How Apple is accelerating app innovation by giving a level playing field to these Indian developers | Exclusive

Stories of hope, ambition, challenges, and finding success.

Apple App Accelerator
From the left: Nakul (Playbae), Anshul (Stamurai), and Vidit (LookUp)

Vidit Bhargava, 27, has been developing apps since high school. Like any student at his age, Bhargava, too, was finding it difficult to “look up” words and felt learning them could be made simpler and more straightforward. So, he started building LookUp, a dictionary app, in his final year at school. The app was released in 2014 and would go on to become part of a successful application for Apple’s WWDC Student Scholarship in 2016. The opportunity, to attend WWDC in person and meet idols like Craig Federighi along with a community of developers who are “more than willing to help you out”, was a “a dream come true”, he says.

After graduating college, Bhargava co-founded Squircle Apps and LookUp is their most successful product. The app is exclusive to Apple’s App Store.

“What attracts me to the App Store is the fact that you can be a developer, a high school student sitting in your home working on a dictionary app, or you can be Dictionary.com, and you are on the same level playing field,” he says. “Apple won’t feature Dictionary.com more because they’re a big company and they’ll feature LookUp less because I am a one-person company, and nobody has heard of me.”

The day it launched on the App Store, the LookUp-maker was contacted by Apple, with the news the app would get “featured”, purely on its merits. To Bhargava, that’s really the “democratising of software.”

“Today, an indie developer can create a word processor, like Microsoft, and if it’s good enough, the App Store will feature it and that would be the word processor to look up to for new people. You can create software sitting in your home and you can be on the same platform and that’s really empowering to me,” he adds.

LookUP

Most dictionary apps are bloated and trying to do so much that the actual dictionary part gets hidden inside ads, sign-up flows, and countless permissions. LookUp is much simpler. You pay an upfront amount of 10$ (Rs 899) to download and use the app. There are no sign-ups, no ads either. Just search for the word you’re looking for and you’ll get its definition and complete overview.

“It’s not like you are looking up a word in Dictionary.com and going to Wikipedia to get its summary, and going to Google to view an image, nothing like that,” Bhargava says, calling it a “complete package”. The app doesn’t collect your data, or even analytics, he adds.

Things were not always this functional, though. The current form has taken a lot of effort and some push from Apple. Bhargava believes App Accelerator has been a key catalyst in shaping how LookUp looks and feels, today.

“Accelerator pushes you in the right direction. It gives you some of the best practices [that you can incorporate]. You get a lot of design feedback as well. It’s not prescriptive like, do this or else the app is gone, but more like here’s an idea that you can explore.”

Bhargava is now actively exploring the learning space with a new vocabulary building tool. The app has a dedicated “learn” section that suggests you words to remember. But unlike rivals, it’s simpler and not exposing you to a lot of different things so as to create anxiety. It’s “scientifically proven”, he says, adding “if you’re learning daily, your mind is training itself to remember those words more holistically.”

Superhuman Stamurai

For Meet and Harsh, who come from the same school, same college, and co-incidentally, also started out working at the same company, stuttering has had a significant impact on their life since early childhood. About three years ago, Meet was helping Anshul with his speech when they got the idea to codify the whole experience and make speech therapy accessible and affordable for everyone. Eventually, they would team up with their IIT Delhi batchmate Harsh— who was himself practicing self-therapy, at that time— to start Stamurai.

“The first use case was to treat me,” Anshul says. “Then we started experimenting with a paid version of the app because we were getting a lot of organic downloads.”

The experiment went so well, the trio left their jobs to go “full time.”

“In India, we have only 4,000 qualified speech therapists and they cater to sixty million people with speech disorders. Stamurai is bridging the gap by bringing speech therapy to your smartphone,” he says, adding “we are also providing this at 110th the cost of actual therapy.”

Stamurai

The initial version of the app only had a few basic tools, all from Meet. Today, it can do a whole lot more. An annual subscription costs $100 in the US and around Rs 3,000 in India.

The daily plan, which is fully automated, gives you access to fourteen different techniques and more than fifty plus tools. The team has, also, created an in-app community which acts as a self-help group as well as a safe space for users to come and practice those techniques before applying them in the real world. There is an option to book a speech therapist, too, for one-on-one interactions. This is all virtual. Stamurai has onboarded three speech therapists and relies on consultants based in the US, for this.

Clinical trials, currently being conducted at AIIMS, suggest the app can lead to around 40% increase in fluency, 30% increase in self-esteem, and up to 40% increase in quality of life after three months of practice.

App downloads are happening all around the world, but the real success metric are the stories— of users gaining confidence, clearing job interviews, and moving forward in life and career. To this day, “there is no app like this in the market,” Anshul says.

A year ago, Apple contacted the team, clearly impressed by Stamurai’s immense potential. Anshul says, certified engineers who have been just a phone call away, have helped accelerate and expand the scope of the app helping in refining the UI/UX and giving valuable advice on iterating modern technologies.

Now, Anshul and Co. plan to expand into more languages. Currently, Stamurai is English-only. They also want to cover more speech disorders.

“We started with stuttering because it was our own issue, but we want to expand to speech delay, lisping, autism and the whole special education area in general.”

A game of shadows

Nakul Verma has been making games since 2013 and has been so passionate about it, he quit his potentially more lucrative data analyst job –one he got placed at, straight out of engineering college— to pursue it. Only to realise, soon after, that games around at that time were mostly service based.

He, however, wanted to make something new and unique, which meant switching many jobs, some of which came with low compensation. Until one night, genius struck. The source— the shadow of a water tank on his terrace. Cut to the chase, this inspired Verma to build an imaginative puzzle game, initially called In The Shadow, in which you play with shadows. This was in 2018.

The first draft was only a small prototype demo. With it, he decided to enter the India Game Developer Conference (IGDC). There, the game hit gold, winning the best upcoming game of the year award. It was just the kind of motivation Verma probably needed. He gathered all his savings and flew all the way to San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference (GDC) the next year.

There, his entire perception about games changed, he says, and he started to understand the power of indie games. He came back, quit his job (again), and started Play Before Anything Else, or Playbae. More importantly, it gave him the confidence to polish the rough prototype he had built, out of scratch, and get Alcon Interactive Group to publish the game under a new (also current) name— In My Shadow.

In My Shadow

Today, the game is available across Windows and iOS, Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch platforms.

At GDC 2019, another wonderful thing happened. He met Apple and the team liked his game. In My Shadow would go on to be part of the Indies Games Program, in 2021, around the same time Verma had started planning to port the game to iOS. It meant custom support, straight from Apple, which would eventually make the game look more pleasing on iOS, in a way, he could “never have imagined.”

He was connected with the global editorial teams, too, so when the game officially released, it got featured in over forty countries, including as game of the day in the US.

“This game was designed to be premium intentionally with big focus on design,” he says, adding “it has no ads, hints, or collectibles.”

Verma understands that his game may not necessarily be to everyone’s taste in India, but he believes the situation – for India games— is changing, gradually. Bigger games are being made and consumed in India, now, and “within the next five years, we will not have to make games for other audiences, but we will be able to make them for Indian audiences as well.”  

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