Avatron Software 06/17/12
This week’s Tools Spotlight interview is with Avatron Software CEO Dave Howell. Avatron makes productivity-enhancing applications that blur the boundaries between personal computers, mobile devices, and the Cloud. Their Air Display app lets you use your iPad, iPhone or Mac as a second (or third) monitor with no messy cables wires. We wrote about it a year ago in our post The Infinite Desktop and showed you how to set it up in our hack Use your iPad as an External Monitor. We decided to reach back out to them for a more extensive interview and to find out what they’ve been up to since.
And be sure to enter our giveaway at the bottom of this page. We’re giving away 3 copies of Air Display and 5 copies of Air Sharing for iOS! (Both are Universal apps.)
Your app Air Display lets people use their computer, phone or tablet as a second (or third) monitor over WiFi. This app was one of the first of its kind. How did you come up with the idea and then implement the technology?
Years ago, one of our senior engineers was an active contributor to an open-source virtual-device project called DOSBox. Naturally, when the iPad was announced, he was excited about using this iOS tablet as a computer monitor. We almost all use multiple monitors in the office, so we saw right away how cool it would be.
What we weren’t so convinced about early on was what kind of performance we’d be able to get. Our virtual video driver would have to see when pixels change on the screen, compress them, queue them up, send them over Wi-Fi, and then decompress on the iPad and blit to the screen. It was a nontrivial optimization project. But we applied a proprietary compression algorithm that is smart about choosing appropriate quality and frame-rate tradeoffs that dynamically adjust to changing conditions. It behaves very differently when you’re playing a movie than when you’re editing text, for example.
But this is exactly the kind of project we love at Avatron: it has a big pile of complex inner workings that are presented with a simple, intuitive user experience. And it has lots of potential for both future enhancements and future spin-off apps. We’ve delivered a steady stream of enhancements, and are working on a couple of those spin-off apps now.
What have been some of the interesting use cases for Air Display by content creators, particularly video editors?
Well first, some of the most compelling uses have surprised us. People are using it for the kinds of things we had anticipated, like dragging their tool palettes and auxiliary windows on the iPad, drawing in paint apps with a stylus, and operating control surfaces for Logic or other music apps. But they’re also using it in medicine for mirroring the contents of a radiology machine, and in photography for putting a wireless preview screen in a studio, and wiring up weird futuristic car interiors with touch screens that communicate with a Mac mini in the trunk.
As a former engineer on Apple’s Final Cut Studio team, I’m delighted to see FCPX users posting videos of their production workflows. They use it in a variety of different ways. One video shows audio automation on the iPad. Another puts the timeline on the iPad. But what they have in common is that they let you work much more effectively on the go—it’s pretty hard to be get anything done on a single tiny laptop screen—and they let you use the touch screen.
There’s a good how-to on calibrating the iPad display that’s linked to in the tips & tricks section of your site. It uses the Spyder display calibration device. Does Air Display support, integrate with or recommend any 3rd party apps or hardware?
I do really like some particular accessories. I like the Clutch from DC Mobile Design for holding the iPad comfortably in one hand. Twelve South’s HoverBar is a beautiful contraption for letting an iPad float in the air next to your computer screen. As you say, Datacolor’s Spyder is a powerful tool for display calibration. There’s a software tool called Moom that enhances your experience on multiple monitors.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face with each new update to Air Display?
The biggest threat we face is changes to the computer operating system. I suppose it’s not likely that Apple and Microsoft strategists are deliberately setting out to sabotage the virtual video drivers in Air Display Connect, but sometimes it seems that way. Apple in particular, frequently introduces bugs into its “Display Wrangler,” which arbitrates multiple display configurations. And lately they haven’t been testing their software very thoroughly with multiple monitors.
And sometimes, Apple deliberately attacks apps. They actually went out of their way to remove one of our apps, Air Dictate, from the App Store after it had been selling briskly for a couple of weeks. Air Dictate allowed you to talk into your iPhone in order to enter text on your Mac. We used the iPhone’s built-in voice-to-text dictation feature. The removal was quite frustrating, because we had worked hard to make Air Dictate a really elegant, beautiful app. As Apple fanboys, we want to highlight exciting new features in Apple’s products, so we were proud of extending what you could do with dictation.
Apple removed Air Dictate, stating that “apps that relate to Siri are not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines as Siri is an Apple product, and therefore covered by our Trademarks and Copyrights guidelines.” Of course this is nonsense; trademark law protects words and images, not concepts. But what could we do? They are the store proprietors, and can decide what to sell in their store. But it still was a sad day when they killed Air Dictate. It wasn’t until later that we found out that they were preparing their own Mac dictation feature in Mountain Lion. That’s probably why they did this, but we’ll never know for certain.
When Air Display was first released it was exclusively on the Mac platform. Now that you’ve expanded to Windows and Android, are you finding that the users on these platforms are using the app differently?
There are two parts to Air Display: Air Display Connect, which runs on your primary computer, and the Air Display app, which acts as a second display. We’ve released Air Display Connect for both Mac and Windows. We’ve delivered the Air Display app on iOS, Mac OS X, Android, and Samsung Bada.
I’m not sure what people are using Air Display for on Samsung. It hasn’t been a huge hit there, probably because (1) the Bada app market is pretty anemic, and (2) Bada’s a phone OS. Maybe they’ll come up with a tablet some day, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Android too is mostly phones, although there are predictions out there that Samsung and other Android licensees will get some tablet market share in the coming years. I hope that’s the case. But for the most parts, Air Display for Android is being used for projects that wouldn’t have been feasible on iOS, given our limited control over the environment. For example, if somebody wants to deploy Air Display on an embedded device but doesn’t want to set each one up with an iTunes account, Android is a good choice.
I believe the Mac app (and soon, the Windows Store) is primarily used at home by folks who have an old computer lying around and want to put it to some use, but have limited desk space. Air Display is good for that scenario. It’s also used by people who own a desktop computer or two, and also a laptop.
But most creative professionals are using the iPad edition of Air Display. It’s by far our most popular product. 80% of our sales are Air Display for iOS.
What kind of feedback and feature requests have you gotten from Air Display users lately?
There are a few things. Lots of folks have been asking us to allow them to connect multiple Air Display screens at once, so we plan to deliver that pretty soon. People are always wanting better frame rates and better quality. We’ve been releasing a steady stream of performance enhancements lately, and we have some headroom for more improvement going forward. We’re always experimenting with new algorithm tweaks.
People have been asking for a Windows client, and that’s coming too. And of course they want support or new devices like the Retina MacBook Pro and new operating system releases, so that kind of thing keeps us busy.
Your Air Sharing app lets people use their iPad or iPhone as an external hard drive. Are you getting the sense that users are no longer using their thumb drives as much?
We’re seeing that trend, but mostly because of things like Dropbox, not because of Air Sharing. Air Sharing really supplements and complements other storage devices, rather than replacing it. So in the case of Dropbox, Box, and other cloud file servers, Air Sharing gives you mobile access to your documents in the Cloud. It turns out that a lot of users don’t actually mount Air Sharing as a wireless hard disk any more; they start with Cloud storage.
We do have another app in the works though, that will let you access documents without entrusting your documents to a Cloud storage provider or mounting a WebDAV server. I’m pretty excited about it but can’t say too much just yet.
What are the security specifications of Air Sharing and do you do custom builds for corporate clients that need more complex system integration?
Air Sharing uses industry-standard authentication and encryption when it accesses remote file storage systems.
Which makes a nice segue. The goal of the new company, The App Group, which we just spun out, is to provide custom app development services for clients, including enterprise customers, education, and startups. The App Group will be doing some app development from scratch, but will also customize Air Sharing or Air Display for clients. For example, if a corporate client has a file server and wants to provide access to all of its employees, we can build a custom app built on Air Sharing that is preconfigured with access to their file server, and is branded with their corporate logo and pre-populated with a collection of company-specific documents instead of our generic Sample folder. And of course it still has Air Sharing’s advanced features like printing to a shared printer and our custom document viewers.
The new version of Air Display will have updates that improve use of the app on Windows 7 (and presumably Windows 8). What other other new features are in the pipeline for the next version release that you can talk about?
I’m glad you asked! Currently we’re shipping a Windows XP video driver in Air Display Connect. This does mean that we’re compatible with the 25% of our Windows users who are still on XP. And while you can still use the XP drivers on Windows 7, you don’t get the Aero effects. And some Microsoft apps, particularly Office, revert to XP-quality UI elements.
We have a new modern WDDM driver that we’ve been working on for a long time now, and I’m excited to announce that we’ve finally finished our patent application for the new architecture, so we can talk about it now. We’ve actually written a hardware-accelerated WDDM Driver that uses the system’s built-in GPU to accelerate graphics intended for Air Display. It’s really cool (and now patent-pending). We plan to ship this in late June, with a beta installer for the new WDDM driver. For folks on Windows 7 or 8, this is going to be a huge improvement.
Dave, that’s all the questions I had. Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you want to mention?
No, this was great! Thanks for giving that so much thought and putting together insightful questions.
And now’s your chance to win a copy of Air Display or Air Sharing for iOS!
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