Its recent ranking as the country’s top party school (by none other than Playboy) shows that the University of Pennsylvania knows how to have fun. But “fun” doesn’t have to mean keg stands or body shots. For some students, it means 36 hours locked in one building, coding something special from scratch.
Last weekend, about 1200 students came from around the country to participate in PennApps X, the tenth iteration of a popular hackathon held at UPenn. For some, it was their first hackathon; others had more experience – PennApps is noted for attracting some of the top hackers out there. Everyone dove right in to code, even if they’d never worked on a particular platform before.
Quixey provided mentors and encouragement for the hackers at PennApps. To motivate the hackers, CEO Tomer Kagan gave a keynote speech that packed the auditorium. Hackers crowded the aisles to hear what Tomer had to say about building apps, and his impromptu pitch for an audience member’s app idea was a hit. After the speech, Tomer was besieged by incisive inquiries until 5 in the morning (still early by sleepless hackathon standards).
This year’s eventual PennApps winner was Fuji, an app for developing apps from the browser that reduces the barrier to development. All of the submissions for the event can be seen here.
To get a better idea of what it’s like to sacrifice sleep and sanity for 36 hours, we spoke with a couple of PennApps participants about their hackathon experience and mobile app habits. University of Maryland computer science majors Gaurang Bhatt (GB), Minhaz Mahmud (MM), and Kevin Coxe (KC) all shared their thoughts on mobile with us at the event.
What brings you here to PennApps?
GB: You get access to resources; if you have questions about an API, you can easily walk up to somebody at the hackathon.
KC: You get a chance to do something you’ve never done before. I’ve never done anything like this before. At school, you wouldn’t think to do anything like this.
GB: Hackathons have a more real world mentality. At school, you’ll have a professor, but you’re always following a track that the professor has laid out for you. There is not much room for creativity. It’s a “there is this input, we want this output” situation. At hackathons, you get a chance to build something where you get a chance to decide the inputs and outputs.
How often do you use apps?
MM: Like most people with a smartphone, I use it every day. Apps are pretty critical to my daily work flow. I use different communications and news apps – they make it a lot easier to keep up with everything.
GB: I went through the past month without a computer, so I’ve been using only mobile apps.
What are some unique apps that you use and not everybody uses. Any hidden gems?
GB: I don’t think a lot of people know about Splitwise – an app that helps you keep a running tab, when Venmo is more of an “I want to pay now” app. Both of them have their own merits. They are popular in the developer community, but the developer community is not the majority by any means.
MM: I’m not using that many different apps that other people are not using. I use my phone mostly for critical things; I don’t play much on my phone. Most of it is communication for me, and a little bit of media consumption: I’ll follow up on news or check Reddit. I do have a lot of Chrome extensions that that help with my workflows and mostly work on my laptop.
KC: I actually use a lot of social media apps, YouTube, the Internet. On the iPad, I’ve used some web development applications or SSH, so I can access my work. I don’t have a lot of free time, so I don’t use my phone too much.
What excites you the most about the app industry?
MM: How quickly something can go from “nobody knows about it at all” to, suddenly, several hundred thousand downloads. How explosive the market can be. A long time ago, you did not have such quick ways to share – there are Twitter and Facebook now, all these ways. You can see exponential growth. You can get from just one share – you share something and then all your friends share it. How quickly can something go from nothing to the next big thing.
GB: Another thing is the avenue you have to do something. There are many languages, so if you don’t know one, you know the other. Not long ago there was a point where if you needed to program a server you needed to know C; now you can use PHP, java, no JS, so there is a lot more different variety, and you can do a variety of things. Every language has its pros and cons; not just language, every technology has its pros and cons, but the fact that now you have something to choose from. Now you have options.
MM: It’s also a lot easier to do the development now. There are cross-platform development tools that allow you to write Lua code and export it to both iOS and Android. They may not be the best programs, but it help people that want to get to development and there are a lot of avenues now to get into it without having to be an expert at it. Literally, anyone can make an app.
KC: You don’t have to spend a bunch of money on advertising, because if it works, people start sharing it on the social media, and that’s your advertising.
These days, we have wearables like smart watches or Google Glass. Where do you think the industry is going, or should be going?
GB: I like that we are challenging this paradigm of having just a mouse and keyboard. I know the iPhone wasn’t the first touchscreen device to come out, but it was one of the first revolutionary ones with multi-touch. Now every phone is like that, and touch is now such a significant part of our daily interaction with everything we do.
Some of the virtual reality stuff, it’s great that we are challenging the way we interact with things. Maybe not in the very near future, but I think eventually, we’ll start migrating away from the typical mouse and keyboard scenario.
Eventually we’ll get to a point where we’ll be using wearables to even do the typing for us. It wouldn’t be that hard to have a device where you move your wrist around for typing – it’s a keyboard. There may be other things, other ways to do it; there are other avenues.
What is your most anticipated release (no specifications on the release time)?
MM: Apple Watch and Pay, as this release sets the bar for competition in terms of design.
KC: Wireless charging.
GB: Model 3 from Tesla.
As Playboy put it, “Smarties can party too.” These parties just involve a little more code. And a lot more apps.