During the first internet job wave in the ’90s, ambitious graduates moved west to San Francisco to strike it rich working for a dotcom. Fifteen years later, you don’t need the degree, the dotcom job, or even a San Francisco address.
Meet Max Weisel, the 19-year-old wunderkind who began experimenting with iPhone app development in his mid-teens. He was building iOS apps before Apple announced the App Store — or even made an SDK (Software Development Kit) available so that developers could build official apps.
[Updated 4pm ET: This article originally stated that Weisel made the already-released "Virus" app, but in fact he's working on three Biophilia song apps that have yet to be released: "Moon," "Solstice," and "Dark Matter." Scott Snibbe and his studio created "Virus." We regret the error.]
Weisel dropped out of college, just like the man who built iOS, and convinced three friends to do the same. They set up shop in South San Francisco to make apps. We had to know more.
Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: I’ve seen your work with Soundrop. What were your early experiences with computing, and how did you make the leap into programming?
Max Weisel, Develoe: When I was in fifth grade or so, a friend showed me a website where you could make your own website — I think it was called Yahoo Geocities. From there, I progressed into web development in middle school. In high school, there was a group that got together to put custom ringtones on the iPhone. They noticed that the file structure was very similar to the Mac operating system, and one thing led to another — they compiled a tool chain that allowed them to create apps for it.
This was before the [iTunes] app store or anything like that. I started making apps on my own, and so when the iPhone SDK actually came out, I already had experience designing iPhone apps, before, I guess, anybody else.
I started to look more at audio processing and getting into the drawing system on the iPhone, and that’s how my app Soundrop was born. I was messing with some functions to draw lines and dots, and then added some physics to it.
I went to college for a semester and dropped out last year. I’m 19 years old and I’ve moved out to San Francisco to pursue my business.
Evolver.fm: Wow. Can you tell me more about how working with ringtones led you to build apps before Apple launched the iOS SDK?
Weisel: When the first iPhone came out, you couldn’t have your own ringtones on it. One guy wanted the theme from the television show 24 to play on his iPhone, and about a month after the iPhone came out, they were already able to use the same mechanism iTunes uses to put songs on your device to put ringtones onto the iPhone.
Evolver.fm: Did it have to be jailbroken?
Weisel: This was before jailbreak. From looking at the structure of the file system, they figured out where ringtones would go, and that’s how jailbreaking was born. Also, here’s some background on the term: When iTunes syncs music to your iPhone, it’s in a folder which is called a “
true chroot jail,” which just means that you can’t go outside of it and look at the other stuff in the file system. Early on, the goal was to break out of that, which was fairly straightforward back then, or at least easier than it is now. That’s how “jailbreaking” was born. I was sort of following that closely, and learned how to make apps through it.
Evolver.fm: So how did this idea for Soundrop turn into a music app?
Weisel: At first, I was just drawing lines and dots, because that’s all I could do with custom drawing in the framework I was using. It sort of looked as though it was this “frozen in time” sort of thing. My friend was like, “Well, you should just make the dots bounce off the lines.” So we did that. It still felt like there was something missing, so we added a little code just to give it some sound, then brought that onto a pentatonic scale so that the notes sounded good together, and submitted it to the app store.
This was just before the deadline for apps to be in the app store for the iPad launch. [Its success] was cool, because this was basically something we created to have something in the app store when the iPad came out.
Evolver.fm: That’s interesting about using the pentatonic scale to make it sound good, because I wondered initially: Why isn’t it the length of the line that determines the pitch, like with stringed instruments?
Weisel: I have a new version, and it lets you adjust that. Originally, I think we used the length of the line, but we did it before we had the pentatonic scale, so it was awkward. Also, I was in physics class at the time, so using the ball velocity to determine pitch was fairly straightforward.
Evolver.fm: Again, wow. Scott [Snibbe] told me he normally wouldn’t work with someone as young as you. What is it that enabled you to make such progress without doing all the starter internships and stuff that people usually do? Is it you, has something changed in the landscape, or is it a combination?
Weisel: It’s definitely a combination. I’m able to show my work to a huge audience through Apple’s app store, which delivers it to millions of people. People start to see a reputation based more on my work rather than that I’m wearing a suit or not, or my age. But computer science has also been a hobby of mine. I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite thing to do, but I would love it as a career, and it’s always been really fun for me. There’s this passion that goes into my apps. I really pay attention to fine detail.
I’ve definitely hit that wall before where people judge me by my age, and I try to get my work out there — something to show them before they’re able to make that judgment. That’s kind of what happened with Björk. They contacted me and we came up with some ideas. Then, when we met in Iceland, people were a little shocked. I don’t think it was a bad thing — Björk was pretty excited about it — but I don’t think anyone was expecting it.
We’d just gotten to this hotel in Iceland, and I remember walking out of my room because I heard everyone’s voices, which I recognized from Skype. But as soon as I got out, nobody happened to be talking, so I didn’t know who to approach and introduce myself to, so I had to just pretend to keep walking. I think I went to a bathroom or something.
Evolver.fm: Can you tell me more about how Soundrop led to Björk?
Weisel: Soundrop wasn’t meant to be a “hit” app, but it seemed to catch on. People really enjoyed it, and so we created a pro version that’s actually been featured in the Museum of Modern Art. It opened officially on July 24. I haven’t updated it in about a year, because I’ve been busy with the Björk app and moving to San Francisco, but I have a new version, which should be coming out soon, which is the one that’s on display at the MOMA. It has most of the requested features.
Evolver.fm: I moved to San Francisco around the time of the “first” internet wave, but I was 22, and a college graduate. How are you managing to deal with that at 19?