While we at Pocket-lint are busy basking in the limelight of our appearance on The Apprentice, in fairness, the real star of episode 2 season 7 was a London- (and now New York) based app development and delivery company known as Grapple. Stuart, Chris and Rik had plenty of fun scrutinising the apps that the two competing teams had produced but it was Grapple CEO Alistair Crane and his troops that had the task of building the things and getting them onto the open market in just 24 hours. We caught up with him to find out just how difficult it was up against the clock, under the cameras and in a room full of egos.
“When we first got the call from the researcher at the BBC - and they have thousands of them who’ll often get us on the phone for predictions about app growth in the future - we weren’t really sure why they wanted to use us for the show that they couldn’t name but with ‘a guy with a Rolls Royce and some contestants that get fired’ as they put it.”
A small company at the time when the series was filmed in 2010, Grapple had only been going a matter of months with a team of 15 or 16 of them on the premises - worlds away from the 60 plus-strong team the company now boasts on both sides of the Atlantic.
“It turns out they’d been doing their research,” Crane tells us over the phone. “We’d positioned ourselves as company that could build apps really quickly. What they wondered was if we could do it in 24 hours.”
As it turns out, Grapple managed it in 20 with the help of a development and testing team willing to bring their sleeping bags into the office and a constant supply of food from Domino’s Pizza, but building the apps was only one part of the problem. The other was getting the various mobile platforms to accept the software onto their app stores within the same time frame; fortunately something that all of them were happy to specially speed up - all but one that is.
“Ovi were great and BlackBerry were happy to help on conference calls from Canada at 3am guiding us through the labyrinth of procedure needed to get the app up onto App World as quickly as possible. Google were very helpful too but a day turn around is not a problem on Android anyway.
“It was only Apple who basically e-mailed back a one-liner very politely telling us to fuck off. They have rules and regulations and the message was that, even if you’re Alan Sugar, you can’t have your app up on the App Store overnight.”
Nonetheless, the experiment was a successful one with tens of thousands of The Apprentice-designed and Grapple-built apps getting downloaded (not without the help of Pocket-lint’s App of the Day slot), and it turned out to be the girls team that won the day but what did Crane think of what the teams produced made?
“To begin with I was just glad that neither team chose something that would be hard to build as a cross platform app overnight like a game and, as it turned out, both were fairly similar.”
Each team designed a soundboard-type app with the same kind of marketing strategy in what Crane describes as “snackable content” - apps designed to turn on, inform or entertain and then get switched off again. So, did the right app win the day?
“No, I don’t think so. The girls were good marketeers with the right metadata but the boys had a stronger idea and were more together. In normal circumstances it was an idea that would have worked better. The business model wasn’t correct and it needed refining but it had a good name and you could see it working. The girls’ one was just a bit random.”
The problem for the boys, as it turned out, was that while they designed a superior app, the metadata they attached to it didn’t do the job. While a clever piece of poetry heavy on British idioms was ok for a UK audience of would-be downloaders, it meant nothing to the far larger market around the world who were given little idea of what the app was all about.
“The 3,000 to 1,200 downloads lead the guys had at the end of the first day seemed like a lot to them but we all know how quickly app figures can change. They’d tried to be too clever and it was the girls’ more sensible ‘Ronseal’ approach what counted.”
Despite the mistakes that the Grapple team could see coming from a mile, it was their brief not to interfere or offer any insight or guidance in any way to the candidates, not that they would have got a word in edge-ways anyway.
“I thought I’d got the glamorous job being assigned the girls’ team,” confessed Crane, “but, being an early stage show with a room full of candidates with their own opinions and no technical knowledge, it was quite a sight but I was still surprised when I saw on the show how many faces I’d been pulling.”
While there was the odd sticky moment when one of the girls sat there and explained to Grapple how Foursquare worked asking if they could replicate if for them overnight, the candidates on the whole made a good impression on Crane and his team.
“I was quite impressed with the effort and work level,” he admitted. “There were actually some good ideas that got rejected that didn’t make the final edit including a discussion that the guys had about working with image capture and content sharing. That would have been really good.”
And what of the individuals themselves? Were there any that stood out as strong contenders to win the series?
“There’s lots of competition, as ever, but I thought Melody was very strong. I didn’t have as much contact with the boys’ team but Glenn Ward seemed to be the pick of them. As for this episode, the right person got fired. I’ve no idea who’ll go next but if it were up to me it would be Susan Ma.”
Sadly, neither of the two Apprentice apps will be available to download again. So, unless you were lucky enough to grab them the first time, there’ll be no infamous novelty soundboards for you. Grapple’s 20-hour service, it seems, will also be a thing of the past with Crane admitting:
“My first worry is that our bigger clients will call up and ask why it took us three weeks to do theirs. Ultimately, it’s good to know that we can do things quickly but we spend longer with our clients because it’s about designing and developing apps to make millions of pounds worth of sales rather than just a quick clever marketing idea.”
“All the same, this high pressure version made for a really good episode of the Apprentice. It was genuinely challenging for the candidates and very current, even if it was quite funny seeing Alan Sugar, who I rate very highly, also managing to sound a bit like my grandad when he talked about people downloading apps from the Internet.”
If you didn’t catch episode 2 of the Apprentice, then head over to BBC iPlayer to see how it all panned out and if you’re thinking of developing an app for yourself then, take a look at our beginners' guide.
Check out our thoughts of the whole thing in Pocket-lint Podcast #40 - The Apprentice Special.