If you're a regular reader of this site, you'll know that I'm a fan of Silicon Benders' Sketchable, one of the few Windows Store apps that properly shows off the power of the Surface Pro and Windows pen computing.
I met the Silicon Benders duo, brothers Ryan and Miles Harris, in New York at the unveiling of the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. A few months later, they released Sketchable 3.0 as a Windows 10 app and I thought it would be a good time now to check in with the pair to learn how things are going with their nascent enterprise.
Q. Tell me a little bit about yourselves, your coding and art backgrounds before launching Silicon Benders.
We are brothers who grew up in house filled with art and computers. Our dad is an Adobe Principal Scientist, who has worked on PhotoShop for 20 years and on PixelPaint 8 years prior to that. From a young age, we learned to appreciate art and there has always been a large collection of programming literature around the house. We graduated with CS degrees in 2012, right around the time the Surface was launched. We saw a place in the market for a creative tablet application that utilized the integrated Pen and GPU. So Sketchable was born.
Q. Was Sketchable your attempt to outdo the old man?
I think every kid wants to impress their father. In high School he was a successful track runner. So my brother and I took it upon ourselves to break as many of his best times as we could. I guess you could say we are trying to do the same thing now, but with our code. Although, It’s significantly easier for us to be faster, because our brush engine is on the GPU.
Q. Silicon Benders is an interesting company name, what inspired it?
We were fans of "Avatar the Last Airbender". The premise of the show is, there are four elements (water, earth, fire, and Air). Special people, known as "benders", can control these elements. On their base level, computers are controlled with Silicon. So we saw ourselves as the "Silicon Benders". The first logo I sketched was a picture of Aang (the main character) with nerd glasses and computer themed tattoos, but we decided there might be minor copyright issues.
Q. As brothers, how do you split up your responsibilities? Is coding and maintaining this app a full-time gig?
We work well together. Some responsibilities we divide up, others are a collaboration. This is our full time job. In order for a small startup to beat the corporate giants, we have to dedicate ourselves to it.
Q. What were you hoping to accomplish creating Sketchable?
As I stated before, we grew up with a passion for digital art and when we graduated, there was an emerging space in the market. No one was making drawing software for modern devices. Legacy desktop software is shackled to the weight of its own code. Most were written decades ago, before the GPU even existed. The others were iPad apps. Programed and designed to run on one screen size, one input method (touch), less than a Gig of RAM, and no file system. So they were more toys than tools. Windows and Surface gave us an opportunity to reinvent what a creative apps can be.
Q. I just looked back and saw that I first wrote about Sketchable in January, 2014. When did the software first launch and describe its trajectory over that time.
In the beginning, we wanted to make sure of two things, Sketchable was stable and it had the fastest brush engine on the market. Since then, we have layered on numerous powerful features. I think Sketchable's story mirrors that of the Surface. Version one and two were great, but the most exciting aspect of them was the potential. Third time is the charm and that's when both Sketchable and Surface started turning the corner.
Q. What has been the reaction since 3.0 launched? Are you satisfied with the response?
The reaction from 3.0 has been fantastic. Nothing makes us happier than seeing the images that creatives make with our software. It is a daily boost of energy to check social media and see all of the content people have shared.
Q. Has being a Windows Store app been a help or a hindrance to your development?
The Windows Store has been great in many ways. My bother and I are programmers who are passionate about art. Nether of us have much interest in building or maintaining a store front. It also allows us the advantages of an OS level sales integration. For instance, the insider preview has the "Ink Workspace" that highlights pen enabled apps and links to the digital artist collection in the Store.
Q. Who is the typical user of Sketchable? What niche are you trying to fill with the software?
Sketchable's target users are beginner and intermediate creatives. Someone who wants the ease of use provided by touch first UI, but also the robust feature levels necessary to create real work. Sketchable also exports .psd files, so its perfect for quickly getting your ideas on canvas then exporting to your favorite desktop program for polishing.
Q. Who are some of the artists using Sketchable to produce professional art?
Many users have shared professional level work made entirely in Sketchable. The best example that springs to mind is Lawrence Mann. He has earned the titles of "Corel Master Painter Elite", as well as a "Sketchable Artisan". He has a great youtube channel with videos explaining where Sketchable fits into his workflow.
Q. What have been some of the challenges of bringing the software to market?
I feel the biggest challenge is modern consumers aversion to buying digital goods, especially apps. It takes a tremendous amount of work simply to maintain software, not even considering feature additions. So it is disheartening to receive low reviews about how it should be free.
Q. Microsoft has talked about a lot of improvements coming to inking in Windows 10 Anniversary Update and beyond. Will any of these impact your development? Are there plans to incorporate any of the new OS features?
We have a great relationship with the DirectInk team. We even had the pleasure of guest speaking and demoing a ink feature, in one of their 2015 BUILD seasons. What they are doing is truly impressive and in the future, Sketchable could probably have an entire update dedicated to DirectInk.
Q. What’s been your experience overall working with the Ink APIs? Have they been a help or a hindrance?
The Ink APIs are tremendous. Getting ink into your app, really is as easy as they say. I can’t stress this enough to developers. Look at apps like StaffPad. It’s a whole new way to approach classic input problems.
Q. What is your relationship with Microsoft like? As developers of a popular app that showcases some of its platform’s strengths, do you get VIP treatment or sneak peeks at upcoming technology?
Our relationship with Microsoft is great and continuously improving. I believe they appreciate what Sketchable represents. Software designed with their hardware and OS in mind. As you know, we had the pleasure of attending the Surface launch event in NY last October. I certainly felt like a VIP then.
Q. Do you know anything about Wacom’s upcoming dual protocol pen? Any guesses how that will work?
Any guess would be entirely speculation. We are excited to learn more about in the future.
Q. Do you know how your users break down by OS or machine type? Any sense how many are Surface Pro users vs. other Windows tablet PCs?
I don’t believe that data is currently available to developers through the dashboard. So I cannot give hard numbers. It seems most customers that reach out are using Surface Pro 3s and 4s.
Q. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give young Ryan and Miles as they were about to embark on this project?
Focus our efforts on our core competency, pen enabled devices.
Q. Where does Sketchable and Silicon Benders go from here? Do you have any major new features on the drawing board? New applications that may interest the art crowd?
This is interesting, because up until now, the path has been somewhat obvious. Features like layers and transform were mandatory. However, with 3.0 we got to get a little creative ourselves. Features like masks and stencils started to give Sketchable a unique and powerful identity outside the standard feature check list. We look to expand upon this in the next version. As well as add as many user feature requests as possible. The combination should make for a truly special product.
Q. Do you have any plans to port Sketchable to other platforms?
Currently our focus is on Windows. However, Sketchable's code base is built to be portable. Now that IOS added a pen and more RAM, it is an intriguing possibility.
Q. Any other tidbits you’d like to share with SurfaceProArtist.com readers?
I would like to thank everyone who has given Sketchable a chance. Our target audience is Surface Artists, so there might be some overlap with your readers. I would encourage them to share any questions or feature requests with us directly. We would love to hear what you think.