How the B-School Dropouts at Bump Are Filling a Big Gap in Mobile Communications

9/13/10Follow @wroush

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“beam” data to one another across short distances. It was a nice feature, but one that other device makers never adopted. As I speculated in an August column, the lack of simple device-to-device data transfer mechanisms may be one of the big reasons that even most smartphone owners still carry old-fashioned business cards.

As Lieb’s business school studies progressed through the fall of 2008, he couldn’t get the problem out of his head. “I was thinking about how we could solve it in a way that provides a good user experience,” he says. “There was Bluetooth, which should have solved this problem, but doesn’t—it wasn’t designed to do this sort of fast connection with any arbitrary device, and it’s not on every device anyway. So we took a software approach rather than a hardware approach, using what sensors we can on the phone to figure out which two phones are meant to connect.”

By “we” Lieb means himself and Andy Huibers. They’d met at Texas Instruments, where Lieb had worked as an engineer and technology strategist from 2005 to 2008. Huibers had joined the company as the result of TI’s 2006 acquisition of the digital projection startup, Reflectivity, where he’d been founder and chief technology officer.

Huibers had left TI and was working on some business ideas of his own when Lieb got in touch with his idea for a data-transfer app. “I sent Andy an e-mail and said, ‘Have you ever done any iPhone programming?’ He said ‘No,’ but within a week he went and bought a Mac and started to mess around with the SDK [software developers' kit]. By November, we thought this was kind of interesting for a business, so I started to look around for some other folks.” That’s when Lieb brought in Mintz, a former sales and marketing strategist at Texas Instruments who was Lieb’s classmate in a course he calls “remedial accounting for engineers.”

(By the way, Lieb says the accounting course was one of the two most valuable classes he took at Booth. “If I hadn’t taken that, I would have been lost,” he says. “People think accounting is math-based, but engineers struggle with it—we try to understand why the system is built this way, but they train you not to think about that.” The other “super important” course was his negotiations class. “Negotiating with potential partners, employees, VCs, it’s something I do every day now,” Lieb says.)

The key to making Bump intuitive, Lieb says, was the accelerometer—a micromechanical device that detects whether a phone is being shaken or tilted. “We knew [an accelerometer] was going to be built into every smartphone from 2008 on, and it yielded a very simple, easy-to-explain user experience,” says Lieb. “There’s no chance my mom could figure out Bluetooth, but if I told her just to bump her phone, she can do that.”

But bumping two phones is just the beginning. Making the rest of the data-transfer process work gave Lieb, Huibers, and Mintz plenty to work on through the winter of 2008-2009. Since there’s still no easy way to send wireless data directly from one smartphone to another, everything has to travel over wireless Internet connections. The truly ingenious part of the system the three co-founders hacked together is the way the company’s servers determine that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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