Developer Spotlight: Greg Hrebek | webOS Nation

Developer Spotlight: Greg Hrebek

by Derek Kessler Wed, 11 May 2011 8:49 am EDT

Join us as we talk to developers large and small in the webOS community. This week: Greg Hrebek of Syntactix. Are you a developer interested in getting spotlighted? Hit us up!

Name: Greg Hrebek

Company: Syntactix, LLC

Location: Melbourne, Florida

webOS Apps: Pack ‘n’ Track, YouView Visual Voicemail, TripThat, Mobile Florist, GotPaste (upcoming), Day Trader (upcoming), CrispBooks (upcoming), and many more, along with Metrix Developer Analytics.

Current device: Pre 2 on Sprint

Tell us about yourself. Really, we want to know.

I am the president of Syntactix, LLC. Syntactix started when I and four other colleagues decided to do something about the fact that the companies we worked for were making a tremendous amount of money off the creative and innovative work we were actually producing for them. We all still work full time at our Fortune 500 companies in various roles and industries with aspirations of building the American Dream.

After working on a few ventures that did not gain much traction, we decided that mobile is where the future is at and the market hasn’t even began to scratch the surface of what it will become. However, we did not want to be wrapped up in the iOS app rat race where apps are more like fads then real tools. Android was still very young and was already showing signs of fragmentation, which has just gotten worse and RIM seems to be simply dying a slow death due to lack of innovation. Palm and now HP showed and still have the greatest potential of all the mobile OS’s.

When we decided to develop for webOS, we believed that the success of the webOS app ecosystem would depend heavily on a mixture of high profile businesses combined with the types of apps and tools that are found on the existing and older more established platforms. Thus it became our mission to provide high quality apps through notable companies that our user base would recognize and trust. Accomplishing this mission has become a win for everyone involved. With each successful app available on the market, our users gain confidence that they can find apps that will truly benefit them building confidence not only in us as a developer but more importantly the platform all together.

A large key to our success has become our ability to empower businesses to expand their market opportunity into HP’s webOS while requiring little to no resources on their part. Many companies are very hesitant or will even flat out ignore HP webOS and do not want to commit resources to something that they believe they might not see a valued return on investment. Our niche so to speak is breaking down this barrier, requiring little to no resources from that company at no cost. We have a variety of monetization strategies at our disposal from flat out revenue sharing to monetizing completely on our own. This is a win for everyone involved. HP webOS gains confidence in consumer’s eyes as they see valued companies join the ecosystem. Companies can expand their market opportunities and revenue streams with little to no investment. Everybody wins and we assume the risk by investing our time and money not theirs.

We also want to enable developers especially indie developers by helping to bridge their development gaps and accomplish big things. Recently we added Brad Ball and James Harris to our team. Brad is a very talented developer who loves webOS but only has a few hours a week to dedicate to development. Being resource constrained, he doesn’t have time to bring a full-featured app to the catalog and provide the support users deserve. The combined resources of Syntactix and Brad is perfect and let’s each of us contribute our core strengths for a greater purpose.

James is well known in the webOS community for creating some great apps with exquisite attention to user interfaces. You might have noticed James’ touch in our recent TripThat and Mobile Florist apps. James was a great asset in the development of these apps while still enhancing his own apps as well as working on a few news ones. Working together, we were able to get apps to market faster, take on larger feature sets, and provide a higher quality product. We are always looking for great developers to join our team, simply drop us a note and we can talk.

What in your background led you to develop for webOS?

I have an undergraduate degree in computer engineering and graduate degrees in software engineering and systems engineering. The other team members have advanced degrees in mechanical engineering, civil engineering, physics, and computer science.

My software specialty is in embedded real-time safety critical systems and that knowledge, among many others, has allowed me to pick up webOS very quickly. However, these days I do more program/project management while running an R&D department. Software is really only a portion of what goes into making a great app and the diverse backgrounds the team has is across engineering and the experiences gained in the roles of their day job really is what completes the package.

Your app YouView was the #1 Hot Apps winner last year, and Pack ‘n’ Track won a category in the PreCentral Best of 2010 awards. How does that feel?

It is very flattering and shows that you don’t need to be a big corporation or business to make a splash. We were extremely surprised to win the Hot Apps contest. The webOS community has been very good to us, supporting our work and providing constructive and valuable feedback that just makes the things we do that much better. It is a real motivator to know we are making a difference and it’s the appreciation the community shows that provides the extra fuel when we are running lean.

Why do you continue to develop for webOS?

webOS really breaks down the barriers from both a commercial and technical aspect. The time it takes to go from concept to prototype is very low. Even when we choose to expand some of our apps to other platforms, webOS will remain where things are done first. We also see the potential that webOS has and are excited about the roadmap before it. I think everyone wishes we could travel down that road a bit faster but like HP has stated this is a marathon not a sprint.

Yeah it is very true that there are things that, as a developer, I wish I had access to like API’s and tools go that the other platforms have. However, webOS has one thing no other platform has, an amazing developer relations team. The very fact that I know who to go ask when there is an issue and can put a name and face with them is priceless. They have been invaluable with their assistance on issues and providing great candid feedback. They are extremely active on the developer forums, they utilize social media effectively, and they show equal respect to developers big and small creating a personal relationship between the developers and a large corporation. Plus, they put up with a heck of a lot of whining from us developers taking the brunt of the lash back for being forced to deliver news for many things outside their control and circle of influence. I would say it is because of this group of individuals that many developers are weathering the current storm. One of the things I would like to see remain constant is that after the storm clears and the HP scale really takes off, I hope that this relationship between HP and their developers doesn’t become diluted and desensitized.

Do you do any development for other platforms?

We have dabbled in some shape or form on all the major platforms. I can say with the utmost confidence that the webOS development experience trumps them all from development environment, loading and testing of apps, to the app submission and maintenance process. Although the webOS system still has plenty of areas to improve on, they are definitely on the right track.

What’s your take on the current state of webOS development?

I think most developers will agree that it’s frustrating. We essentially have fragmentation at the developer level. The good news is that it is only temporary and convergence is on the horizon. We know the Veer will launch as Mojo only, the TouchPad will launch with Enyo and the ability to use Mojo, and the Pre 3 will launch with a mix of Mojo and Enyo. The phones will transition to Enyo exclusively at some point, the question is when?

As a developer, you have to make a choice, continue down the road with Mojo and know you’ll have the larger market now and a large amount of rework later, or dive in head first to Enyo limiting your market size now but future proofing for the long term. Being forced to constantly rewrite and work around system bugs or limitations really stifles growth. We always hear the excuse that HP only has a limited number of resources; well, developers have less. We understand you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet as the old saying goes, but we sure hope Enyo is tasty because we are ready to feast!

Where do you see webOS development going in the future? In particular, how do you see Enyo and devices like the TouchPad running webOS 3.0 affecting your development?

Enyo brings a very object oriented approach to app development. This is something that developers coming from other platforms that use lower level languages can relate to better. This is accomplished without sacrificing the power that web technologies like HTML5 and CSS bring to the table. It does require a different way of thinking about your app structure but this is more in line with my software upbringing and it doesn’t change the Model View Controller (MVC) design pattern that webOS promotes. As web technologies are growing, we are seeing more and more frameworks adopt traditional software engineering approaches so as they scale they are maintainable. This is what Enyo brings to the table for both HP and developers.

Apps that are tablet-centric we will develop from the ground up in Enyo along with their supporting phone versions. Apps that are phone-centric, we will continue to develop them in Mojo and bring them to market while leveraging good software design to minimize the rework we will need to do to bring them to Enyo when the time comes.

Given the chance, what’s the one thing you would change about the webOS development process?

It goes without saying more API’s, tools, and really just letting developers spread their wings. One thing I would like to have is visibility into the status of known system issues or requests so that we can help develop test cases for and mitigate our users’ expectations. This is easier said than done, as you don't want to create rework and manage two tracking databases and a variety of other details that I won't bore you with.

What are you working on right now? There must be some pressure to follow up, being the Hot Apps winner and all.

We just released Mobile Florist, which allows a user to utilize the FTD network and order flowers and gifts often with same day delivery. You get fresh flowers from a local florist delivered without the overnight voyage in a dark box that tests the tensile strength of cardboard.

We have a variety of apps in various stages of development, mostly with a business and productivity focus. We also are taking the opportunity to really expand our existing apps as we port them to Enyo over the next few months.

We are just about to do a huge backend update to Metrix, our developer analytics suite. We moved away from SQL and onto MongoDB. The service receives over 12 million pings a month and we needed something that would scale with where we want to take the service and the growth we expect webOS to experience. The user interface will also receive a makeover moving to HTML5 interactive graphs and more custom analytics.

We have a lot of exciting things cooking and are looking for some great cooks to help out!

Thank you so much for your time. Any parting thoughts for the webOS community?

The webOS community is phenomenal and is unlike any other product following I have ever seen. I know as both a user and a developer it can be extremely frustrating at times, but hang in there. I know, I know, everyone is saying that and you are tired of waiting. HP is a behemoth of an animal and it takes a while to get that beast moving, but once it does, the moment is fierce and nothing will stop it, not even a few lawn ornaments or the garden wall.