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The Birth Of Mobile Poker

by Brendan Murray |  Published: Feb 01, 2013


By Conor McCarthy and Brendan Murray

Launched in October 2010, Switch Poker was the world’s first mobile real-money poker site compatible with Apple devices such as the iPad and iPhone. It was a technologically demanding feat to get the product up and running but since then Switch Poker has continued to innovate and remains at the cutting edge of areas such as Bitcoin poker and mobile multi-tabling. The holiday season is traditionally a time when lots of people receive new mobile devices so Card Player caught up with Conor McCarthy, one of the founders and developers of the site to find out more about the birth of mobile poker, where it’s at and what the future holds.

BM: Tell us a little bit about your background in gaming/poker and technology?

CMcC: I have a technical educational background, electing to do an electronic engineering degree and then a software development post grad. It was during my time in college that I was introduced to online poker, during the boom brought about by Chris Moneymaker’s World Series of Poker win. Like many others before me, and many after me, I started with cautious experiments at microstakes games, slowly building my bankroll and graduating to higher stakes no-limit hold’em games.

My first involvement in conducting online business-to-consumer business came shortly after when I set up my own business providing poker datamining software. It took off and gave me the both the capital and hunger to start something bigger.

During this I worked with Full Tilt Poker for a period where I both learned about the business of online poker and got to know some extremely talented software developers. There was no talk of starting an online poker site then, but I am sure that I wasn’t the only one whose mind it crossed.

BM: How did the idea for Switch Poker come about?

CMcC: In mid-2010, a year or so after my departure from Full Tilt, my business was for the most part running itself and I was left seeking something new to work on.
One day I opened my Gmail inbox to be greeted with an email from an ex-colleague of mine. It contained a link to a functioning proof of concept for an iPhone compatible poker site and a request for help in bringing it further. Having been frustrated with the lack of real money poker apps on the iPhone this was an ideal opportunity to do something about it. The timing was perfect on a number of levels. On a personal level, I was in a place to start something new and had the time and capital to do it. There was no iPhone real money poker game available anywhere despite the iPhone commanding huge market share, having been released three years earlier. There were also rumors of an Apple tablet being launched later that year. In short I was instantly 100 percent on board with the project and the aim of bringing iPhone and iPad poker to the masses.

BM: How did you get the ball rolling when trying to set up Switch Poker and what were some of the difficulties you encountered?

CMcC: The next couple of months were a lot of fun. We worked many 16-hour days thrashing out the spec of the game. Would swear words be allowed in table chat? Does that sound really sound like cards being dealt? How do you handle multi-way split pots when there are four side pots on the table?

A lot of thought went into making the game easy to use on small handheld devices. We aimed for a simple and intuitive user interface. The layout of a typical poker game designed for large screens would not do. Tiny buttons designed to be clicked with a mouse pointer are no problem on a PC but might cause you to muck A-A preflop on a touch screen. Larger buttons mean much less space for other items and some workarounds were necessary, such as translucent bet sliders that appear over the table when necessary.

We wanted to have the game ready to go as soon after the iPad launched as possible and working off rumors of the spec for the upcoming iPad we created a client that what we hoped would work on the iPad. For the moment though, we had no way to know if it would work.

A brief trip to the U.S. left us in possession of a shiny new iPad. We held our breath as we loaded up our latest build of the game. Would it load at all? Much to our relief not only did it load up, it looked and worked great. It felt great being able to play poker wherever we were. We tested it from connections on the other side of the world and it was perfectly responsive, as if you were playing somebody next door. So, we were now in possession of the only iPhone / iPad compatible HTML5 poker game. We had a launch to plan.

We racked our brains trying to come up with a name for the site. Everything we came up with sounded a bit naff. One day while I was talking to my fiancé about how we expected online players to switch from PC to mobile play she suggested Switch Poker as a name. It was perfect.

We picked a date a fortnight away and publically stated that this would be the day that iPhone/iPad users would be able to play mobile real money poker. There was no turning back now. On the day of the launch we took out a couple of ads, started a discussion on the forums and offered a few bonuses to the first players. The real money tables were scheduled to open at 6 p.m.. Neither of us knew what sort of reaction the game would get or, worst of all, if it would get no reaction at all. When 6 p.m. rolled around the reaction was better than either of us could have imagined. There was a full blown torrent of players hitting the tables. Thousands of registrations in the first days. We no longer were concerned about empty tables and instead we worried if the servers would hold up as the CPU monitors bounced off 100 percent. The previous months load testing paid off as the game remained fast and responsive under high load. Finally after months of preparation and work we had reached the start line.

BM: Why do you think you were the first to market with mobile poker?

CMcC: We were poker players with iPhones and a strong desire to play poker on mobile. We were a small team 100 percent committed to a common aim: design a product for poker players, a game that they would love as much as we do.

Large companies are nearly always slow to change direction. If they have a good thing going they may feel there is little reason to go to the trouble of experimenting with something new. This would lead to a lack of motivation to do anything groundbreaking.

If the motivation to create a mobile poker game did exist for other companies, they may have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t actually possible with the technology of the day. At the time Apple did not allow any gambling related games in the App store. So on first look mobile poker may have appeared out of reach. The possibility of a web-based client may not have occurred. There were not many popular web-based games in existence at the time so it took some imagination to see what was actually possible.

BM: Post-launch the innovations came thick and fast. How did poker for Android devices differ from poker for Apple devices in its development and the difficulties you encountered?

The major difference between the Android version and the Apple version is that the Android version is ‘native’, meaning it runs directly on the device, while the iPhone / iPad version runs from within the browser. To play on an Android device you download an application which installs on your phone while on the iPhone you simply visit a web page and the game appears instantly in your browser.

Developing for Android natively offers some advantages. There is better sound support for one. Also, the development tools are more advanced which eases development.

Much more care was needed in respect to screen layout in the Android version. There are only three screen types that need to be accounted for on Apple devices: The iPhone 4, iPhone 5 and iPad (the mini and original sharing the same screen shape). This makes it easy to plan the screen layout. Android is a whole different story. There are hundreds of different screen size, shape and resolution combinations. To cater for this we needed to design a number of main layouts. The best match will be picked which will then stretch and squeeze to fit the screen. Development of this proved tricky.

Updates to the web-based game are much easier to handle. We can, and do quite frequently, make updates multiple times each day to the web-based version which are picked up automatically when the player re-opens the game. This feature came for free on the web-based game but we needed to go to some lengths to make the update process painless in the Android app.

Some development challenges were shared across the platforms, one of which was the bet slider. A lot of work went into making the bet slider bar work well. It was tricky to stop it jumping between small and large bet amounts when a player was deepstacked. The formula behind the bet slider went through multiple revisions over the last two years to get it where it is now.

BM: You were one of the first to market with Bitcoin poker. Explain a little about Bitcoins and how they work and what attracted you to the notion of Bitcoin poker?

CMcC: Like most online/mobile poker players I know, I have a passion for exchanging poker news and comments with other player on forums. One night I happen to read a chat between an Australian and Canadian players who were wondering if they could use their Bitcoin to play poker. Bitcoin? So I did some research on the subject and I decided to take my next challenge; use Bitcoin to play poker.

Bitcoin is a new type of money. Unlike the typical type of money that we are all familiar with, which has its value backed and controlled by governments, Bitcoin has no central controlling entity. Instead, Bitcoin is collectively controlled by the hundreds of thousands of people who use it. This has some simple but powerful ramifications.

Bitcoin allows people to send any amount of money to anyone in the world for free (or very close to free), provided they have a computer and internet connection. There is no intervening body able to suspend or cancel the payment. This is good news for most people and great news for those who live in countries with a weak, expensive or oppressive banking system.

Like cash and unlike credit card payments, once you receive a Bitcoin payment you can be certain that the funds are yours and cannot be taken away from you. This gives piece of mind to merchants as they no longer have to worry about fraudulent payments.

An international bank transfer takes at best a couple of days to process. Bitcoin payments are complete within a few short hours. This means, in the case of online poker, that players can start playing and winning more quickly and they can access their winnings much sooner.

BM: Am I correct in saying you’re the only mobile poker operator with a multi-table function? How difficult was that to develop and why do you think others have had trouble following you with this innovation?

CMcC: As far as I am aware we are the only mobile operator which allows multiple tables visible on screen at one time. Other mobile clients allow multi-tabling but only display one table at a time, so the player is left to tab between the tables to see what’s going on. This gets tiresome quickly and makes it very difficult to multi-table for an extended period of time.

The Android app was built from the ground up with this feature in mind and there were no major ‘gotchas’ in developing it. We wanted to ensure that it was easy to see the action at any time on all tables that you were playing at and that you could swap quickly to any table when you needed to. We’ve achieved this in both the iPad and Android version. We are now working on bringing the same feature to out iPhone users.

Why are others slow to follow? Many other poker sites have gone the route of Zoom or Rush poker instead of allowing true multi-tabling.

BM: What will 2013 and beyond hold for Switch Poker?

CMcC: Customers come first at Switch Poker and always will. Our software has been developed with the aim of transforming the mobile poker experience in something more immersive and entertaining than typical online poker. There is something magical in touching the cards with your fingers rather than clicking a mouse and we want our players to sense this. Players have been our muses for every improvement of the software and every bonus we created and we plan our future developments with this in mind.

We have many software improvements planned, including bringing the multi-tabling feature to the iPhone, taking advantage of new sound capabilities of the iOS 6 and eventually new poker games.

We currently give our players the opportunity to earn money by telling their friends about Switch Poker using our Aeroplane referral system as well as giving all players cash bonuses at random intervals directly into their account. New promotions are in the works which reward our players in every step of the game. So watch out for our next updates!

BM: What do you see as the next great leaps forward for mobile poker? Will it always be considered the ‘little brother’ to traditional PC/Mac-based online poker or could it become the predominant platform in the future?

CMcC: All consumer applications will be mobile in the not-too-distant future. If you are using a computer now chances are that it’s a laptop. Ten years ago that would not have been the case. Ten years from not you will most likely be using something that doesn’t have a permanent keyboard at all and that you carry around all the time.

I see a future where our phones will be sufficiently powerful to power all of the programs that we currently rely on our laptops for. Instead of owning a smart phone, tablet and laptop we will have only a mobile phone which we dock (wirelessly perhaps) to a monitor when we need a larger display and a keyboard when we need to do lot of data entry. Even today you can get a 256GB drive so tiny that one could swallow if the bet was large enough. Tomorrow the whole computer will be this size and the only remaining large elements will be those that we need to be large for data input and output. Mobile poker won’t be the little brother of traditional PC-based poker because traditional PCs will no longer exist.

This change will begin, has already begun I should say, with apps capable of running on both small phones and large desktop computers. They will be designed to be used with both a mouse pointer and touch screen. Windows 8 has begun in this direction. Although is it not yet possible to run the same app on both Windows 8 PCs and phones it is, according to Larry Lieberman, senior product manager at Microsoft, something that Microsoft want to figure out how to get to as soon as possible. I would bet that Google and Apple are thinking the same.

We can’t wait to get our hands on some Google Glasses to try our hand at making a poker app for them. Imagine being able to play when out for a walk or a jog, without crashing into lampposts because you were looking down at your phone. It is only a matter of time until this is possible.

BM: Do you see any synergies between live poker and mobile poker?

CMcC: Certainly. The future is bright in this area and I think we will see significant movement once U.S. legislation is sorted out. When this happens the larger U.S. bricks and mortar (B&M) casinos will make their forays into the world of online poker and they will, I imagine, want a smooth transition between their B&M games and their online games. Picture the following. In five years you may walk into the MGM Grand to play some poker. Instead of buying physical chips you fund your new MGM casino account and sit at any of the bustling digital poker tables in the room. You can choose a table where you play against only the people at the table in the room, or a table where you play against other MGM players wherever they may be. Incidentally, the digital poker tables allow you to get in some rounds of blackjack between hands. After your session you are offered a tablet that you can bring to your hotel room or the pool on which you can continue playing against the same players. When you checkout MGM ask for the tablet back, but that’s OK because you can now play whenever you like using the phone app that you have been sent by the casino. I think the blurring of live and online mobile poker is inevitable and it will bring the best aspects of live play and the best aspects of online play to everyone. ♠