With over 500,000 downloads and an impressive 4.7-star rating based on more than 12,000 reviews, Llama is one of the most powerful automation apps for Android. I first reviewed it in 2011 and it kept getting better since. In many ways, this is an Android developer’s dream: To make an app that’s one of the top ten results when searching for a general term like “profiles” and get hundreds of thousands of users. So what does it feel like?
The man behind Llama, Steven Carta, was kind enough to chat with me and share some of his thoughts on this. It turns out you don’t have to have crazy ambitions to succeed: Starting small can work, too.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do in life?
I’m a born’n’bred Londoner, 28 years old. I started programming computers from a young age, some time in primary school, but I’m not sure exactly when. I remember using some purple books about BBC B BASIC and started writing simple programs on my uncle’s BBC computer. Then I moved on to making silly Windows games in my spare time; think clones of Pacman or Snake. Since then I’ve got a degree in computer science and am now a web developer in the real world.
What made you create Llama, when Tasker [previously-reviewed] was already around? Is it your first Android project? Tell us a little bit about what starting out felt like.
Llama actually started out as my final-year university project. The idea was simply to automate the sound profiles that most Nokia phones had back in the day. I got the idea whilst walking home from the pub and wondered at what time I had left my friends before heading off. Knowing that my phone had the ability to collect exactly that information the idea moved on from there. There were other Nokia S60 apps at the time that did something similar.
I got the idea whilst walking home from the pub and wondered at what time I had left my friends before heading off.
It was originally written for a Nokia 6630, then I ported it to my N95 and N85 where I was pretty much the sole user of it (I’d given it to a few friends, but that was all). Eventually, Nokia failed to make a phone that interested me and I got an Android device. RIP Nokia 🙁
And now for some rare footage of the early Llama:
Going back to Java was a bit horrible.
I’d learnt Java at university, but I’d spent most of my time writing ASP.NET in C#. Going back to Java was a bit horrible, but after a few weeks over Christmas Llama for Android was born. It could only change profiles based on time and area. Android doesn’t actually have profiles, just a volume level, so those had to be emulated too. I wrote up a quick message on XDA and some people started asking for features.
Eventually, Llama was ready for the market. A quick post on Reddit got the initial buzz going and it’s spread from there [If you’re not sure what Reddit is about, see our guide –Ed.]. It was released as a free app because I’m nice, ha. I work on it as a hobby, I have a full time job that I’m happy with and I’m not the kind of person that needs to have all the money in the world.
Llama has a donate version, but the main app is free and isn’t limited in any way. Where do you find the motivation to keep maintaining it? How time consuming is it?
The motivation comes from succeeding at a problem. It’s awesome to see something working, and it’s even more awesome when people find something that you’ve created useful. People have found really creative ways to use Llama… from managing their phone battery, controlling their PCs, controlling their home, and I’ve had emails from blind users saying how helpful they find Llama.
It’s awesome to see something working.
To start with Llama was a little time consuming. There was lots of features that could be implemented and I had to choose the ones to do, selfishly starting with the ones I’d want to use.
Are people actually getting the Donate version? Did anyone support Llama in other interesting ways?
More people than I expected get the donate version. I wouldn’t be able to live off it, but it buys me a lot of beer every month. Some users started emailing saying that they wanted to donate more, so the donation app was paired up with the in-app purchases in the main Llama app. The in-app purchases let people donate as much and as many times as they want. Both ways of donating don’t unlock anything; it’s literally just a way for people to say thank you.
Some users started emailing saying that they wanted to donate more.
At the time I implemented the in-app purchases the maximum Android Market in-app purchase was £20, which is approximately the price of a steak in London (alas without the chips and bernaise sauce). I wasn’t expecting anyone to ever donate me a steak but a few people have!
Did developing Llama help you in your professional career in other ways? How so?
I don’t pimp out Llama for professional purposes, in fact I’ve been in the same web dev job since I started writing Llama. My boss uses it though, maybe that helps a bit. I’m sure I’ll mention it on my CV in the future, but I’m not sure if I’d want to program for Android professionally. Sometimes it’s hard to get all the different varieties of device to play ball, especially if the app that you’re writing has to touch lots of system-level stuff.
I’m not sure if I’d want to program for Android professionally.
If I’m a novice Android developer and I’m just starting out on my first app, what’s are the most important things I should do so my app succeeds? (I.e, how should I get discovered? Is that even important?)
You should definitely want to write an app you’ll actually want to use and end up using. If you aren’t using it then you’ll never figure out how good or bad it is.
It was a nice day when the play store counter clicked over to 500,000+.
You should probably also decide what you want to get out of it. To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted out of Llama. I wrote it for myself, but releasing it for free definitely meant it got a lot more downloads than if it was a paid app. It was a nice day when the play store counter clicked over to 500,000+.
Thank you, Steven, for taking the time to chat with us!
I found it reassuring to see that even if you’re not bent on creating the next Instagram, you can still end up with a very popular and well-rated Android app by taking it one step at a time. Much of what Steven told me has parallels in my interview with Dexter Britain, a musician who gives his music away for free (yet still makes a living out of it).
What did you get from the interview? Do you have any questions for Steven? Write them in the comments, and he might reply.