Software developers steering creative energy toward burgeoning app market

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Not long after Apple's initial launch of the iPhone three summers ago, Bill Maurizio and Marc Majors were creating little games on the handheld device for their kids. Both managers at a software engineering firm, they missed the challenge of writing code.

Having built these simple games -- match the horse or duck to their shadows, spell easy words on the screen -- they were having their weekend coffee meeting at a Panera Bread in Monroeville and talking about the next step.

Why not develop an application -- or app -- for sale?

"It seemed like a really fun way to make a few dollars," Mr. Maurizio said.

And so they became part of what some analysts predict will be a $17.5 billion industry by 2012. The industry leader, Apple, has had more than 3 billion apps downloaded in just about two years. While many are free, there is a lot of money to be made if even a small fraction of those generates cash.

These days apps can turn a smartphone or other handheld mobile device into almost anything: a remote control to program your TV, a flashlight, delightful time-waster (the games are endless), even the modern-day equivalent of Dick Tracy's two-way wrist communicator.

There are currently more than 150,000 apps available through Apple's App Store, and most function solely on Apple products, such as the iPhone and the iPad tablet computer, released Saturday.

Other uses for apps: learn to speak Italian, find movie times, rent a Zipcar, follow your favorite baseball player's statistics, count calories, read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, plot a sightseeing trip to the Grand Canyon -- and that's just some fun stuff.

Some apps serve more serious purposes. AssistiveWare's Proloquo2Go, for example, provides text-to-speech communication on an iPhone or iPod Touch. The app, co-created by Samuel Sennott, a doctoral student at Penn State University, allows simple, portable communication for the speech-impaired.

Application software is written to perform a specific or multiple tasks on desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones and portable music/video players such as the iPod. They are accessed on mobile devices through colorful little icons that appear on home screens, making the icons themselves a form of advertising.

In the past two years, the term app has become part of the consumer lexicon, thanks to Apple's aggressive marketing of its products. Developers are scrambling to pick up the slack on other platforms such as Verizon's smartphone, the Motorola Droid, Google's Nexus One or BlackBerry's line of handheld devices.

For the purposes of this story, the term will apply to software created for the mobile tech market.

Turning code into cash

Many apps are free, many cost 99 cents, but the upgrade might cost a few dollars more. Some, such as the speech-to-speech Jibbigo app created by Carnegie Mellon University professor Alex Waibel, retail for around $25.

Proloquo2Go, which buyers are praising as a cost-efficient complement to bulky and much more expensive augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, sells for $189.

Verizon last week opened its own app store, although titles are scarce. As of Tuesday, there were 16 selections in sports, 22 in entertainment, 19 in social networking. But numbers will quickly grow.

Stories of get-rich-quick developers were common in the early days of mobile apps, when people could write fun little games or silly diversions that sold in the thousands. But, the truth is, now the competition is fierce, and it isn't enough to just write a good program; it also has to get noticed.

Maybe it was because Mr. Maurizio and Mr. Majors were surrounded by pastries that day, but the idea they settled on for AM Mobile Software LLC's first product focused on a marketing app for restaurants.

"There were apps already out for restaurants, but they were more aggregate: find the closest restaurant," Mr. Maurizio said. "There was, and still is, very much a shortage of people doing apps for anything other than a game or a widget."

AM Mobile developed an app that would allow restaurants to post menus, daily specials, news about tastings or events, even links to related sites of interest. There's also the option of restaurants sending instant coupons and linking to the client's website. Cafe Euro, Downtown, was its first client.

"People are used to the idea of using a cell phone to send a market message. That's nothing new," Mr. Maurizio said. "But people are still hesitant to receive messages through their cell -- it can be annoying, and some people still pay by the text message."

The app is win/win, he said, because "the consumer is in control. We don't ask for any personal information. Messages are sent straight from the restaurant and [if you have the app] you'll just see the little numeric [icon].

"It's there, but it's not in your face."

AM Mobile's clients include Primanti Bros., King's, Mario's, the Kildare's Irish Pub franchise and Dutch Umbrella, both located in Philadelphia. The latter is of special interest: Dutch Umbrella is a service that allows members to help themselves to an umbrella on rainy days, picked up at numerous locations (cleverly called "RainDrops") around the city.

The service is free and the umbrellas bearing advertisements serve as moving billboards. If you have the app, you can quickly locate a Dutch Umbrella station via GPS. The umbrellas themselves have tracking devices inlaid in the handles, so those paying for ads can determine where the messages have been seen.

You gotta have a gimmick

The stereotypical app developer is some pasty little guy living off cold pizza in his basement, emerging only long enough to cash some big checks at the bank. This is ridiculous, of course; in reality, he'd be doing his banking online.

"I know people who do this on the weekend," said CMU's Dr. Waibel. "At home, you write a little program and send it to Apple. Very often, developers have a day job."

App development can also be a much larger operation. Chris Spencer is co-founder and CEO of Wizzard Software, an Oakland-based company that not only creates apps in a variety of genres, it bills itself as the world's largest host for podcasting.

Wizzard distributed more than 1.4 billion audio and video episodes last year to approximately 18 million unique monthly subscribers. It also develops and promotes apps for clients with a broad spectrum of interests.

"Podcasters want to make money, so we create an app for them where they can sell bonus content with additional features," Mr. Spencer said. There is a synergy here: Clients can use podcasts to advertise the apps.

Wizzard has health care and speech recognition divisions as well, employing 40 full-time and 60 part-time workers.

"I think the cost in developing an app is relatively low and barrier of entry -- compared to making a movie or hit record or television show -- is also relatively low," Mr. Spencer said.

He said that the podcast hosting part of his company is financially supporting the part that creates and markets apps, but expects to turn a profit there eventually. None of the developers -- large company or small -- volunteered the price of getting an app on the market.

The problem is, you can build a better app but it's tough getting consumers to notice as the market is getting crowded. That's why some developers cheered when Apple reportedly deleted thousands of apps from its store earlier this year. Although many were upset by Apple's decision to eliminate "racy" content, it could only mean better play for the thousands of apps that made the cut.

State Farm insurance was delighted when its Steer Clear app recently showed up on the Apple Store featured list. Steer Clear, which has been available on paper and online for years, is a program aimed at newer drivers.

Drivers can access safety checklists, watch videos of sobering true stories about driving accidents and plot out practice courses. If they complete the program to State Farm's satisfaction, they're eligible for rate discounts of up to 15 percent.

How do you say ... ?

CMU's Dr. Waibel refers to his company's "Jibbigo" app as "your own personal interpreter," but it is much more than your everyday language translation program. Jibbigo is a speech-to-speech app available in Spanish/English or Japanese/English. It's a simple concept: Speak a phrase in one language and it's repeated back to you in the other.

Using an iPhone's camera, it can also translate everyday signs.

"We are a little bit of an unusual app," said Dr. Waibel, who teaches language technologies at CMU's Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley campuses. "We are not just a little program, a game or a joke, but something that is literally 20 years of research and has a lot of very specific engineering work to make it run on a telephone."

"As apps go, it's hugely expensive. But at the same time, if you consider about 20 years and millions of hours of work, it's actually dirt-cheap," Dr. Waibel said.

He said a team of 10 Ph.D.-level experts are working on the program full time to add more languages and expand options.

Sports fans have many apps to choose from. In addition to following the team year-round, the PG's SteelerNation iPhone app allows fans to find a Steelers bar in any city. Sports are also ideal for sophisticated mobile apps involving what's known as augmented reality. Consider the bright-yellow first-down line in NFL broadcasts or the superimposed line NBC used to mark speed skaters' progress during the recent winter Olympics.

In a similar way, augmented reality apps work to combine real-time situations with enhanced information relying on the phone's GPS and compass. You might use Google's "Goggles" visual search app on an Android phone to frame a shot of the Eiffel Tower. The smartphone screen can also provide information on the Paris landmark's construction, nearby restaurants and who might be in the vicinity, using your social network.

The next step in app development might not happen for a few more years, said Wizzard's Mr. Spencer, but he is certain it will involve social networking. Already, many apps link to popular sites such as Facebook.

"I know that the whole issue of connectivity is going to become an even bigger part of my life, and when you combine that with the immediacy [afforded by mobile media], it's going to get very exciting."


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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