State of The TouchDRO Project

Friday, July 2, 2021

I haven't posted much on the blog over the last year, so the number of emails asking if I'm still alive and/or if the TouchDRO project is dead has been steadily going up. One of the main complaints is that the TouchDRO application, which is currently on Google Play, is four years old. You probably remember my blog post from mid-2017 about some new features that I was working on. Those features are still not released; so, understandably, people are wondering what is happening with the app.

In short, I am still alive, as is the TouchDRO project, and I'm very actively working on it. The amount of effort needed to release the app ended up exceeding my estimate, and some events forced me to deprioritize the release and work on more urgent things. In this post I want to go over some of the changes I am making to the projects as a whole and my plans for the immediate future. I will also briefly touch on the state TouchDRO application release.

A Bit of History

Shortly after writing that post in 2017, I realized that I had to rewrite large portions of the application. First and foremost, I had to switch to a different programming language. The application was written in a language called Java, but due to some copyright issues, Google started pushing app developers to a different language called Kotlin. Second, and more importantly, starting with Android 5, Google has been adding new requirements for their Play Store apps. Additionally, as the sales of TouchDRO adapters picked up pace, I started spending more and more time on fulfilling the orders and dealing with customer support issues.

By the time I got done with the first round of code refactoring, Google released a newer version of Android with some more new requirements, which led to more rewrites. This round of rewrites took me well into 2019, and by the summer, I was pretty sure that the application will be ready in mid-to-late fall of that year. Unfortunately, in August a close family member was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away in September, which threw a big monkey wrench into a lot of things. Needless to say, TouchDRO took a back-seat for a while as we worked on getting our lives back together.

Need for a Change

The events of that summer forced me to take a step back and seriously rethink my priorities. One of the realizations I had was that my daily workload was not sustainable for the long term. At that time, it was common for me to come home from work, spend some time with the family, and jump right into responding to questions, dealing with lost orders, troubleshooting people's builds, etc. When Saturday came, I would start the day by programming, testing and packaging up the orders that came during the week. If I was lucky, I'd have a couple of hours that week to spend working on the application that weekend. This wasn't anywhere close to what I had in mind when I started the project.

I started working on TouchDRO because I enjoy writing software and love working in my small garage shop. The project allowed me to combine both of those passions and gave me the opportunity to create something useful for the broader hobby machinist community. As an added bonus, it made a bit of money that I could use to cover the R&D expenses (tablets, scales, etc.) and let me buy some tooling for the shop without tapping into the family budget. On the flip side, I was spending at least two to three hours every day, and at least half of my weekends doing grunt work, often not being able to set foot in the shop for weeks or even months. To add insult to injury, when I tallied up the net profits, it turned out that the amount of profit the project was bringing in a year was about as much as I was paid in a week at work. This had to stop.

The New Plan

I didn't want to just abandon the project, so after a few long "kitchen table" conversations my wife and I agreed that for me to continue working on the project, we will set some boundaries around the amount of time I spend on it. Furthermore, we decided to treat the project as a small business. In other words, we will make sure that we are making enough profit to justify the work we put into it.

For the short term, my wife agreed to help with the orders and I will invest the freed up time into making TouchDRO more sustainable. As the first step, we created a "to-do" list for the project and stack-ranked based on priority. Even though by that point I've been working on the new version of the application for over four years, it was clear that other things had to be taken care first:

Better Organized Website

When we categorized the questions that were taking up most of my time, it became clear that people had a really hard time finding the information on the blog. Even though most of this information was available, it was scattered all over the place and wasn't easy to find. As a result, the first order of business was to build a more organized website dedicated to the TouchDRO project. I started working on it right after New Year's day of 2020. Although I was able to lift some material from the blog, most of the articles have to be rewritten since the website uses a format that is different from the blog. At this point, the build instructions, troubleshooting guide, information about various scales, and overall TouchDRO setup are mostly flushed out. I still need to write a manual for the TouchDRO application, but my plan is to create it as I finish features in the new version.

New DIY Adapter Kits

Another major area that was taking up a lot of my time was helping with troubleshooting various hardware issues. A small percentage of those were from people who hit a roadblock while building an adapter; the rest were related to various readout stability issues with iGaging scales. Of those, less than 3% were from people who purchased a pre-assembled adapter. One common theme that I noticed with DIY builds was that people were choosing that option based on cost, not their skill set. This led to a situation where I was spending most of my time helping people troubleshoot basic wiring issues.

At first, I thought that I could help this by providing better build instructions, but at the end, realized that a better solution would be to offer inexpensive DIY adapter kits. If the price was close enough to the cost of the components, my hope was that more people will choose that route and will ultimately end up with a more reliable setup. To that end, in the first quarter of 2020, I introduced a new DIY DRO kit for iGaging and Shahe scales, and later that year, added a DIY kit for Glass and Magnetic DRO scales.

New Pre-Assembled Scale Adapters

I deliberately designed the original pre-assembled adapters to share the firmware and the circuit design with the DIY builds. For that reason, the components were selected based on their general availability and ease of hand assembly. In late 2020, I decided to bite a bullet and redesign the adapters from the ground-up and make sure that they are optimized for manufacturability instead. While this effectively made the new adapters completely non DIY-friendly, it allowed me to greatly improve the performance and reliability of the new adapters, while at the same time, significantly lowering my cost and effort. For example, even though the new Glass/Magnetic scales adapter is much more capable than the previous version, I am able to sell it for 25% less than its predecessor; the price stayed the same for the other two adapters but their capabilities are greatly extended.

At the time of this writing, there are three new TouchDRO adapter models:

They are basedon the new 32-bit architecture and are a huge step forward in terms of performance and capabilities. More detils about the adapters can be found on their respective product pages (linked above) and the TouchDRO Adapter Feature Comparison page.

TouchDRO Application Version "Next"

Now that the above items are done, I have resumed work on the application. There is still a lot of unfinished work that I need to enumerate and prioritize. That said, I am planning to make a few changes to the TouchDRO application as well. The biggest one is the switch to a "freemium" model. In simple terms, there will be a basic free version and a more advanced premium version (that I will call "TouchDRO Plus" for now). I don't know exactly what the split between the two will be, but there are the few things I know:

First of all, I will not be taking away or crippling any of the features that are present in the current version (with one small exception). The Free version is not intended to be crippled "demo" that quickly forces you to pay up for the Plus . Instead, my plan is for the free version to be on par with quality brand-name DROs, and any functionality that is above and beyond that will be available in the Plus version. For instance, the new graphical view will be available for free, but some more advanced functions in it, such as drawing overlay, will be in the paid version. Similarly, the free version will have probe and tool setter functionality, but the paid version will have some convenience features that make tool setter easier to use. Finally, I have plans for some features that will take advantage of network connectivity, and those will likely be in the paid version.

The feature that I will be removing from the free version is the ability to export saved sub datums (points) from the workspace. That was a quick hack I did by a user request and it is not compatible with the modern Android versions. I will likely re-implement something similar, but import/export will be a premium feature.

At this time, I don't know when the application will be ready for the public beta. My plan is to fully flush out the free version, get the release out, and then, start enabling the premium features. The Plus version will initially be available to the people who purchased boards or kits directly from me (i.e. your PayPal transaction number will be the unlock code). Once the Plus version is fully flushed out [and has enough features to justify paying for it], I will figure out how to take payments and what the price will be.

In a few weeks, I will post more details about the current state of the application, screenshots, and what is and isn't done at this point. Meanwhile, if you want a quick sneak peek of the new user interface, take a look at the "Tour of TouchDRO User Interface" on the TouchDRO Manual page.

Conclusion

This has been a long post, but the bottom line is that I need to get to a point where the project is sustainable in the long run. I've been working on TouchDRO for a good part of nine years and have spent thousands of hours on it. While there are many aspects of the project that I really enjoy, there are not enough hours in the day for me to do all of the daily grun work and then still find time to work on the TouchDRO application. At this time, the project is not bringing in enough revenue for me to hire a full-time support person, so we [my wife and I] are taking a two-pronged approach. While she freed me up from ordering, programming, testing and shipping the orders, I can concentrate on the Free version of the TouchDRO application with the goal of having it ready for the beta testing by the Fall of this year.

I realize that after reading this post you might be thinking that I'm going to completely switch gears and focus on monetizing the project. This is definitely not my intention. Instead, I am trying to find a balance where I can provide free options to people on the budget who can't afford to pay, but at the same time, offer enough incentives for people to upgrade to the Plus version of the app or buy an adapter from me and the Plus version as a bundle. My bar for the free setup is to make sure that it is on-par with a high-end digital readout unit, and isn't a crippled click bait that you would need to upgrade right away.

1 comment :

  1. Hi Yuriy,

    Thank you for your extensive update! I'm really sorry to hear the sad times you went through and off course this is more important to deal with than TouchDRO. At the same time I'm really happy with the plans you have for the future of TouchDRO. I'm looking forward to start testing the new beta version when available.
    Marko

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