The surprising ease of turning a class project into an iOS app

It’s official! I have an app in the App Store. It’s just not the app I thought it would be. The how to do it is surprisingly simple. They why it happened is a bit more complicated.

For several years I tasked my students with the challenge of designing an original emoji. Within the unit of study we examined the emoji’s history as well as its precursor, the emoticon.

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A brief history of adding context to digital communication

Emoticons

Did you know that the first emoticon dates back to 1862 in a printed speech by Abraham Lincoln? I didn’t until I did the research for this unit of study.

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This emoticon winky face is likely a typo. An error that surprisingly did not happen more often in the day of typesetting.

Most historians agree that the emoticon was really born on September 19, 1982. On that date at exactly 11:44 am, Scott Fahlman, professor at Carnegie Mellon, explained to students via email that he wanted them to use symbols to differentiate between serious and sarcastic comments in digital communications. Electronic communication has never been the same since.

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Emojis

Seventeen years later in 1999 emojis were created by Shigetaka Kurita. His original 176 emojis were designed specifically for a Japanese network operator NTT DoCoMo.

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The concept of the emoji is hardly new though. Pictographic writing dates back thousands of years. However, unlike like Egyptian hieroglyphics, emojis are not a complete language. Emojis are also similar to ideograms similar to what the Chinese and Japanese use to write.

Hieroglyphics

The goal of Kurita’s original 176 emojis was to provide users with a simple way to communicate using mobile devices that predates a full keyboard. Generation Z will never understand the struggle of “multi-tap” or “T9” texting that existed pre-iPhone

 

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Stickers

In 2016 with the release of iOS 10, Apple introduced stickers for use with their Message app. For those who aren’t familiar with stickers, let me explain how they work because I’ll be the first to admit that medium hasn’t exploded in popularity. But that doesn’t make it any less exciting to create something that has the potential to be used on a billion devices.

For starters, stickers can be sent as a standalone message. Nothing revolutionary there. What is revolutionary is the ability to “peel” and attach the image to an already existing message bubble or image. To attach a sticker, press and hold on the image then apply it to your message conversation. You can even rotate or enlarge the sticker by using pinch or swipe gestures.

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When Apple first announced sticker apps for iOS, I thought the idea was genius for three reasons. For starters, even if you have a killer idea for an emoji, it can take as long as two years for Unicode Consortium to approve the design. In smartphone years that’s like decade.

Second, there’s no guarantee the OS provider for the mobile device will adopt the emoji once approved. Apple was slow install the middle finger 🖕 emoji. Furthermore, there’s no promise that your adopted emoji will look anything like the design you submitted. The gun emoji illustrates that point. That emoji looks radically different depending on the platform you use.

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Three, and the real genius of the idea, why give something away for free when you can charge a buck? Apple didn’t become the most valueable company on the planet by giving things away for free.

Why give something away for free when you can charge a buck?

That’s right. Skip the two year waiting period. Ensure the continuity of your design. Make money in the process. Nothing could be more American.

Sticker Class Assignment

As I mentioned earlier, for about a two year period I tasked my students with creating an original emoji and filling out the necessary paperwork for submitting it to Unicode Consortium. But as the more and more emojis were released the assignment became increasingly difficult.

Shortly after the introduction of stickers with iOS 10, I altered the assignment from design an original emoji to create three original stickers on a common theme. What I didn’t realize at the time was how easy actually building a sticker app was.

I’m in the process of developing an app with my business partner, and we’ve been chipping away at it for over a year. When you create an app you’re not making one app. Your actually making two possibly even three different apps. You have your iOS version. You have your Android version. You might even have your web-based version. On the exterior they might all look the same but beneath the surface they utilize very different coding language.

Developing an app is the exact inverse of having Montgomery Scott as your Chief Engineer. Fans of Star Trek will instantly understand what this reference means. But for those that aren’t let me explain.

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Captain Kirk would need something difficult done. Cold start the warp drive. Make the transporter work through multi-phasing shields.

Scotty would reply that it would take longer than they had or was simply impossible.

Yet somehow Scotty would find a way to rewrite the laws of physics, do it in a fraction of the time promised, and need only a shot of Scotch as a thank you.

App development is the exact inverse of this. App developers will explain that the task is easy, promise to do it is 12 to 18 weeks, and need a majority of the funds upfront.

Having experienced this first hand, I assumed developing a sticker app would be similar. I could not have been more wrong. One day I stumbled onto a video from Apple on building your own sticker pack. I was shocked to learn that there’s basically no coding involved. It’s mostly dragging and dropping formatted images into Xcode.

The single biggest barrier was owning a Mac ($999) and having a developer’s license ($99). I’ve wanted to buy a Mac for years and this was just the reason I needed to justify it.

After purchasing a refurbished MacBook Pro and developer’s license I was ready to scan and format all the images my students had submitted. Upon submission, Apple approved the sticker app within 48 hours and updates to the app within 24 hours.

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Student Stickers app

If you have access to a Mac and a developer’s license having your students design original images for a sticker app is a fun and educational assignment. My students would love your support if you downloaded the free app.

We’ll continue to add more stickers as additional designs are submitted.

P.S. One of my students wrote about the experience for the online school newspaper. You can read her article here.

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