DC Device Lab Aims to Make Things Easier for Developers Stuck Between Platforms

The new venture offers internet and app developers a library of smartphones and tablets to ensure their products run on different systems.

By: Benjamin Freed

For consumers in need of smartphones or tablet computers, it’s nice that the current marketplace offers a wide variety of platforms and an ever-growing number of products. But for the developers who build apps and websites, that expanding diversity can be frustrating to navigate. An app first built for Apple’s iOS, for instance, doesn’t seamlessly translate to Android or Windows Mobile, and a website that flows on an iPad might need to be tweaked in order to look just as pretty on a Samsung tablet. For developers, those tasks mean more work, more money spent, and potential delays in rolling out a product.

Mariesa Dale, a digital designer in DC, wants to help her neighbors in the local tech community get around those platforms with the launch of DC Device Lab, a new workspace where developers can test out their apps and sites on a library of devices. Dale, 32, tells Washingtonian in an interview that having a collection of phones, tablets, and computers available for product testing was a missing piece of DC’s emerging tech scene. She also says that if the District is going to evolve as a hub for high-tech industries—as the city’s leaders frequently claim it will—the rising number of software and internet developers will need all the resources they can get.

Operating out of Canvas Co/work, an office-sharing space near Dupont Circle, Dale has put together a collection of more than 30 different devices, including iPhones, Microsoft Surface computers, BlackBerrys, and Amazon Kindles. That’s a tiny fraction of the nearly 12,000 types of mobile devices out there, but it’s a start.

A couple weeks ago you told Washington Business Journal you were still collecting devices. Do you have all the devices on hand now?

There are thousands of devices we could get. We have about 30 right now which is fantastic. We’re going to open as one of the largest in the nation. I don’t know about San Francisco, but I know there’s one in Portland that’s got 42 devices, and we’ve got just a little over 30, and that is heads above what’s out there in the majority of the country.

You had a “wish list” of devices at the time. Were you able to fulfill it?

Well, most of it. I’ve put on our website a list of everything we offer. We actually have a 23-inch iMac and a desktop PC to offer cross-browser compatibility because sometimes it will look different in Internet Explorer than it does in Chrome.

What got you into the idea of opening up a device lab?

I myself am a user-experience and user-interface designer, and I was working on a project for a major hospitality organization, and it was a really innovative, parallax, single-scroll website and it was all responsive. The content was adjusting to the size of the browser and I needed to be able to test it on different devices to make sure it was OK. I was looking around for a device lab and I couldn’t find one. I’m originally from Seattle, and I know there’s different device labs out there, and I couldn’t find anything but it felt like a no-brainer. There was this woman, Clarissa Peterson, who had kind of started the conversation on Twitter six months before and it had been sitting stagnant. I asked her, “Are you still doing this?” She said, “Oh, well, I was getting the ball rolling but then I moved to Canada and I got married. Basically, here’s the keys, you can take over and keep driving if you want.” So I took over the Twitter account and very basic WordPress site that I’ve developed and built out.

This is a new kind of service that didn’t really exist five or six years ago. Why do we need these device labs?

In short, it saves any single developer or a large firm a ton of money because they don’t need to go out and buy these devices themselves. They don’t have to do all the maintenance and updates that it takes to keep it going. They can just come in, pay $5 an hour, test their website and then just be done with it. It’s a way to really quality check and make sure that all of the products developers are producing here in DC are good. It’s a high-level product we’re all putting out. We are touting ourselves as having this fantastic tech community, and everyone from Silicon Valley to Berlin—these are tech hubs around the glob—have these device labs, and we don’t. This has been a missing piece. It was a need that was out there and I was in a position to take the reins and make it happen.

Where did you get all the devices? Did you have to go out and buy any? Were they through donations?

Both. We were asking for individual donations. This is really kind of grassroots project. We were asking for donations, older products—iPhone 3’s and iPhone 4’s. Those donations were critical, and also the corporate sponsorships. Not only have Microsoft and Samsung given the latest and greatest from their platforms, Washington, DC Economic Partnership gave a good chunk of money. It was instrumental in helping go out to buy the rest of what we were missing. Chief, a creative firm here in DC, and Rock Creek Strategic Marketing, they both gave funds that were helpful as well.

It sounds like you’ve been part of this growing DC tech community for a while. How have you seen this community grow?

I’ve been here in DC about 7 years, and I personally have felt major growth in my industry. It’s not even just a community anymore, it’s really a tight-knit group of people who are pulling every resource and everything they can to make this the best city for technology. It’s palpable, you can feel it.

Mayor Vince Gray likes to say DC is growing as a tech hub, and obviously a lot of people are taken with the 1776 community. Is DC really becoming a big technology city?

Yeah, I think so. There are some challenges and some setbacks that clearly WDCEP is working with and the tech community has voiced. It’s definitely growing and I see us as a global tech leader.

And what is it that our tech community is producing? Is it more government-oriented products?

It’s pretty diverse. You’re never going to be able to get away from the gov aspect of everything, but it’s everything. The better question would be, “What are we not producing?” You’ve got everybody here. And that’s honestly one of the reasons I decided to open in Canvas Co/work first, because Canvas is probably DC’s most creative working space, whereas 1776 is more of a startup accelerator.

Are any your neighbors at Canvas developers?

Definitely. It’s a good mix over there. Developers and designers.

So a lot of people who will be able to walk down the hall and test their stuff out?

Absolutely. They’re ecstatic.