Android Influencer: Pushbullet CEO Ryan Oldenburg

ryanoldenburg pushbullet
Credit: Ryan Oldenburg

You may not have heard of the name Ryan Oldenburg, but you’ve likely heard of his app. Pushbullet is one of the more popular applications in the Google Play Store precisely because it’s so powerful. It “pushes” your notifications up to a desktop computer so that you can control your device from there or decide whether or not it’s worth digging out of your bag.

The support behind PushBullet is also a prime example of how community oriented the Android sphere can be, and how developer friendly it is. As part of our Android Influencers interview series, we talked to Oldenburg about how he came up with the idea for PushBullet, why he likes developing for the Android platform, and how the suggestion box helps him figure out what’s next for the app.

Greenbot: How did you come up with the idea for PushBullet?

Oldenburg: The idea for Pushbullet came about when Android 4.1 Jelly Bean was released. As soon as I saw and experienced the notification features they added, I realized they're both amazingly cool and that the notification tray is where I want to be able to put my own things (like notes and to-do lists).

While I wanted to be able to put things into my own notification tray, I definitely didn't want to have to type them on my phone. I really, really hate typing on my phone. I know some people are amazing at it, but I'm horrible. I wanted custom notifications on my phone, in addition to the ability to type them on my computer.

How do you feel about all the success and positive reviews surrounding your app?

As far as the success and positive reviews thus far, they've been awesome. I'm never sure that what I'm adding to the app will be as useful to others as it is for me, but so far the improvements have all gone over amazingly well for Pushbullet’s users.

Before this app, nothing I built and owned myself had ever been anywhere near this popular. Even though the Hipmunk Android app [Ed. note: Oldenburg previously developed for Hipmunk] is really popular, Pushbullet is “my app,” so I feel its success more personally. It also means a lot of pressure to keep doing groundbreaking and amazing things, but that's the best kind of stuff to work on anyway.

Greenbot: How do you decide when to update your app? How do you decide what features to put in?

Oldenburg: I don't personally have a schedule for updating the app. It’s basically a matter of picking a goal that I want to accomplish in an update and working to get it really solid. Once it's solid, the only thing left to do is ship it and see what happens.

Deciding what features to put in is trickier. So far, it's been a combination of the feedback that people using Pushbullet send in (often great things I managed to completely overlook) and any improvements I want to make. The improvements are typically things like adding on new components to the service, such as automatic notification syncing with the desktop app. This wasn't so much a suggestion as a necessary improvement I wanted to make. Now we get suggestions to synchronize notifications across Android devices too, and clearly that's something we'll be working on.

Greenbot: What's the best thing about being an Android developer?

Oldenburg: I think the best thing about being an Android developer is a combination of how huge the opportunity is and how much freedom we have in what we can build. There's like a billion Android phones out there that can run our apps and the Android SDK lets apps do some really amazing things that aren't possible on other platforms. With all those people able to use your software and the freedom to build stuff that isn't possible anywhere else, there's not much to complain about since the rest is all manageable. (Whereas you can't magically make unavailable functionality appear on other platforms.)

Oh—and not having to wait for apps to be published in the Google Play Store can't be overestimated in importance. It's critical to be able to keep momentum, especially when just getting started on a new project.

Greenbot: What are some challenges you've faced developing for Android?

Oldenburg: Android is an extremely large API with a lot of new ideas that I hadn't seen in other programming experiences. Basically, the biggest challenge I've faced is just figuring out how to build things "the right way."

This is the classic programmer challenge, but it's especially true on Android where there's often a lot of ways to do something that have different tradeoffs. I'm never entirely aware of what these tradeoffs are the first time I build a new component, so it means a lot of going back and redoing things after learning more about the system I'm working with.

The results of all of this trial and error over the years is that now I have a pretty good handle on many of Android's APIs, but it's been hard-fought for and the battles continues to this day. An example for the Android developers out there: I'm still not sure of the best strategy for managing Activities, Fragments, and supporting tablets. Sure, Fragments can contain functionality nicely, but Activities inevitably get mixed in to manage them. More specifically, building the list-on-the-left-details-on-the-right screen for tablets felt incredibly hack-y even though it does work well.

Greenbot: When did you become an Android user and why?

Oldenburg: I got started with Android in late 2009, when I bought the original Motorola Droid. The feature I was the most excited about was the free turn-by-turn navigation with Google Maps. At the time, this was simply amazing and it made me realize just how much was possible.

Greenbot: What phone are you currently sporting these days?

Oldenburg: I'm currently using the white Google Play Edition of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and it's on Android 4.4 KitKat.  I'm on Verizon, so I had to do this as a custom installation since Verizon and Google aren't exactly friends. If I could, I'd have upgraded to a Nexus 5, but it's also not an option on Verizon. I can't give up Verizon, though, because having a data connection that actually always works is too important to to me give up, so I'm trapped.

Greenbot: What's one app you can't live without?

Oldenburg: My favorite app of the year is easily Link Bubble. It makes such a huge improvement on the mobile browser experience, that I can never go back to a time without it. Trying to explain what makes it so important doesn't do it justice, but basically it lets you open tabs to links from apps like Twitter and Google+ without ever needing to leave the app. You have to try it.

Greenbot: Any updates on PushBullet that you're excited about? 

Oldenburg: Yeah, definitely. We've added two things lately that I think are extremely cool.

The first is actually in our Windows desktop app, but it works in conjunction with our Android app. You can now get a file from your computer onto your phone by just right-clicking on it and selecting which of your devices you want to send it to. This is by far the easiest way to get a picture or document onto your phone. You have to see it to realize how convenient this is. 

The other feature we added recently is support for replying to text messages from PC. We've done this by partnering with texting apps which enable us to offer the feature without needing to know phone numbers or have SMS permissions. This is supported in several apps now (EvolveSMS, chomp SMS, Vegas SMS, QKSMS, and Sliding Messaging, with Textra coming soon.) We call this quick-reply and again, seeing is believing. 

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