According to Anand Agarawala, computer interfaces “don’t go as deep or [aren’t] as emotionally engaging as they possibly could be.” To some, this statement may seem far-fetched and unrealistic—but ask users of Apple products how they feel about their iPhones and MacBooks, and you won’t have difficulty finding some who profess a love for these gadgets.
Agarawala was a life-long Mac devotee, too, until he was forced to start using PCs in university. By 2006, he had grown tired of the simple Windows desktop that lifelessly glared back at him and therefore wanted a new engaging and exciting platform. Taking matters into his own hands, he developed BumpTop, the tech community’s favourite new product, for his master’s thesis in computer engineering at the University of Toronto.
According to its website, BumpTop is an “innovative 3D user interface enabling natural organization and sharing.” More explicitly, it enables users to replicate their computer desks on their PC desktop by doing things like placing files in random (or not so random) piles, pinning sticky notes to the walls, and personalizing the space with pictures. It’s also compatible with multi-touch—or touch screen—technology, which adds an extra element of ‘cool’, and users can create their own themes. In essence, BumpTop adds life to the banal Windows desktop that has more or less looked the same for the past fifteen years. As Agarawala says, “the desktop hasn’t evolved the way that computers have evolved.”
Anand Agarawala playing with BumpTop on his multi-touch screen.
Before BumpTop, nothing tested the computer desktop’s limitations. But looking back, user interest for a bright new idea in the space wasn’t hard to find, and this desire became evident as soon as Agarawala posted a demo of BumpTop on YouTube in 2006. The clip quickly became the most-watched video during a twenty-four-hour period, and the attention from the tech community snowballed until Agarawala was invited to speak at the coveted TED conference in California in 2007.
Since wowing the West Coast crowd, life has been a whirlwind for the small Bump team: they have secured angel funding from G.R. Heffernan and tech big wigs Andy Hertzfeld and Austin Hill (which took some time to lock down) and, more recently, raised venture capital from GrowthWorks Capital and Extreme Venture Partners during a speedy marketing round late last year. With this money, Agarawala is no longer restricted by the limitations of the grant he received from the Ontario Centres of Excellence that forced him to stay in Ontario after graduating from U of T.
Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans in the laid back Yonge Street office (complete with a patio overlooking the lake and Rock Band in the lounge) that Bump Technologies shares with one of its venture capital partners, Agarawala says that he doesn’t mind that he’s still here. Initially, he admits, moving to California may have decreased the difficulty in securing funding because its venture capital community is much larger than Toronto’s, but he also knows that it might have made it harder for him to attract workers because BumpTop would have been just another startup in the region. He also doesn’t like the suburban environment in the Valley and its corresponding dependence on a car. In Toronto, Agarawala can bike to work (from Queen West) and he can more easily lure talented employees, including former colleagues from his masters program, to become stakeholders in the company.
To this day, Agarawala is surprised that his school work developed into something so massive, but he certainly struck the right chord: Microsoft and Apple have both filed patents for their own engaging user interfaces but have yet to launch retail products. In contrast, Agarawala and his team have beta-tested BumpTop over the past year, ultimately releasing twenty major revisions of the beta version, and the team received feedback from the 120,000 beta users who were eager to assist in the development. These keeners submitted their opinions in the form of emails and forum posts, and Agarawala capitalized on their knowledge by designing a voting system that enabled them to share ideas and then vote amongst each other in order to determine the best of these.
Anand Agarawala on the rooftop patio of his Yonge Street office.
A final version of BumpTop launched just last Wednesday and it has received a world of positive publicity. Since, BumpTop users have found a few glitches, but there have been no problems addressing these: instead of using the waterfall development process (in which apps are pushed along the stream of development until they are finally launched abruptly over a “waterfall” with no chance for recourse), the Bump team views its interface as an “agile iterative technology” that can be continuously adapted. Two new updates addressing small bugs have already been released, and both automatically installed upon re-opening the program.
In an era characterized by hysteria for Apple products, Agarawala took a risk when he developed an engaging interface for Windows. Fortunately for him, the decision wasn’t so thought-out: he received a free PC upon enrolling at U of T and he used it to develop BumpTop because it was all was allowed to use for school. Today, using Windows is probably BumpTop’s key feature because of the overwhelming number of PC users. Agarawala also admits that had he developed the interface for a Mac, BumpTop probably would have been bought by Apple early in the development process because it corresponds with their most recent wave of products.
Given BumpTop’s free range with PCs, the development team has already started planning for the future. There isn’t much that can be publicly disclosed at this point, but an emotionally engaging browser could be in the works, considering that these applications have also evolved very little since the ’90s. (Firefox made some improvements, but it didn’t change the game.)
There is also a chance that BumpTop fails to take off outside of the tech community. As a startup, it could go everywhere or nowhere, but Agarawala doesn’t seem to mind—this is his (and most of his colleagues’) first real job and he’s just taking it all in for now. There is much to be learned from this experience. Regardless of whether their next step is a new Bump application or a whole new product altogether, Agarawala and his team appear to understand the core of what could be the future of PCs. As a computer user, rest assured: they’re more than bright enough to manage it.
Photos courtesy of Bump Technologies and by Tim Kiladze.