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Made-in-Madison software helping fuel apps revolution

May 22, 2015 By David Tenenbaum

About 15 months after it went live, software called Ionic is fueling the hottest trend in information technology: mobile apps.

Ionic is a software development kit that simplifies the app-writing process for Apple and Android phones. It’s been used to start more than 500,000 projects — though not all of them have reached the market.

The software is made by Drifty Co., a company started in 2012 by UW–Madison alumni Max Lynch and Ben Sperry. Drifty has raised $3.7 million in capital. At fancy new offices just off Madison’s Capitol Square, 15 people are producing software that helps Web developers make apps for smartphones.

In what would have sounded like science fiction 20 years ago, the company produces software that produces software.

Part of the allure of Ionic stems from the difficulty of writing apps with the software that Apple makes for iPhones and Google makes for Android phones. “You can do anything with Apple or Google software, if you put in enough time and suffering,” Lynch says. “But building apps has historically been very hard and expensive. You had to find the right type of developer, and they are rare.”

That pushed thousands of Web developers to the sidelines. Ionic is trying to bring them back into the game with software built on familiar tools and terms. “Ionic is successful because we have taken the complicated technology that was locked up in software from Apple and Google, and provided tools for making native apps for their phones,” Lynch says. “Apps were hard to get into. Web developers could not participate, but we are changing that.”

Although Drifty remains the legal name, the company, recognizing the rapid success of the Ionic brand, is starting to identify itself as Ionic.

While the firm was selling two earlier app-development products, it heard that users wanted a more comprehensive solution, Sperry says. “In Fall 2013, we asked ourselves, ‘Why don’t we build what we think needs to exist?’ It was a crazy idea, but we decided to go all in and stopped development on the existing products and put our heads down for three months to build the framework we wanted to exist.”

The Ionic framework was released at the end of 2013. “It completely trumped, in user adoption and excitement, anything we have done before,” Sperry says. “We realized we needed to completely refocus on Ionic.”

Ionic is open-source software, meaning it’s distributed free. Users can modify it and sell products made with it. The company plans to make money by selling tools, services and support for the framework.

Open-source software is a group product, but to prevent anarchy, “we exercise benevolent dictatorship,” Lynch says. Although user comments and fixes are welcome, the heavy lifting is done by staff developers.

As with most businesses so young, profitability is for the future. Drifty’s for-pay services are still being beta tested, and the emphasis is on attracting an even wider user base. In one year, Sperry says, Ionic moved into the top 40 open-source programs at the website commonly used to distribute such programs.

Lynch, who is CEO and directs technology development, was recently named to the Forbes magazine 2015 edition of “30 Under 30” in the field of enterprise technology. Sperry is chief operating officer and head of design.

Sperry and Lynch grew up in Shorewood, Wisconsin, and have been friends since kindergarten. At UW–Madison, Lynch received a B.S. in computer science and Sperry, a B.A. in fine arts.

Success is in the air, Sperry says. “It’s taken off. We have built a community worldwide, a huge fan base in the U.S. and in Europe, Africa, India and Australia.”

Users tend to assume Ionic is housed in Silicon Valley, Sperry says. “They may say, ‘I’m going to be in the Valley, let’s catch up for coffee,’ but we’re based in Madison and are staying here. We’ve been able to build this successful, internationally recognized company in under a year, on our own terms, in Madison. It’s a very affordable place to live, to have a family and to acquire office space — and this amazing talent from the university.”

As more business migrates to mobile, Ionic has one focus, says Lynch. “We try to compete by making mobile development easy, fast and cheap, and those never go out of style. Our key to making a successful product is to make it easier for Web developers to do their jobs, to make them better at their jobs. That’s always a winning combination.”