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VOL. 37 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 28, 2013

Your favorite apps, created in Brentwood

By Joe Morris

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Bill Tallent, CEO of Mercury Intermedia in Brentwood, is no stranger to computer innovation, having begun programming in 1962. Mercury creates apps for several high-profile clients.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Tapping an app to see what’s on television, or maybe to do some research on a car before buying it? Chances are good you are using an app on your mobile device that was developed here in Nashville.

Creativity in Music City isn’t limited to music, and software developers have long found success here. In fact, those worlds have often collided as music streaming and other online programs rose to become major distribution channels in the last decade.

Entertainment-oriented apps were the entrée into the app-development the world for many companies here and have proven to be a solid area of new business.

“We develop them for large media companies,” says Bill Tallent, chief executive officer of Mercury Intermedia in Brentwood, which lists USA Today, the Washington Post, Fox News, Xfinity, Showtime and the Smithsonian among its clients.

“We were building apps for desktop computers when Apple announced the iPhone, and we just visualized it at the time as something clever that would sell more phones,” he adds.

“When we saw what they were doing, we knew it was the advent of fourth-generation computing. We walked away from desktop apps and pushed all our chips to the center of the table and invested in the mobile app business. We knew it would be a whole new range of computing, and fortunately for us, it has turned out to be that way.”

The company has been around since 1995, and Tallent himself has been in computing since 1962. Or, as he puts it, “I’ve been through mainframes, minicomputers, PCs and now this, which is by far the biggest generation of computing in history.”

And unlike other eras of computer hardware and software development, apps don’t require the developer to be near the vendor, so a city like Nashville can easily develop a talent hub to service the niche.

“We have 25 developers and continue to be able to find high-quality people in Nashville because there’s a good tech sector,” Tallent says.

“We get a lot of students from Vanderbilt’s engineering school, and we’re able to do business with most anybody, anywhere. There might be a trip involved to meet with a new client, but from there on it’s mostly by phone, so Nashville’s at no disadvantage at all in terms of location.”

The drummer behind AutoAmigo

Beat Zenerino, a musician who earned an electrical engineering degree in his native Switzerland, began writing music software for Apple in the 1990s. He has developed an car-pricing app for Univision.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

In addition to developers coming from Middle Tennessee colleges and universities, Music City also benefits from musicians – writers and performers alike – who tinker with all software and manner of apps because of the creativity allowed.

Take Beat Zenerino, a drummer and software developer who recently produced a cell phone application, AutoAmigo, for Univision that allows people to scan factory invoices to learn pricing, rebates, gas mileage and more about a car.

As a software artist, Zenerino says he’s able to keep two passions on the front burner at once.

“I have been playing in a band since high school and working with electronics for a long time, too, so it’s all been in there together for a long time,” says Zenerino, who grew up in Switzerland, where he earned an electrical engineering degree. He relocated to Nashville after a fellow student and musician convinced him to give Music City a try.

In the early 1990s, he’d begun writing music software in between performances, and by the late 1990s was writing pretty much exclusively for Apple products. That left him well-positioned to capitalize on the iPod and iPhone when they made their respective debuts.

He keeps a keyboard next to his computers and he compares app development to the process of writing a symphony.

Zenerino eventually began his own business, working on a bar-code scanner app for car purchasers, which eventually morphed, into AutoAmigo. Univision ran a test-market pilot last year in Miami, and it has eventually rolled out and has found strong success within both the Spanish- and English-speaking communities.

Next up will be Bluetooth-enabled hardware that acts as a leash, of sorts. It attaches to a pet collar, key ring or whatever the user wants to track, and a beep sounds when the target moves too far away from the phone. And all the while, Zenerino will continue to tweak his existing products and grow his revenue stream.

“Usually a client pays for the first version, but they then will usually hire me as an ongoing consultant so that I can keep adding new features to the app,” he explains.

“They own the app, but I am able to stay with it on a consulting basis.”

‘We scampered down to … Apple’

Looking for a new car? Here’s how to tap into Beat Zenerino’s AutoAmigo technology:

Sign up at AutoAmigo.com. Download the app and schedule an appointment with a dealer.

Once the app is downloaded to a cell phone, the customer is ready to visit a dealership to view vehicles and scan factory invoices. All data is placed in a virtual “garage” for easy access and comparison-shopping.

Information includes the factory price, the dealer price and the AutoAmigo pre-negotiated price.

Compare cars on criteria such as size, comfort, gas mileage, colors, design, special features, durability, consumer rankings, reviews and availability. The app allows users to study the vehicle on the small screen by using interactive, 360-degree rotating images. A shopper can also find out what the dealer will pay for his or her used car.

Car buyers later meet with a sales representative to quickly finalize the deal. The agent has access to the same data, so he or she already knows what the customer wants or needs.

Like most other companies who play in this space, Firefly Logic got into the app business a little more than 10 years ago when a group of software consultants saw the iPhone for the game-changer that it was.

“We had all worked around Nashville for a while, and when the software Internet bubble collapsed we found ourselves working for HCA, which was a good, safe harbor for all sorts of developers,” says Ben Henderson, senior software engineer and partner. “After things stabilized, we decided to form our own company.”

The Firefly team continues to do web work and other development. In addition to app work, it also focuses on web-enabled software and applications, Henderson says.

“We’re nerds driven by software passion, but we had stayed true to one technology stack, which was the Microsoft stack, and it was a great outlet for us,” he says.

“But then mobile came, which was a new frontier. We scampered down to the Apple store and bought some Macs, and went about the process of climbing that learning curve to work in a new language and a new set of frameworks.

“It’s given us a lot of intellectual stimulation, and it’s become a viable line of business.”

Henderson says the Nashville market did not initially do much with apps due to sticker shock, so most of their clients were brought in from elsewhere. That’s slowly begun to change.

“A lot of individuals came to us wanting to create a new, goofy app, something that was a novelty, and we worked up a proposal,” he says. “When they realized what it would cost to have custom software development done, they often would not go forward.

“But as mobile has matured, so have our customers, and all the time we are getting involved with bigger clients, and working with bigger projects.

“Also, projects rarely involve just mobile – we usually connect the dots in some fashion to web and services so that the app is a real performance enhancer for the company.”

App development continues to evolve, Henderson adds, which means companies in that market are able to grow accordingly.

“We hired our first designer as an employee a couple of years ago in response to the high expectations for user experience,” he says. “We always collaborated with a designer, the expectations for apps, and even inward-facing web apps, continues to rise.

“These projects are not trivial; there are multiple people playing roles, from developers to project managers and designers. You have to have a real business mission if you want an app developed, and you have to support it when it goes out. We didn’t go into it lightly, and we tell our clients the same.”

Make your app stand out

That message is preached at Streamweaver, as well. The company began two years ago with a focus on core video technology, and now works in many different aspects of mobile video, says Jamin Guy, director of product development.

“With the App Store getting more and more crowded, it’s important to make your apps stand out,’’ Guy says. “Providing a great user experience and interesting features are great ways to do that.

“We have tried to focus on how our users are using our apps so we can iterate in ways that will create a delightful experience for them. With the introduction of iOS 7 later this year we will have even more tools to create these experiences.”

And, like other developers, he says that Streamweaver sees Nashville as a good place to start, and grow, this kind of technology business.

“Nashville has tremendous creative energy, technical talent and active investors,” Guy says.

“We’ve been able to build and fund the company in Nashville and plan to continue to innovate here. It’s no secret that Nashville is a hot spot right now.

“With a growing reputation as an entrepreneurial hub, our city serves as an ideal home base as we work to scale nationally in the consumer mobile video space.”

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