Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The full ST interview with SG Buses developer Muh Hon Cheng

Muh Hon Cheng, the developer of SG NextBus and SG Buses was interviewed by ST over email. ST did not use most of his answers so as a service to the community, we are putting up a slightly edited version of his responses. We have only redacted the email addresses of other developers.

Do note that SBS has since contacted Hon Cheng to say they will reconsider his request to access their data.

When did you develop the SG Buses and SG Nextbus apps?
My first Singapore bus application, Transit was made in January 2008. That was before Apple announced the App Store and users have to jailbreak their phones to install 3rd party applications. It was the first mobile bus application for iPhone. When the App Store came out in July 2008, I submitted the application as SG Buses. In early 2009 when the Android Market becomes available in Singapore, I submitted SG Buses for Android. It is the first Singapore bus application for Android. SG NextBus for iOS was made early last year, and SG Buses for Windows Phone 7 at the end of last year.

How many users did your apps have? What was the business model (selling ad space) - or are these not-for-profit?
SG Buses and SG NextBus in iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7 has been downloaded to 800,000 unique devices in Singapore. These are unique downloads and excludes upgrades. It is also one of the All-Time Top 10 Free iPhone Apps http://iheartapple.org/2011/01/sg-all-time-ios-apps-downloads/

There's is no business model. I did not make this app for profit. It started off as an application that I use to learn about making mobile applications. I try new things in this application before putting it up in other applications. I think a lot of developers started off making a bus application as well. After 3 years, it becomes a passion.

The application is FREE. However, as more users started using the application, server cost started to go up and I have put in advertisements so I don't have to spend my own money to maintain an application I want to keep free.

What platforms did they run on (iPhone, android - this is important as I think the SBS Iris proprietary app runs only on iPhones)

- iOS - has native support for both iPhone and iPad (different UI for iPad)
- Android
- Windows Phone 7

When did you notice that SBS Transit had added a captcha? What did you think? Now that the captcha system is in place are your apps totally unworkable?

SBS started adding captcha about 2 weeks ago. A lot of bus applications are affected, for iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7.

My application still works because I have found other source of information. In fact, I have just submitted an update for SG NextBus that will have islandwide SMRT scheduled arrival time as well. It's scheduled arrival time rather than real-time arrival, but it's still useful.

Here's what I think:
Many government organizations in Singapore are trying to encourage mobile development in Singapore. ComfortDelgro is doing the opposite. They are stifling mobile developers. New mobile developers learn by making simple applications. A bus guide is one of them. In fact, I have frequently received emails from students in local university/polytechnics asking for information about how they can start making a bus guide for their school projects. They want data to build their application. Project Nimbus is one good example of an initiative to bring data sets to developers to encourage innovation. They have data from LTA, NEA etc, but they do not have bus arrival time.

More choice is better for users. Prior to SBS's blocking, there was a healthy competition among developers to improve their applications to get more users. Developers think hard to improve their apps to better other apps. Now most of the apps have been removed from the App Store because they are no longer working.

Ethics? Developers work hard on their app for years as a free service for public transport users in Singapore, long before SBS notices the demands for it. Then they decided to make their own application and shut off other developers.

SBS is not the only company providing bus service in Singapore. They will want to protect their own interest, but their interest may not be aligned with public transport users. SBS is only providing arrival time for SBS buses, not SMRT. 3rd party developers have been providing integrated solution with SBS and SMRT arrival time. By blocking access, they are forcing their own customers to download their own IRIS iphone application, that has so far been receiving bad reviews by users in the App Store.

Having been working on bus application for 3 years now, I am well aware that SBS bus arrival time server is not able to handle existing traffic from mobile applications for a very long time now. I am surprised that a big organization like SBS is so slow to react, to allocate more resources to keep up with their customer usage. If SBS is blocking access to ease server traffic, they are only depriving their own users from using the service. Whether it is their own IRIS apps, or other 3rd party apps, the demand from users remain the same.

Bus arrival time information is very popular among mobile users in Singapore. SBS could position itself as one of the main supporter for Singapore mobile developer scene by providing free access and organizing competition to encourage creative ways to improve public transport in Singapore. It is very unfortunate that SBS has decided to take their current stance. Hopefully, LTA can provide these information in Project Nimbus. LTA has already provided many information through Project Nimbus.

It is unfortunate that this happens just before code::Xtreme:Apps 2011, a 24 hours competition organized by ITSC (Information Technology Standards Committee) and supported by IDA Singapore and SPRING Singapore to encourage mobile developer scene in Singapore. Ironically, the theme this year is 'Personalized Transportation'.

Lucian Teo has a nice writeup about this. He heads websg meetup in Singapore. He will be a good source of information if you want to quote someone.

You can also find users complaining about this in Twitter.

I understand you asked SBS Transit and ComfortDelgro if you could get approval to use bus-time data. What did they say? Would you be able to forward me the correspondence? Have you had any updates from SBS Transit or ComfortDelgro yet?

ComfortDelgro rejected my request without any reason. I have responded to clarify the requirements, and asked for reconsideration. There has been no respond to that.

(Update: Comfort Delgro has since emailed Hon Cheng to tell him that they would reconsider his application.)

I have not heard of any developers that have received approval yet, even though ComfortDelgro said they have received overwhelming requests from developers. That can't be true because there are probably only around 20 bus guide applications in Singapore, and that number should not be beyond their capacity to handle.

I will forward the email to you separately.

Which other apps do you know of that were using this data from SBS? (I am in touch with the creator of sbsnextbus - Deepak from antrix.net - and the gothere.sg team so far. Did ShowNearby, Singeo, and tranSGuide use the same data as well? Are there any others you know of?)

I'm not sure about ShowNearby, other affected applications are
- Singeo - because it users deepak's antrix.net
- transGuide for iOS
- Singapore Bus Guide for iOS
- bus@sg for iOS
- SG Transport for iOS

There are many other iOS applications, but they are been removed from the App Store. Most likely there were removed by the developer because the app no longer works

- SBS NextBus from Android (Denis Solonenko)
- Singapore Bus Guide for Android (Huy Phan)
- SBS Next Bus for Android (Megapixel Solution)
- SG Bus Arrival Time for Android (gwofoundry)
- SG Bus Timing for Android (Uandroid)
- Bus@sg for Android (Ferry Tanu)
- SG Transport for Windows Phone 7
- BusGuide for Windows Phone 7
... and many more

I have contacted IDA, because I feel SBS's action is stifling developer in Singapore
I contacted a Microsoft Evangelist that is concerned about this issue because it affects application for Windows Phone 7
I contacted and found that Project Nimbus where IDA and Microsoft is involved in, is also trying to get bus arrival time data for developers
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