October 15, 2019

The nine lives of Sony Sketch

by Carl Hammarlund @mrsketch

On October 3, 2019, Sony shut down the Sketch online service, and a few days later the app was removed from Google Play and the App Store. At the time of the shutdown, Sketch had millions of users, and hundreds of millions of sketches stored in the cloud.

Our team built the Sony Sketch app and community. For six years we did our best to serve both Sony's customers and a growing number of people on other platforms.

Background

Although diminished in power, Sony was still an important player in the mobile phone market in 2013. The company was in an effort to capture a larger portion of the premium segment with the Xperia Z line of models. The most peculiar in the line-up was the Z Ultra - a phone so big that most people could not fit it in their pocket. The Z Ultra had an amazing feature though; you could control it using an ordinary pencil.

With a selling point like that it seemed reasonable to include a useful drawing experience out-of-the-box. Thus Sony Sketch begun, and the team who were tasked with building the app was the "Social Experience" team, which I had recently joined. The team normally dealt with integration of major social media platforms, but the Sketch app was deemed important enough to repurpose the team.

The first app

The guiding principle of Sketch was that it should be very easy to use. Advanced features were not welcome. Version 1.0 had a palette of 16 colors, and a fixed set of about 40 stickers. There were no layers, no text, and no online features at all.

Sketch did have a brush tool in the first version that looked pretty much like the brush tool in the later versions. In fact, many of brushes, like the dots brush, remained popular and unchanged until the end.

First signs of trouble

Shortly after the launch of Z Ultra, Sketch had its first brush with death, when we discovered that Sketch was no longer included in the daily builds for the new phone models. The product planners had decided that Sketch was no longer relevant. We convinced them that it was.

Then suddenly one day, it was declared that the Sketch app would be deprioritized and taken over by an outsourced team, and the Sketch team would go back to being the "Social Experience" team, which now looked even more useless than before. Nevertheless it was the will of management. As the months went by, we managed to gradually cheat our way back into the Sketch project. Within a year, the whole project was once again completely in the hands of the original team.

Internal marketing

It was obvious that Sketch needed to promote itself on the inside. We started to make ourselves heard. During an internal demo session, the team showed off several extravagant features, including a fully functional frame-by-frame animation tool, with GIF support! What happened to that, you ask? It only worked on tablets, and generally needed a lot of optimization work, and when it wasn't finished it got lost in history.

Sketch animation demo, 2014
Sketch goes online

The first online features were the sticker store and cloud sync, which saw heavy use, and then came private collaborations, which virtually nobody used. That's right, the most successful feature in Sketch was initially a total flop.

Private collaboration, 2015

One good thing came out of it though; in order for private collaborations to work, your drawing partner had to have the app, and thus Sketch was launched on Google Play. The app received good reviews, and in the app testing forum, something interesting started to appear - art!

The thought of art coming out of our little app was entirely alien to us. We thought users would only use our app for simple doodles and stickers. It turned out that people had been sitting for hours creating the most intricate drawings.

The community

All this art that was made in Sketch needed to be seen! At the end of 2015 we were ready to launch the Sketch community. There was some confusion as to whether Sony actually would allow us to launch a service like that. To be sure nobody would be fired, the guy who pushed the launch button was quitting anyway.

Administration of the feed turned out to be a nightmare. Afraid of abuse, we reviewed every single sketch before it was released to the feed. That meant we had to go through thousands of sketches, and users often had to wait several hours for their work to appear.

The review system was later replaced by a report system. The report system never became efficient, end we never had enough people to review all reports as carefully as we would have wanted.