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Crashlytics takes on Apple, tackles ‘big data’ problems with rockstar software developers

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 28, 2012 05:54 PM

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crashlytics logo.pngBy Kyle Psaty

When an app on your phone crashes, whom do you blame?

That’s a question that Rich Paret, former senior director of systems engineering at the local startup Brightcove, admits he didn’t think a lot about until recently; he blamed who everyone blames: the app’s creator. But in January, when Paret got a call from Jeff Seibert, CEO of the Cambridge-based startup Crashlytics, he started thinking about mobile app crashes -- and he hasn’t stopped since.

Crashlytics offers the most robust crash reporting available for Apple devices. The company has been operating fairly stealthily since February 2011 and raised $1 million in seed funding from local VC shop Flybridge Capital and a handful of prominent angel investors last July.

“[Seibert] told me that there are a billion crashes on Apple devices every day,” Paret said. “You think about crashes, but I had never thought about the scale of that problem until that moment. That stat got me to sit up and pay attention.”

Hackers Only: Run-of-the-Mill Developers Need Not Apply

Crashlytics president Wayne Chang isn’t your average, stuffy company president. In fact, he’s something of a celebrity among web startupers and hackers in Boston and Silicon Valley.

“He was unassuming and just a down-to-Earth, cool guy,” Paret said of their first meeting. “He was like, ‘This is me. This is what I’ve done in the past. This is my vision for what I want to do.’ I really felt like he had spent a lot of time thinking about Crashlytics.”

Already an active angel investor at just 28 years old, Chang is a seasoned entrepreneur. He started programming professionally at the age of 11. By 15, he was contributing to the original Napster and later worked on the original team at Dropbox. Chang has founded a handful of companies besides Crashlytics, including i2hub, one of the most popular file-sharing websites ever; amid pressure from record companies, he shut it down in 2005.

Seen The Social Network? Then you’re familiar with a legal case in which Chang was involved. In 2009, Chang sued ConnectU founders Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss for a portion of their settlement with Facebook, citing a partnership with i2hub. Needless to say, he won’t comment on the situation. He doesn’t want to talk about the teams he’s worked with before. Not when he can jaw about the team he and Seibert have been assembling at Crashlytics.

Everyone who works for Crashlytics is a software engineer with a deep knowledge of the foundations of computer science. And pretty much all of them are talented enough to play the part of technical co-founder at any one of this city’s hundreds of startups that are hungry to find one.

“On our site, we don’t list who’s involved,” Chang said. “Sure, you can find out that Jeff and I are the founders. But we’ve been quietly building an all-star team. I feel very humbled to be able to work with this group.”

Seibert is no n00b either. Although he’s only 26, the Stanford grad has also worked for Apple and founded a handful of software startups, including Increo, which was acquired by Box.net.

Chang and Seibert said that their team now includes five additional full-time employees, including Paret and fellow Brightcove defector Sam Robbins, whom the company hired for his expert-level knowledge of smartphone software development kits. Matt Massicotte, who spent three and a half years working at Apple and contributed to their internal crash reporting team, also recently joined the team.

“A lot of what we do is deeply technical,” Seibert said. “It requires a thorough understanding of how these devices operate and what techniques are available to collect this information. On the web side, we need to be incredibly disciplined in how we receive and store the data, and how we optimize our processing. This is why we’re hiring true computer scientists who are also great software engineers.”

So Who’s Really to Blame for all the Crashes?

Sending a crash report can feel like saying a prayer -- there’s never any direct follow-up. But the lousy experience has more to do with Apple than the app creators. The company offers free crash reporting for the 300,000-plus iPhone apps currently available in the App Store, as well as for the 60,000-plus iPad-only apps. In many cases, individual crash reports are sent via email by the thousands, and those batches are often sent out weeks apart. Imagine suddenly seeing “You have 10,526 unread messages” in your inbox, then sifting through all those emails and only getting a little bit of information about what caused each crash, and you’ll understand the problem Crashlytics is solving.

Truth be told, Apple probably doesn’t care much about this problem. They’ve already gotten the developer to create the app and host it in their exclusive marketplace; that’s all they need to keep growing their walled garden. And anyways, when the app crashes, you blame its maker, remember?

Despite Apple’s overt lack of interest in solving this problem, it takes some pretty serious cojones to get into a footrace against them.

“If Apple or anyone else was doing a good job of this, we would have started a different company,” Seibert said simply.

Outdoing Apple by Solving a “Huge, Big Data Problem”

If Apple’s standard crash reporting is a free ride in your mom’s minivan, Crashlytics is offering free test drives of your uncle’s Maserati.

“Imagine you’re an app developer and have 100,000 crashes. Crashlytics will distill that down to, say, 23 different issues. It will also tell you that, of those 23 issues, two are the most significant,” Chang said. “On all 23 issues, we’ll tell you the exact line of code that’s caused the crash. Even Apple can’t do that today.”

The founders won’t disclose how many apps run their software, so there’s little information about the demand for their product; Seibert only said that the company is processing “millions of events per day.” Nonetheless, Crashlytics’ streamlined interface and the technology behind it certainly seem like they make the process of maintaining and improving mobile apps a heck of a lot easier.

no more sad apps.png“We take this huge, big data problem and distill it down so developers can make use of it,” Chang said. “We give other data, too….all kinds of things that help developers understand the environment in which their apps are crashing.”

According to the team at Crashlytics, the information that the company collects is only “device-level” data, meaning that they don’t record anything personal during a crash.

“Crashlytics only wakes up if your app crashes,” Seibert said. “We don’t need to know what someone was entering in a field when an app was running to diagnose the problem, so we don’t collect that kind of information.”

It’s safe, elegant, and works better than anything else available, so it’s no wonder the company isn’t talking about how many crashes they’re already processing. Mobile apps certainly aren’t becoming any less popular, so it makes sense for Crashlytics to get as much of a head start on the competition as they can.

“We have definitely arrived at what Steve Jobs called ‘The Post-PC World,’” said Seibert, a clear admirer of the late Apple founder. “This presents a whole array of opportunities for Crashlytics beyond crash reporting.”

“Our goal is to go out and listen to developers and find out what they need and build products that they can get excited about,” Paret added. “Right now, we do crash reporting better than anyone. But I believe this is the opening act of something that’s a lot bigger.”

Perhaps someday, when an app crashes, you’ll get an email a few hours later with an apology and a coupon code for a discount on a future download. That’s something Crashlytics is working on, too.

About Kyle -- I'm obsessed with what's next, especially when it involves truly helping people live better, more fulfilling lives. I believe this is where creativity and creation become innovation. The founding editor of the online publication BostInnovation and a former staff writer for the New England Patriots, I'm lucky to now spend my days building a brighter future for consumer banking at PerkStreet Financial, where I also manage a daily blog. Follow me on Twitter @KylePs80.

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