Grad students launch app to customize smartphones

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Two Ottawa graduate students have launched an Android app designed to make smartphones easier for clients to customize to their individual needs.

Nimble creators James Don-Carolis and Hanna Farah

by Adam Feibel

The app, called Nimble, automatically changes a smartphone's settings based on a customer’s location. Presets perform functions like silencing phones when users walk into a classroom, switching wallpaper to a more professional look when they’re at work or sending a text message when they leave the office at the end of the day.

It may not seem like much, but co-creator James Don-Carolis says it goes a long way toward helping people get more enjoyment and productivity out of their phones.

“For a lot of people … personalizing is a major way they relate to their phone. And right now, there's huge limitations on how you can do that,” says Mr. Don-Carolis, a master’s student in biomechanics at the Ottawa Carleton Institute for Biology.

He says many users find it time-consuming and inconvenient to customize smartphone functions.

“We wanted to remove those limitations so that they could personalize their phone, regardless of their location,” he says.

Mr. Don-Carolis thinks the app will appeal to a wide range of users. Teenagers and young professionals are more likely to want the flexibility of having different presets for the workplace or school and social settings, he says, while older customers might not care as much about personalization but would make use of other time-saving aspects such as automated texts.

Mr. Don-Carolis says his company’s app is more user-friendly than similar ones offered by competitors such as Tasker.

“People’s minds would explode trying to get what they wanted out of (Tasker),” he says. “We compared it to our own and people could very easily get in there and do what they wanted.”

Nimble is the first foray into the world of commerce for Mr. Don-Carolis and his partner, software designer Hanna Farah, a PhD candidate in software engineering at the University of Ottawa.

Neither had any business experience before creating the app. But because they had a solid idea and the skills to develop it, Nimble had virtually no start-up costs, says Mr. Don-Carolis.

The business uses a “freemium” model under which users can download the app at no cost, then must eventually re-up for a small annual subscription fee.

In the four months since it was launched, Nimble has about 1,000 downloads on the Google Play store. The company wants to add more users before implementing the paid premium, although the founders say they don’t have a specific target number nailed down yet and aren’t sure how much they’ll charge.

“Once we reach a threshold, then we'll monetize our services,” says Mr. Don-Carolis.

They are also part of Carleton University’s Lead to Win incubator program, which is helping to mentor Mr. Don-Carolis and Mr. Farah and is planning to provide them with office space. Through the program, the startup was invited to participate in the Nicol Entrepreneurial Competition at Carleton, where Nimble won the first prize of $5,000.

Tony Bailetti, an associate professor at Carleton's Sprott School of Business who runs the Lead to Win program, says it forces young entrepreneurs like Mr. Don-Carolis to “examine the different factors that contribute to the success of a start-up” before jumping into the market.

Mr. Bailetti says the first goal is to establish a minimum viable product and start selling it quickly. He’s also written several papers that discuss the freemium model, which he says can work very well in some circumstances but fail miserably in others.

“You give 'A' for free so that you can sell 'B' in some smart way,” says Mr. Bailetti for example, free software with a paid service contract.

“Freemium is part of a bigger picture. And if that’s not clear, then you’re not going to win.”

For Nimble, the bigger picture means breaking into the Chinese market. Mr. Don-Carolis says there’s lots of opportunity in China because of the country’s huge population, and capitalizing on that is the company’s main focus.

The challenge is understanding a market that is very different from the one they’ve come to know in North America, he says.

“You really have to go in with zero assumptions, zero beliefs as to what it should be,” he says.

Nimble is currently available only on Android phones, but Mr. Don-Carolis says the company might look into producing an iPhone version if there’s enough demand for it.

Organizations: Ottawa Carleton Institute for Biology, University of Ottawa, Carleton University Sprott School of Business

Geographic location: China, North America

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