In 1991, young electronics engineers Mike Juran and Tom Walton were working on test and measurement instrumentation at Hewlett-Packard in Colorado Springs.
“They had a screen on them and a lot of buttons and knobs, and over time they got to be really hard to use, even for engineers,” Juran said. “Tom and I and a couple of other engineers wanted to create a simulation tool to make them easier.”
While working on the concept, the two discovered a bigger market beyond test and measurement instrumentation and decided to spin off their own company, which became Altia.
“We were typical, naïve software engineers — let’s just leave this great company and start our own,” Juran said. “You know, it’ll be fantastic; in a year we’ll be billionaires.”
The fledgling company’s first customer was HP, and it was modeled on HP’s engineering- and excellence-focused culture.
Today, Altia provides development tools used to create the graphical user interface displays and touchscreens found in a range of products from automobiles to appliances, medical devices to exercise equipment. Past and current customers include Ford, Chrysler, GM, Lamborghini, Jaguar, Medtronics, Panasonic, Whirlpool Corp. and NordicTrack.
“About 80 percent of our business right now is in cars, trucks and vehicles,” Juran said. “Today, our software is in 39 million cars, and we’re designed into another 100 million that are coming out over the next five to seven years. We’ve got about a 30 percent market share in automotive in instrument clusters.”
The company employs about 40 people in Colorado Springs and has operations in Detroit, Germany and Japan.
Altia was a different company back in 1991, when it was composed of four people. It made graphic software for simulations that allowed customers to visualize the dashboard of a car or the layout of a device or instrument.
By 2001, Altia’s customers were starting to create graphical interfaces to go along with the knobs and buttons.
“They said, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to write the code to get all that stuff,’” said Jason Williamson, Altia’s vice president of marketing and one of the company’s first hires. “And so we created a code generator to get into those embedded devices for exactly what you’ve drawn in the simulation and get it running on deeply embedded hardware.”
A tipping point came in 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone and companies started putting displays on everything.
“We grew the company organically,” Juran said. “We would make a product, sell it, make a profit and reinvest the profit — kind of the old-fashioned way. … We followed the trends of the market, and automotive was one of them, where they started putting more and more tactile displays in cars.”
Altia’s products now include Altia Design, a user interface design program; DeepScreen Code Generator, which converts Design prototype graphics into C code; Altia PhotoProto, a Photoshop add-on that turns artwork into interactive prototypes; and ISO 26262, software that ensures safety-critical instrument cluster displays, such as warning lights, function properly and meet international safety standards.
“Our customers will use our software to design that graphical user interface on the laptop,” Juran said, “and then the automatic code generator turns all of that design into code that runs on very simple electronics.”
Customers without in-house design staff call upon Altia’s team of designers to design, implement and test their displays.
“It’s hard to get this stuff right,” Williamson said. “It takes a lot of iterations, and the amount of embedded software they have to write in a vehicle or an advanced refrigerator — even if they could do it, they’d rather spend their time working on the product. … [That] helps our customers really shorten the development cycle.”
User interfaces have grown more complex and feature-rich, including 3D and multiple displays.
“In many ways, it’s a lot harder to use,” Juran said. “A big part of what Altia is trying to do is to make it easier to use.”
The company also aims to merge art and engineering.
“You’ve probably seen a lot of interfaces that have been designed by engineers,” Williamson said. “And you can probably tell, right? … We don’t want it to just run solid. It’s got to look great and run fast.”
Juran envisions Altia becoming the dominant supplier for the automotive market — autonomous cars will provide multiple opportunities — and moving into other industries.
“Our goal is that by 2025, all the user interfaces that we make will be able to touch every person on the planet,” he said.
Juran, who serves on the board of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, also hopes Altia will play a major role in the continuing effort to create a more vibrant downtown that includes more innovative businesses. The company recently moved from a location on Commerce Drive in north Colorado Springs to a new office at the Plaza of the Rockies.
“I think we’re making really good strides,” he said. “We believe in this city’s plan and strategy. … So the answer is to keep doing what we’re doing.”