Developing Minds Want to Know: Q&A with Sebastian Brannstrom of Lyft

by Brad Spirrison

Sebastian BrannstromLyft is a cool, new on-demand ride-sharing service from Zimride Inc. While the service is currently only available in San Francisco, it’s still a great idea and will hopefully spread to more cities soon. We enjoyed the Lyft Android app and were happy to feature it as one of our daily picks the other week.

In today’s Developing Minds Want to Know, we talk to Sebastian Brannstrom, lead engineer at Lyft. He tells us how he got into app development, how he harnesses innovation, the technical constraints Lyft has faced and how he sees the mobile industry growing in the future.


Key Company Facts:

Name and Title: Sebastian Brannstrom, Lead Engineer

Company: Lyft

Location: San Francisco

Size (Revenue and/or Employees): 32 employees

Primary Apps/Platforms: Lyft for Android and iOS


APPOLICIOUS: What inspired you to become an app creator?

SEBASTIAN BRANNSTROM: I figuratively slipped on a banana peel, and ended up as a contractor working on Symbian apps. Coming from enterprise backend systems, it felt very refreshing to work on something that ended up in people’s hands and pockets, so I decided to stay in the mobile sector.

Here’s a video interview with Lyft co-founder John Zimmer which explains a bit more about how Lyft works:

APPO: How long have you been developing apps, and what is the most significant difference between now and when you began?

SB: I started working on Symbian apps in 2006. The platforms have obviously changed greatly since then, and the tools are significantly better. Symbian used an old school C++ framework and very primitive UI toolkits that greatly restricted what you could do.

Hardware improvements are what drive the whole thing. Back then we were still on 200MHz ARM9s and 240x320 pixel screens. My Galaxy Nexus uses the same amount of juice to run the status bar.

APPO: What apps (outside of those that you develop) inspire you the most and why?

SB: Silvio Rizzi's Reeder for iOS is slick and beautiful. The recently re-branded Pocket is fantastic on both iOS and Android. They both do one thing really well and look gorgeous.

And I found Google Now in Jelly Bean to be very impressive, how it integrates all kinds of sensor-based data which gives it that magic feeling.

APPO: Where do you see the most innovation in the app sector?

SB: The sensor integration I just mentioned has almost infinite potential. Apps that harness knowledge of where you are, what you’re doing and are about to do together with whom are going to blow people’s minds. It’s gonna create an even stronger emotional bond between a person and their smartphone.

APPO: How do you harness that innovation in your own titles?

SB: We constantly look for ways to simplify the experience and make it that little bit more magical, by trying to infer user intentions and helping them along the way. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could tell you that a Lyft driver is nearby and can take you to your dinner reservation in time? It’ll happen.

Our team has two brilliant data scientists that help us figure these things out. There is a lot of knowledge to be learned from usage patterns that we can use to improve our service and the app.

APPO: In such a crowded space, explain how you generate awareness and drive downloads to your applications.

SB: We’ve designed happiness into every aspect of the Lyft app and experience, so people are excited to share it with their friends. There are also fun pink mustaches on the front of every car in the Lyft community, which adds to the word-of-mouth. People see them and instantly smile.

APPO: What are the biggest technical constraints that exist today in the app sector?

SB: There are still hardware limitations. Battery life is basically an unsolved problem. And 3G networks are not good enough yet. LTE is definitely a big step both for coverage and speeds.

APPO: How do you (or will you) make money from your application?

SB: The app is free to download, and drivers accept donations for their rides through the app. We keep a percentage of the donations made on our Lyft platform.

APPO: What advice do you have to those working on their first applications?

SB: Build an awesome solution to a very simple problem. Release early, release often, and keep polishing. People can already do almost everything on their smartphones, but not everything is as easy and convenient as it should be.

APPO: Where do you see the app sector one year from now? Five years from now?

We just saw the iPhone 5 announcement, which kind of sets the tone for the coming year. Smartphone penetration will keep rising, but the carriers will have to lower their prices a lot before we’ll see 100% adoption. And it still remains to be seen if Windows Phone can break into the mainstream or if the market is content with only two platform players.

In five years, who knows where we’ll be. There will be self-driving cars and Google Glasses and whatnot. I believe HTML5 will take over gradually, it is a vastly more productive environment than native apps, but performance isn’t quite there yet.

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