Touch Press’s Barry O’Neill: ‘Get ready for the next disruption’

16 Feb 2018

Barry O’Neill, CEO of Touch Press. Image: Lera Polska

Having pretty much weathered every digital storm in the last 20 years, Touch Press CEO Barry O’Neill tells John Kennedy we have now reached peak smartphone.

Back in the mid-1990s when Temple Bar was, believe it or not, actually edgy and arty – long before it became a tourist trap for stag parties and overpriced pints – a curious place called Arthouse sprang up on a curved street. It was where all the cool, fashionable art and photography students would coalesce around this new thing called multimedia, while the rest of Dublin’s students – myself included – would trudge by or gawp in curiosity.

I didn’t know it at the time but one of the Arthouse founders was Barry O’Neill, a person who I’ve since met during most chapters of my own journey through digital over the last few decades.

‘We couldn’t have even started Upstart Games without Skype or cheap Ryanair flights’

O’Neill, who will be the main guest for a fireside chat at the Bank of Ireland-supported Startup Grind at the NDRC in Dublin on Monday night (19 February), is the CEO of Touch Press, the educational games and family app publisher formed by the integration of Amplify Games, Touch Press and StoryToys.

Touch Press is known for its high-quality apps based on both original and licensed IP, including the multi-award-winning StoryToys portfolio of K-3 apps (My Very Hungry Caterpillar, Mother Goose Club), Touch Press Games’ library (12 a Dozen, Crafty Cut, World of Lexica) and its renowned portfolio of reference apps, including Theodore Gray’s The Elements and The Waste Land.

Prior to Touch Press and StoryToys, O’Neill was a Mobile 1.0 pioneer, having headed up Bandai Namco’s European mobile business and co-founded mobile games publisher Upstart Games, which he sold in 2006.

O’Neill is also an active investor in mobile content and games ventures, both personally and as an adviser to the Tesseract Fund, which focuses exclusively on early-stage mobile entertainment start-ups.

Back when the internet was handed out on free discs

I first met O’Neill when he was head of content at Rondomondo, one of the Telecom Éireann (now Eir) stable of long-departed digital businesses.

From the outset, O’Neill was an outsider to the fusty, buttoned-up business world of the era.

“I had bleached blonde hair, wore tartan jeans and Doc Marten boots, and when I went into my first meeting in a stuffy boardroom in Marlborough Street, a fellow at the end of the table looked like he was asleep. Then, suddenly, he pipes up: ‘The only content that Telecom Éireann needs is the Sleeping Clock!’

“It set the tone for the constant battle between a phone company that put wires in the ground and up on poles, to what we were trying to do in the content business.”

At that time in the late 1990s, the world was switching to the internet – fundamentally dial-up at the time – and pre-IPO Telecom Éireann was embarking on amassing a portfolio of digital properties that included Rondomondo, Nua and Ebeon, to name a few, as well as its own ISPs, Tinet and Indigo.

“At the time we were doing all kinds of things, trying to invent YouTube, Spotify, Netflix and Google all at the same time but before anybody had broadband. These were all great ideas that were too far ahead of their time and poorly executed on top of it.”

Telecom Éireann’s digital dream turned into a nightmare not long after the dot-com crash of March 2000 and the entire multimedia division was shuttered with the loss of thousands of jobs. “It was a dark day,” O’Neill recalled.

Mobile 1.0

O’Neill’s personal digital odyssey began when he left school and went straight to work with Samir Naji’s Horizon Group. After that, he became an art and photography tutor at the National College of Art and Design.

This spurred him and others to found Arthouse in Temple Bar. “It was set up as a resource for long-term unemployed artists and animators and for creative people to get access to technology and tools to upskill themselves for the forthcoming digital world.”

One of the sponsors was Telecom Éireann, which resulted in O’Neill being headhunted to establish Rondomondo in the late 1990s to spearhead the operator’s doomed efforts to build a streaming content business.

By 2001, the digital dream was shattered, and Telecom Éireann was to go on to have several successive owners. O’Neill found himself unemployed.

“Not only was I unemployed, I was unemployable because I had been so high-profile and the collapse of the multimedia businesses was a high-profile failure.

“Becoming an entrepreneur hadn’t occurred to me but I had to become one out of necessity.”

O’Neill joined forces with John Dennehy of Zartis, an individual who was also at the time made guilty by association with the dot-com collapse.

TV producer Stephen McCormack, then a tech entrepreneur himself, introduced O’Neill and Dennehy to a Japanese-American called Hiroshi Okamoto who had been living in Ireland.

“We knew that there were interesting things happening in the mobile gaming market, and in Japan in particular around mobile data. We went to Japan to suss it out and that’s when John, Hiroshi and myself started Upstart Games.”

It was the time of flip multimedia phones and early Java games, just before smartphones became a thing. And O’Neill and his co-founders sniffed an opportunity.

“We licensed games from the Japanese market and redeployed them to international markets. We had a lot of high-profile games and our big breakthrough came when we brought Frogger to mobile in the US and Europe. That paid the bills for a very long time.

“And then we started bringing international games to the Japanese market and we worked with companies like Rovio in Europe to commercialise European games in Japan.”

By 2006, with the iPhone’s unveiling just around the corner, Dennehy, Okamoto and O’Neill sold Upstart Games to a Chinese company.

“We got out just at the right time. The iPhone was coming out and it transformed everything.”

With vital experience of the global mobile gaming market under his belt, O’Neill went on to head up Bandai Namco’s European mobile business in London.

Rise of the killer apps

The onset of the iPhone in 2007 was followed a year later by the App Store, which began a revolution in apps, distorting software distribution forever. The arrival of the iPad in 2010 had significant implications for the traditional publishing world.

It was around this time that two Irish brothers, Aidan and Kevin Doolan, started a company called Ideal Binary and swiftly produced two iOS books, Rumpelstiltskin and Red Riding Hood, and three apps in its 3D classic literature series.

Ideal Binary morphed into StoryToys and O’Neill was brought on board initially as chair.

“They had built this superb engine for rendering content, especially book content, in 3D and, to this day, we are still using it. It’s a really strong piece of code.”

After raising seed funding, O’Neill was made CEO of StoryToys, an educational publisher for the digital age.

In early 2016, the company received a $1m investment from Amplify Education Partners, a company linked to business woman Laurene Powell, wife of the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple.

Later that year, StoryToys merged with Amplify Games and Touch Press to become Touch Press Inc, closing a $10m Series A funding round soon after.

Today, Touch Press employs 44 people between Dublin and New York. StoryToys, a division of its own within the Touch Press family, is achieving 1m downloads a month for its content.

The company, O’Neill explained, is in a constant state of evolution. “As well as apps, we’ve been doing well with AR [augmented reality] content and, for us, smartphones are really just a medium. Our content has applications on many different kinds of devices, from Windows PCs to MacBooks and ChromeBooks and TVs. It’s really about what is the most appropriate medium for the content that we have or can it be adapted for different media.

“Our objective is to reach as many consumers as possible, and with the kind of content that is capable of delivering a recurring revenue model.”

In essence, Touch Press is endeavouring to build a lifetime relationship with readers and consumers of content, beginning with children’s apps and books for kids under five, and developing along with them as they get older and move through the education cycle.

Upstarting the start-ups

Compared with the early 2000s, O’Neill believes it is easier to start a business today.

“The technological environment is lower-cost than ever before. We couldn’t have even started Upstart Games without Skype or cheap Ryanair flights. Back then, we were buying servers and putting in racks, there were no cloud-hosting providers.

“There is nothing else stopping anyone starting a company today, bar their imagination. Prototyping is easier, scaling is easier, and the means of distribution of content is infinite and global.”

Having advanced through the PC era, survived the dot-com bust, profited from Mobile 1.0 and steered businesses through Mobile 2.0, O’Neill feels that the world has reached peak smartphone.

“We may have hit peak smartphone, but we are on the cusp of something very interesting. Get ready for the next disruption as we head towards a post-display world.”

The post-display world will be characterised by audio interfaces such as the Amazon Echo and the Apple HomePod as well as new AR experiences.

“I’m not a big virtual reality [VR] fan but I am a big augmented reality fan. I was sceptical about AR but when Apple released ARKit, we pushed The Very Hungry Caterpillar out in AR.

“We are starting to see the potential of combining the real and virtual worlds. Players like Magic Leap and other AR businesses have the potential to transform and move us to the post-screen world. That will be a world where we will interact with content in the world around us in a natural way without the need for a smartphone or a VR headset.

“We are moving to a paradigm shift in how consumers interact with content, and moving away from smartphones,” he predicted.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years