Rebuilding CommuterPal with Azure Functions and CosmosDB

A few years ago I built an iOS called Commuter Pal. I never actually launched the app, since I tried to do *way* too much in terms of route planning and intelligent alerting. Since I didn’t actually commute myself, it was not something I could field test.

Fast forward to 2017 and I’ve been commuting for about six months now. I’ve tried a few different apps to help keep me ahead of delays, but most of the apps are aimed at the entire network and have loads of bells and whistles, so I gave up using them as they just didn’t help. Most of the time I’m already on the platform before I learn of a signal failure or ill passenger.

To coincide with the fact I’ve started wearing my Apple Watch again, I’ve decided to try and bring Commuter Pal back to life with a more simple goal; a watch complication that tells me if my route is clear or blocked.

My choice of tech is predictable – iOS (Objective-C) and .Net. This time, instead of my usual WebAPI approach, I’m going to try and build the whole thing with CosmosDB and Azure Functions. I’m not really sure how it will work, but I think that all phone interactions can be powered by HTTP bound Functions and calls to TFL for updates can be done using Timer based Functions. Throw in a queue here or there and an Azure Notification hub and we should be in business.

I’ll try and document the process as I go along.

If you’re an iOS user and commute using the London Underground, I’ll be making this app available for beta testing, so if you’re interested in taking a look, let me know!

Roomr 4.1 – Search has arrived!

I’ve just submitted Roomr 4.1 to the App Store for approval. This version brings my first attempt at a search feature.

A few weeks back I was contacted by a user in the Netherlands, who wanted to use Roomr to improve the way they booking parking spaces at their company. They had an existing Exchange installation that used individual calendars for individual parking spaces. The then grouped this parking spaces into buildings using Room Lists. They found that searching and booking was quite difficult from Outlook.

Search was something that has been on the Roomr roadmap for quite some time, but I never got around to implementing it, simply because Exchange’s API don’t really allow for a general search. However,  with this request focused on Room Lists, I had a very clear requirement to work with.

After a few rounds of beta testing, I’m pleased to report that I have submitted Roomr 4.1 to Apple!

Simulator Screen Shot 23 Mar 2017, 13.23.24

This search UI allows you to choose a Room List, date and a time range. All the rooms contained with the Room List are checked for availability. Once a match is found, the user can choose one of the rooms and open its calendar. As a shortcut, the date & time they searched for will be displayed within the calendar.

Simulator Screen Shot 23 Mar 2017, 14.59.38.

Booking then works as normal.

This Search feature is also available with G Suite, so Google users haven’t been left out. It obviously doesn’t rely on Room Lists. Instead, all rooms with the domain’s Resources are searched to see if they are free at the specified time.

Roomr 4.1 should be available to buy from the App Store in the next couple of days.

Azure Functions and ServiceBus gotcha

Okay, so this might not be a gotcha, but I lost an hour early this morning trying to diagnose a problem with an Azure Function I’m writing. I’m using ServiceBus triggers and outputs to form a processing pipeline using the functions. One function reads the messages on a queue and then puts another message on a queue for another function to handle.

I was getting this non descriptive error when running locally.

error

After much experimentation I realised that the ServiceBus queue in the function.json must actually exist 🙂 For some reason I assumed the host would create them as required! Anyway.

Might be of use to somebody else.

Roomr 4.0 is out and on sale!

To celebrate the release of Roomr 4.0 on iOS, I’ve decided to drop the price to $0.99 (£0.79) from now, until the 14th of May.

Roomr 4 includes some improvements and new features.

  • The UI has been updated so it’s cleaner and better organised.
  • It’s now possible to browse the Address Lists (if you’re using Exchange 2013 or Office365).
  • You can now search Global Address List.
  • When creating bookings, you can invite people to the meetings.
  • Browsing is now unlocked in the free version, so it’s easier to evaluate.
  • When you’re looking at a shared calendar, you can view the details of appointments.
  • Fixed lots of bugs around AutoDiscovery for Office365 and Exchange Online

In addition to adding features, I’ve also removed some. MobileIron AppConnect integration is no longer present and MDM configuration is no longer supported either. These two features were added to help make a sale to a large enterprise, which, unfortunately, never came to fruition.

The free version of Roomr now allows booking and browsing, without needing to upgrade. I hope these changes will make it easier for users to evaluate Roomr. The limit of one favourite will remain in place and QR scanning will still require the Pro version. The new Invitees feature in booking will also require the Pro upgrade.

I hope you will download it and try it out. If you’re already a Roomr user, I hope you like these changes!

You can download the free version of Roomr from here https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/roomr-check-meeting-room-availability/id722842404?ls=1&mt=8.  This version offers an In-App purchase

You can download the Pro version from here https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/roomr-pro-check-meeting-room/id929725634?ls=1&mt=8

Back to basics

Tempus Fugit. As a developer, one of the things that causes me to stress the most, is a simple lack of time.

I have so many ideas (mostly useless) floating around in my head that I would like to turn into reality. I have three apps in the App Store, which I don’t really update. I also have a day job.

Faced with so many things to do, I really struggle to focus. I can lock in on something for a week or two, but a customer email will arrive, or a new idea will pop into my head, and my priorities change, leaving something half done.

This excellent Commit Strip is basically my product range – http://www.commitstrip.com/en/2014/11/25/west-side-project-story/

Strip-Side-project-650-finalenglish

My iOS app, Roomr, is a good example of this.

What started out as a simple app for viewing the availablility of meeting rooms morphed into something more complicated, but which wasn’t *more* useful. I kept reacting to user’s feature requests, without keeping an eye on the growing complexity. Complexity, I said to myself, is natural as a product evolves.

Roomr doesn’t make much money. I’ve sold a few thousand units over the years, which I’m very thankful for, but it’s never actually been worth my time. Rather than maintaining that app, I’d have been better building an app for somebody else and getting paid.

It took me a long time to accept this simple truth.

Uncontrolled feature creep is the biggest issue I face.

I recently had a user state, in an email, that if I added feature X, they’d buy ten units of the app. I knew it would take me 20+ hours to implement this and that ten sales hardly covered 1/2 an hour of my time, but I went ahead anyway, knowing full well, that I’d probably never see a return on this investment. I justified it by saying “if I add feature X, more people will buy it”.

The fact of the matter is, it won’t make a blind bit of difference. I’ve had this request from two or three other users in the past three years.

Another justification for adding complexity is that by adding feature X, a large company will buy many, many licenses i.e. £££ for me. Again, reailty has taught me otherwise. I’ve had large multinationals inquire about the app and large scale deployments, but none of them ever made a purchase, despite many changes. An app with just one developer behind it, presents too much risk for companies, which I understand.

I’ve come to realise that, when you’re on your own building apps, simplicity is probably best. My iOS apps, Roomr and Peopler started with a very narrow focus on doing one thing and doing it well. Somewhere along the road, I lost focus on that. Sure, it was fun and interesting working on the complex stuff, but in the end, I think my nerves and customers, suffered.

I had planned on Roomr 4.0 being more complex than the previous versions, but I think it’s time to start ripping stuff out and making the app more focused than before. I’m also going to try ad support. If I can generate more revenue, it will be easier for me to update the apps.

This will, I suspect, upset some existing customers, but I would rather try a new approach, then kill the app off completely.

Roomr 4.0–Inviting people

My work on Roomr 4.0 continues! One of the most requested features when creating meetings is the ability to invite other people.

Starting with Roomr 4.0, this will now be possible. The UI is still evolving, but here is an early look.

Simulator Screen Shot 6 Apr 2016, 10.01.08

You just type the name of person you want to invite to the meeting and Roomr will search Exchange for any matches. You can select multiple people to invite and the UI is similar to the iOS native calendar, so it should be pretty easy to use.

It’s a work in progress, but if you’d like to try Roomr 4.0 whilst it’s in beta, please drop me an email (tomas@coldbear.co.uk) or message me on Twitter (@tomasmcguinness)