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Q&A: Georg Petschnigg, CEO of FiftyThree, on creating with mobile technology

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Georg Petschnigg co-founded the company behind Apple's app of the year -- Paper -- which is transforming the way people use the iPad.

As co-founder and CEO of the company FiftyThree, Georg Petschnigg is one of the minds behind Paper, an iPad app for mobile creation launched in 2012. Described as a legal pad optimized for the digital age, Paper was built to make the creation process easy. It includes tools for drawing, sketching, outlining, writing and coloring. With the app's latest iteration, Paper users can share their creations with the web at large.

I spoke recently with Petschnigg about leaving Microsoft, the big names using Paper and combatting the stereotype that iPads are consumption-only devices. Below are excerpts from our interview.

What made you leave Microsoft after 10 years to start FiftyThree? Why was this the project you just had to do?

For me, it was clear why we had to start FiftyThree. I loved working with [fellow co-founders] Jon Harris, Andrew Allen and Julian Walker. They made me better and I could learn from them. At some point when we were working late together back in the day, I realized these are people who challenged me and kept raising the bar. We also worked well together. We developed a great method of working together bridging the gaps between design and engineering. We got things done.

There was also this passion that brought us together: the belief that people are at their best when they create. And we loved making tools for creation. The questions that emerged were: 'What are the essential tools for creation? What do people need as technology progresses and human needs evolve?' The answer came in the form of the number 53. It represents the fact that people want to keep essential tools within an arm's reach of 53 centimeters. But we'll never be done answering those questions. The answers are evolving. That underlies our product philosophy.

FiftyThree's first project, Paper, was named Apple's app of the year in 2012. Describe Paper.

Paper is the simplest, most beautiful way to capture your ideas on the iPad. It's home for your ideas. You can write, draw, color and use it like it's a notebook. People use it to solve problems. They work through interface design questions. They use it to prepare presentations. They do garden layouts and comic books. Anything you'd use pen and paper for, you can use Paper for. But it's retooled for the digital age.

How do iPad users create with Paper? What are some of the best Paper creations you've come across?

What's most satisfying for us is when people say, 'I haven't considered myself creative.' But then they use Paper and it's easy for them to create beautiful things. There are Baby Boomers discovering their passion for art. They're doing paintings. We get notes from consultants who say they drew out an entire proposal on Paper. There's a broad range. In a famous use, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Square, presented at a TechCrunch Disrupt event using Paper. You have Mike McCue building the next version of Flipboard in Paper. Apple's design team is using it. Fashion designers are using it. A lot of book ideas have started on Paper.

For us, it's about getting to the heart of someone's creative process. Over the last year, people have created more than 80 million pages in Paper. That's close to 800 years' worth of creation time. That's people choosing not to do email, not to play Angry Birds. It's people spending time with their thoughts and a blank canvas. And that, I think, is tremendous. That's why I think we're on this planet: to create.

Why do you think Paper struck such a chord? How is it different from the thousands of other apps on the market?

There are a number of reasons. When we looked at the market before Paper, we would find professional-grade drawing applications where you could make beautiful drawings, but you had to be an artist. Oftentimes these tools just went from the desktop to the tablet. On the other end of the spectrum, you'd find note-taking applications that were useful, but boring. Who gets all that excited about making a to-do list? It's useful, but not beautiful.

If we're going to create something that gets people in a creative mindset, it has to start with beauty. Striking the balance between beauty and utility was something we strove for in our development process. We did this also in the construction of the team. When you look at FiftyThree, nine employees are designers and 11 are engineers. It's a balanced organization. When you look at Paper, the tools were designed for touch and mobile first. There are no settings. There are underlying algorithms and technologies to make handwriting more beautiful. There are elements we borrowed from gaming to make that happen. When you look at our color tool, it mimics watercolor or the act of coloring. You're able to do two operations, drawing with an edge and blending colors, seamlessly. You can quickly master something that would take years to learn.

Paper made creation much more accessible to people. Apple liked our application because it emphasized a touch-first experience. Desktop applications work off the metaphor of the typewriter. There are a lot of keys and buttons. But tablets are much more like a legal pad. Mobile devices need to be re-imagined for a world that's on the go and connected.

One criticism of the iPad is that it's a consumption-focused device, used for playing games and watching movies, rather than creating. Why did you feel there was an opening in this market for an app focused on creation?

We wanted this tool ourselves. When we developed products for Microsoft, we'd always start with pen and paper. We were creating some of the most technologically-advanced products, but we'd always start with pen and paper. That was an insight. We needed Paper ourselves.

Andrew Allen on my team says, "Never underestimate people's ability to create and surprise you.' Over the last decade there's been a lot of emphasis on advertising and entertainment products and media channels. There's been a strong emphasis around consumption. We made music and video more accessible, but not necessarily better. Things get better when you see the world around you not as a consumer, but a creator. That's what we needed to get back to. Technology is there to supplement the human need to create. Entertainment products are great. But at the end of your life, what are you going to think about? Is it the games you played or the movies you watched? It'll be the things you created that you think of.

Is this the start of a trend? Have you seen, or do you expect to see, more apps focused on creation rather than consumption?

I think it's inevitable. It's what should happen. It's what will happen when we start understanding these technologies more and how design plays into it. When you look at the first adoptions of technology, it's usually around productivity. The spreadsheet revolutionized that space. It was a task and functionality-oriented breakthrough. That usually happens at the beginning. Then you see media and entertainment coming in. Who doesn't like to be entertained? That's a natural evolution. Once technologies are better understood, then design and aesthetics matter. You can start working on other types of problems. The internet has been around for close to 20 years now. How much of your activity online is about consuming information? We want to turn that around too. You should go online because you want to create with people who inspire you. That's what we want to see.

What's next for you and FiftyThree?

The next evolution is about bringing ideas together. Paper is where ideas begin. But for ideas to have impact, they need to be shared. There's a tremendous opportunity to think through how the web can help with that. Wikipedia made us all better at recalling facts. Is there something similar around the development of new ideas?

We recently launched a new update to Paper. The big update for use was adding our Made With Paper stream that showcases inspiration from creators all over the world. For the first time, we show people creations and the tool behind them in the same place. These pages highlight the global nature of creation and how we are connected through our abilities to create. Our most popular images have been how-to guides, short descriptions of a technique capturing an idea visually. One of the biggest joys for us has been seeing what people are making with Paper and we are thrilled we get to share this with our audience.

Photo: Georg Petschnigg / By Lee Towndrow

Image: Paper

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure