The History of iBird

Reinventing Nature Field Guides: a History of iBird Explorer

iBird Explorer is the first of a new breed of electronic books that reinvent how we consume reference information. It has been developed to take full advantage of the rich media, high-quality graphics, and computer processing power of the iPhone and iPod touch mobile computing platforms. With a sophisticated database-driven search engine and fast access to facts, illustrations, photos, and playable bird calls, iBird Explorer putts the equivalent of over 4,000 pages of expert birding information in your pocket.

The Beginning

In 1996, after selling his publishing company, Mitch Waite walked away from the technology business intent on focusing on his passion for nature. But after a hike on Mount Tamalpais, near his home in Marin County, California, his mind turned to the application of technology and how it might solve a perennial problem for birders.

Next to a good pair of binoculars, a field guide is the most essential accessory for any birder. Originally developed by Roger Tory Peterson in 1934, the market for field guides has exploded and is now part of an $82 billion dollar birding industry (U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis, 2006).

What is a Field Guide?

A field guide provides essential identification information and supporting facts about a specific topic. The original Peterson guides featured Peterson’s hand drawn paintings of birds and a system of arrows highlighting specific features to aid birders in identifying different species.
Since the publication of the Peterson book, many other birding field guides have been introduced. The Sibley Guide to Birds, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America and Ken Kaufman’s Birds of North America are among the most highly regarded. Although these guides have been edited and revised over the years, as new information is made available, they rely on the same basic concepts developed by Peterson almost 80 years ago: tiny images, little detail and facts about each species, almost unreadable range maps and a byzantine organization only a trained ornithologist can follow. In a way these books have kept birding an exclusive club.

The Problem with Field Guides

Field guides suffer from two principle drawbacks: they are bulky and they are time-consuming to navigate. The latter was the problem Mitch encountered on his hike.

After seeing an unfamiliar bird, he reached into his backpack for his guide and began flipping through it to find the appropriate species. But, by the time he had found the right section of the guide, the bird had flown away.

By chance, Mitch also had a Pocket PC with him running the Windows Mobile operating system. It occurred to him that there must be a way to make bird identification easier using modern computer technology.

Developing a Web-based Field Guide

Developing a field guide to birds from scratch is an intimidating prospect. Illustrations or photographs have to be procured or created. Facts have to be found and crosschecked. Maps have to be drawn and verified.

An initial approach based on photographs proved too costly, and using local artists to produce illustrations for over 900 birds was also expensive. The solution to this problem came from an unlikely source.

Using the same Web-based marketplaces that technology companies use to recruit freelance programmers and Web designers, Mitch posted projects for illustrators to produce detailed bird paintings. From the many replies, a handful of excellent artists in the Ukraine and India were recruited.

With the help of expert ornithologists and local writers and fact checkers, a database of the most popular birds in North America was established. It contained illustrations, range maps, and facts. The information in the database was made available to birders through the whatbird.com site.

The WhatBird.com database was designed to work with the parametric search engine Mitch patented. The search engine enabled users to filter hundreds of birds with just a few clicks. For example by selecting California for the location the search engine showed only birds in that state, then selecting red for eye color narrowed the list to just birds in California with red eyes. The step by step process is repeated using graphical icons such as bill shape, crown pattern, etc, and eventually the engine filters to just those birds matching the specific criteria. This process not only increased the accuracy and speed of bird identification it guaranteed that the user always found a bird; it was impossible to get not found as a result.

Whatbird.com was developed as a free resource for the birding community. It quickly became one of the top destinations on the Internet for bird identification. Users of the Web site contributed comments, corrected facts, requested missing information, and added photographs. After three years, the WhatBird.com database contained identification information for all bird species in North America and was continually improving.

Mitch was awarded a patent covering the database and parametric search technology powering the WhatBird.com Web site (U. S. patent number 7,363,309). A programming interface was also developed to allow other Web site owners to freely provided access to the WhatBird.comsearch engine from their sites.

Winged Explorer

After completing the 4-year project to develop the core content and technology available on the WhatBird.com Web site, it was time to return to the initial impetus and create an application for a mobile computer which at the time was dominated by Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS. Despite optimistic estimates, this proved to be a difficult and time consuming task.

After 18 months of painful development, Winged Explorer was made available for sale to owners of mobile computers running the Windows Mobile operating system. Although the market for Windows-based handheld computers was sizable, very few products were sold.

Listening to the Market

Almost as soon as Windows Mobile version of Winged Explorer became available, requests started to come in for a version of the product running on the new Apple iPhone platform. Exhausted from the long development process for the Windows Mobile platform, Mitch was in no mood to fund development of another project with questionable sales potential.

Contrary to Mitch’s initial expectations, requests for an iPhone version of Winged Explorer did not stop. Refusing to just give up, he bought an iPhone and then had that ah-ha moment. This was like no other phone or PDA he had ever used. The beautiful screen could be seen in the sun, the finger gesture interface eliminated the need for a stylus, the fantastic audio could play a bird call above the noise of the outdoor wind.  He eventually realized that if you develop something for the marketplace and the market tells you it wants something different, you had better listen. It was obvious the product was running on the wrong platform, and so another application development project was started, this time for the Apple iPhone.

iBird Explorer for the iPhone and iPod touch

One thing working against development of an iPhone version of Winged Explorer was the youthfulness of the iPhone platform. Very few developers had experience creating complex applications for the iPhone, so confidence was not high in finding a software engineer capable of doing the necessary work.

In an interesting twist of fate, a Windows Mobile developer who had become disillusioned and frustrated with that platform and who had embraced the iPhone because of its superior app store distribution approach, responded to a post on the freelance market Web site. After looking at Winged Explorer, the developer claimed he could create a version for the iPhone in one month. This seemed wildly optimistic to Mitch, but the developer was very convincing.

Two weeks later a working prototype of iBird Explorer for the iPhone was delivered, and it put Winged Explorer to shame. The iPhone app was easier to use. It was more beautiful. The bird calls and songs sounded fantastic on a device developed to play music. And the search engine was much easier to use with the touch interface of the iPhone. After a month of fine tuning iBird Explorer Backyard was released to the iTunes app store with 145 birds most commonly found in the backyards of North America.

The Wild Ride

It did not take long for word to spread about iBird Explorer. Birders and non-birders alike were downloading the application at a furious rate. And they were leaving glowing reviews in the app store.

Development continued and multiple versions of the app were eventually released. These included versions for each region covered by the US census bureau – North East, South, Midwest, West, and Canada – and a Plus version with all of the birds in North America. Subsequently, a Pro version was developed providing additional search criteria of use to professional ornithologists.

Excitement about IBird Explorer even spread to Apple. Chiat-Day, the advertising agency charged with developing commercials for all Apple products, contacted Mitch and asked if iBird Explorer could be featured in a TV “we have an app for that” commercial for the iPhone. It has since been featured in multiple commercials, in Apple store advertising, and in the Staff Favorites section of the iTunes app store.

Awards

Development of iBird Explorer continues, and each new version of the app contains new content and new features. Mitch believes in listening to customers and tries to anticipate what they need. When a new version of the app is available, owners receive an indication on their iPhone or iPod touch and they connect to iTunes to download the latest free update. This is in stark contrast to conventional paper-based field guides that require users to purchase a new copy of the book, if they want access to the most up-to-date information.

Putting Books to Shame

iBird Explorer has been widely praised for its intuitive design, high-quality content, and innovative approach. But some experts believe that iBird goes further. An analyst at Outsell Corporation recently wrote that iBird Explorer “cracks the code” for creating a truly successful eBook (Ned May, Finally, an eBook Worth Reading, January 2008). And recently Apple selected iBird Explorer as one of the top 25 applications of 2009. Finally perhaps the greatest honor, MacWorld magazine awarded iBird the App Gems award of 2009 for “best reference app”.

The Future

As of this writing, there are nine versions of iBird Explorer in the U. S. iTunes app store, and new versions of the app are in development for the UK and for the Android platform. With industry analysts predicting strong growth for the mobile computing market and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service reporting one in five people in the U. S. over the age of 16 are birders, the prospects for iBird Explorer look very good.  It’s easy to understand now that because of the iPhone and products for it like iBird the field guide will never be the same.