'We want Quip to feel like two people writing on the same piece of paper'

9th Dec 2013 | 13:00

'We want Quip to feel like two people writing on the same piece of paper'

Collaborative app wants to end conflict between Android and iOS

Quip, a mobile document editing app looking to tap into the collective conscious of busy productive types on the move, has arrived with some impressive credentials in tow.

Founded by ex-Facebook CTO Bret Taylor and Google App Engine founder, Kevin Gibbs, some of its features - such as automatic synching and checklists - will be familiar to Evernote users, while others - such as @mentions used for collaboration - are borrowed from social media.

It also offers third-party keyboard compatibility (Swiftkey and Swype are supported), a responsive ability to adapt to any device's screen size and a heady dose of multi-authoring collaboration.

First launched on iOS back in August before being ported to Android in December, Quip's creators position the app closer to a fully-fledged word processor, capable of "doing for smartphones and tablets what Microsoft office did for PCs". We spoke to Bret Taylor to find out more.

The app

TechRadar Pro: You claim that Quip has re-invented word processing for mobile devices - that's quite some claim. Can you tell us more?

Bret Taylor: Since the iPhone was introduced in 2007, phones and tablets have transformed the way we interact with technology and each other. Smartphone sales have already overtaken PC sales, and tablet sales are predicted to pass PCs this year.

To call this shift disruptive is understating its impact on our industry and the world. Companies built on the PC ecosystem are desperately trying to find an identity in this new world, and many of them won't succeed. Most people in the developing world will access the Internet for the first time through a mobile, touch-screen device without ever touching a PC.

Despite the magnitude of this shift, the software that we use to get work done has not evolved over the past thirty years. With the exception of some additional color and and a stack of toolbars at the top of the screen, it doesn't look different from MacWrite, which was released with the original Macintosh in 1984.

Quip is our perspective on how modern, mobile documents should work. Building for the new mobile era is not about adapting old desktop software; it is about rebuilding from the ground up assuming multiple platforms, multiple screen sizes, intermittent network connectivity. In Quip, we've re-thought everything — from the user interface to the underlying technology — to create the product that is simple and easy to use regardless of platform or screen size, and that we enjoy using to get work done every day.

Unique points

TRP: Why should consumers check out Quip over similar competing products? Particularly Evernote, which has similar note-taking and collaborative online and offline functionality for businesses.

BT: Quip approaches the problem pretty differently from other word processors or note taking applications. We have lots of features that other word processors don't have, like @mentions, integrated messaging, and diffs. All of these features are in the service of our four core design goals. They are:

Collaboration - We want using Quip to feel like two people sitting next to each other at the same table, writing on the same piece of paper. Writing a document with someone should be simple, easy, immediate, and delightful. Most of the other services we've used don't achieve that feeling in their collaboration.

Mobility - Quip works well on the desktop, but it really shines on phones and tablets. We built it from the ground up assuming that you would use multiple screen sizes, spotty internet connections, and multiple platforms. For other products, offline access is a feature — something you have to turn on or pay for, that may only work in some situations. For Quip, working offline is the fundamental core of our product.

Interactivity - Most documents are now read on touch-screens rather than printed out. Because of that, Quip documents aren't just fixed words on a page — they're interactive. On Quip, you can also turn a bulleted list into a checklist, transforming your meeting notes into an interactive, shared task list. You can @mention other documents to link between them. You can create a table of sales data, and your entire team can edit and type data into the table at the same time.

Simplicity - Back in the early days of GUI development, there was a popular saying: "Easy is hard." When designing a user interface, it's much harder to remove something than to add in something new. We've worked hard to simplify the Quip interface, to leave you with a minimal, elegant design that helps you focus on writing — not ribbons.

Technical challenges

TRP: What were the technical challenges of making Quip multi-platform?

BT: Android fragmentation itself is a very challenging problem to overcome. Every OEM and device on Android seems to be a little different, and there are far more devices than anyone realizes. There are even three different, equally used keyboards on Android, so the number of variations that you encounter and have to handle is somewhat mind-blowing.

But for us, beyond fragmentation, the real challenge is ensuring that your documents are always available on whichever device you choose to use and that they're always up-to-date. Sync is particularly challenging when you combine it with collaboration. Most services just choose not to handle the collaborative case (like Dropbox or Evernote) and just create multiple versions of the document and let you manage the conflicts.

With Quip, we want to ensure that you never end up with conflicts, even when you're editing collaboratively or when you're editing offline. That is an incredibly hard technical challenge and has been very fun to solve.

Apple or Google

TRP: If Android is the most widely used platform, how come Quip was developed for iOS first?

BT: This was influenced by the tremendous growth of tablet use, both for consumers and enterprise. When it comes to tablets, iOS has close to 80% of the tablets in use in the world. Also, iOS has been favored by companies, accounting for around 70% of enterprise activations.

That said, we know that 'bring your own device' doesn't really just mean the device - it means the platform too. Android represents a huge audience and is growing quickly in offices too. We recognise this so wanted to get a version of Quip built specifically for Android out as quickly as possible. It's also been one of our most requested products since launch. Overcoming Android fragmentation is not an easy feat, but we're so happy to say that Quip is now available on 76% of the world's smartphones and tablets.

Previous ventures

TRP: How has your background with Facebook and Google Maps influenced or shaped how you approached and developed Quip?

BT: My background has certainly given me an international mindset. People work more and more as global teams, and are looking for their technology to make that easier. The software that many of us are using was born in the 80s, when a lot of the problems we currently have in collaborating across borders and devices couldn't even have been imagined. Throw mobile into the mix as a defining global trend and it was clear to me what needed to be built to help.

The importance of different regions, languages and countries cannot be overlooked in Facebook and Google's success — that's why international expansion in very high on our list of priorities. Quip is currently available in 11 languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, simplified Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Brazilian Portuguese, and our newest language to launch, Korean.

And that's why we're particularly excited about this Android launch — Android accounts for about 50% of the smartphones in the US, but it accounts for 81% of the smartphones shipped in the world.

Generating value

TRP: Can you give us some tips for making the most out of Quip (businesses and consumers?)

BT: People love to tell us how they use Quip so we have tons of examples. We hear of people using Quip for joint grocery lists, writing their applications to university, and planning family vacations.

At work, we get feedback all the time from companies and teams using it to communicate across continents and get work done. People are so forthcoming with their stories, and we take all the feedback on board. In fact,a lot of the most asked-for features were included in version 1.5 of the iOS app.

We've found that it's easiest for folks to get started when they do two things: First - have have a specific project or document in mind — a house renovation, a collaborative to-do list, a product launch, a customer pitch, etc. Ideally the project is collaborative — people have told us that collaboration is where Quip really shines.

Secondly - use Quip both on desktop and on your iPhone/iPad or Android phone/tablet. Quip works great on desktop but it really shines on phones and tablets, and one of the magic moments is having access to your documents across all your devices, wherever you are.

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