Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Easy Rider: An interview with iSinGeo’s Jon Petersen

Thanks to his web app, iSinGeo, Jon Petersen (above) can always find a latte.

Do you regularly find yourself in an unfamiliar part of Singapore, desperately searching for an OCBC ATM or a Starbucks outlet? If so, then iSinGeo is a godsend.

Punch in your location and this excellent iPhone web app will tell you what’s nearby. The list is astonishingly long and ranges from Apple stores and bike shops to mosques and supermarkets.

Select a category, say Starbucks, and iSinGeo will pull up a static Google map with the little bubbles showing the Starbucks outlets in the vicinity (sadly none near where I am now). Pick a particular movie theatre and iSinGeo will bring you to the Yahoo page showing you what movies are showing at that theatre today.

iSinGeo is a web app version of the SinGeo website, located at www.singeo.com.sg. While they share the same database, the website differs from the web app. The focus of the website is data-rich maps so you can see, for example, where all the dengue hotspots are. The web app, on the other hand, aims to provide location-based data.

Who’s Johnny?

The person behind iSinGeo and SinGeo is Jon Petersen, a 44-year-old English IT consultant based in Singapore. Remarkably, Jon does not have a background in programming. He used to work for an American software company where he was running the marketing division for the Asia Pacific.

Jon was posted to Singapore in 2003 but was made redundant a year and a half later. Refusing to let that setback hold him down, he decided to take the plunge and set up his own business because, as he says, “I had had enough of working for American software companies.”

His company began by selling market research software and providing consultancy services to other companies interested in maps. Over time, the mapping business has grown, largely because of the SinGeo website, which acts as a showcase for his talents and expertise. (When asked, why maps? His reply was: “I think it may be in the blood... fascination with maps does seem to be a bit of a British thing.)

He started SinGeo as a hobby in late 2006 using satellite images from Google Earth. In January 2007, Google Maps released street maps of Singapore through its application programming interface (API) which allows developers to embed Google Maps into their web pages and to add content to the maps. When the Singapore street maps were released, Jon switched to using them and SinGeo as we know it was born.

SinGeo has maps of MRT stations, dengue hotspots, as well as off-road bike trails (Jon has two mountain bikes, a single speed rigid and a Scott Hard Tail) and historic places.

Developing for the iPhone

Being the owner of a hacked iPod Touch as well as an avid Mac user – he has a iMac, a 15-inch MacBook Pro and an original Mac Mini – developing a version of SinGeo for the iPhone was a natural next step. With the help of Joe Goh, a Mac developer and friend, Jon spent about two months developing the iSinGeo web app. It was finally launched in June 2008.

Since the launch of the iPhone in Singapore, iSinGeo has been getting between 300 and 500 unique users a day, up from the 50 to 100 users it used to get before the launch. About two-thirds of the visitors are either using an iPhone or an iPod, he says.

The web app are still not as popular as the SinGeo website though. According to Jon, the web app has about a third the number of visitors of the main site. “Because singeo.com.sg has been around a while, it's quite prominent in search listings,” he notes. “Also, isingeo.com is just for iPhone users in Singapore - a pretty limited market as you know.”

Native app in the works

Jon is now busy working on a native app for the iPhone that will use the built-in location finder on the iPhone. It’s still in the early stages though and Jon is still trying to decide what features the native app will have. “I may take stuff out of the web app version to get some differentiation,” he say. “But I don’t want to piss anyone off. At the moment, I’m getting about 400 users a day and I don’t want to take functionality away from them.”

Complicating matters is that web apps have advantages over native apps. With web apps, adding new content and correcting errors to the database is easy because all the data sits on the web server. Jon notes: “As an example I added AXS stations earlier last week and immediately got some feedback from a user about some inaccuracies. Once I fixed them in the database, the new data was available to everyone.”

He hasn’t set a deadline to deliver the native app though because he’s still learning to program for the iPhone. However, he’s willing to put in the effort because he sees the tremendous potential of the platform. “I think its impact is going to be enormous. Apple calls it an iPhone but it’s so much more than a phone. This is the converged device that they have been promising for years.”

Jon’s favourite apps on his iPhone

- Twinkle, a twitter client that tells you who’s nearby twittering too
- Shazam, an app that identifies songs that are playing (not available on the Singapore App Store though. The closest equivalent is midomi.)
- NeoReader, a bar code scanner
- Google Mobile App, a search utility that searches the iPhone as well as the web (also not available on the Singapore App Store)

External links


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