!

Post by Sean Lindo, Community Manager