Apps Grow Up
By Kate Jonuska
In 2008, you could sell thousands of copies of simple apps like PhoneSaber (which mimics a Star Wars light saber) or iBeer (which makes it look like you drink beer from your phone). In 2012, the mobile game Angry Birds reported $200 million in earnings, and Instagram, initially an app-only company, was bought by Facebook for $1 billion.
Such overnight success stories seized the popular consciousness during the “App Store Gold Rush,” the period that began with the iPhone’s 2008 release and in which a single app could yield life-changing success. But in cutting-edge, tech-centric Boulder, mobile developers shake their heads at this lingering misconception, having seen app development evolve into a more mature industry that, while perhaps less flashy, is no less of an economic powerhouse.
“There was a great demand for third-party apps when the Apple store opened up. Those people who had an app ready to serve in the beginning were rewarded handsomely for that,” explains Brad Weber, president and CEO of Inspiring Apps (IA), founded in 2007 in Boulder. Since then, however, there’s been a shift in the professional community away from consumer-focused apps and toward enterprise development, meaning on behalf of corporations, and B2B (business-to-business) apps.
“Enterprise development doesn’t get the same kind of exposure on national TV or other outlets consumers are likely to see,” Weber says, “but the solutions themselves can still be quite interesting and flashy.” For instance, IA’s enterprise app reps allows a company’s representatives in the field to organize and make presentations, do product demonstrations, and more from only an iPad. It’s one of many successful and highly functional programs the average consumer has probably never heard of.
The New World of Development
“Apps are maturing,” says Aileen Pierce, an instructor in the Technology, Arts and Media Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, who’s taught app development for four years. In this more mature market, she says, a jump-on-the-bandwagon strategy—companies saying they need an app simply because apps are so popular—is no longer enough.
“With so many apps out there, how does yours get recognized?” she asks, adding that apps now require more traditional marketing and business experience than the general public appreciates. “Just as websites went through SEO [search-engine optimization], now there’s a whole area called app-store optimization. It’s not just about development.”
Which contradicts the most common public misconception about app development: that it’s easy and/or quick. “Apps, especially on [Apple] iOS, are so easy to use that a lot of times people think they’re really easy to create. But most of them we’re using are very complex behind the scenes,” Pierce says. “You need a good strong base of computer science, and it will take some time.”
That could explain why an entry-level mobile developer with a computer-science background, like one of Pierce’s students, can make about $20,000 more per year than a general software developer, according to the professor. The mobile industry may have been built by developers learning in the field, often on their own, but the first generation of university-trained “devs” are emerging from school, and may be another reason the field is professionalizing.
The industry’s rate of change is one more barrier to nonprofessional mobile developers. “Apple technologies in particular are changing at a breakneck pace. It’s very hard for anyone, even with experience and a background, to keep up with all the new technology Apple is introducing,” says Frank Vernon, senior software engineer with Longmont’s IONU Security and a freelance developer. While strike-it-rich stories still happen, a 2014 study by Developer Economics claims that 1.6 percent of app developers earn more than the other 98.4 percent combined, and that about half of developers earn less than $100 a month per product.
Pro Bono Apps
That said, individual development is far from dead. With no overhead, and given the immediacy of the results—customers can use your homemade app in the space of mere moments—app creation is still fun and rewarding.
“I love to develop business apps with my team during the day, but I also have two young girls who are growing up and expressing an interest in this topic,” says IA’s Weber. “We have fun designing and building games and other fun apps on the side, and it’s great to get them a bit involved in the business.”
“I still write a lot of apps for myself, to solve personal little problems,” says developer Vernon, who in his spare time also writes apps pro bono for causes he believes in. One example of the latter is Animal Help Now (AHNow), an animal-emergency mobile app and website that connects users with veterinarians, animal control, rescue organizations and shelters. It is currently set up to help wildlife across the country, and domestic animals in Colorado and Texas. Vernon believes it shows how “apps are fantastic at allowing us to have these tightly focused, vertical solutions to very specific problems.”
David Crawford, co-founder and executive director of AHNow, calls it a “Swiss Army Knife of animal emergencies.” “We want to change the world,” he says, and thanks to the mobile-app format “we can make a tremendous difference. The estimated number of emergencies we were involved in last year is 2,500.”
The seed money for AHNow was partially raised by a donation jar at Boulder’s PC’s Pantry for Dogs and Cats, proving that the app format can still have amazing crowdfunded or individual successes. In fact, the local development community agrees that Boulder is a terrific place for mobile development, since it’s open to cooperation and innovation. The Boulder iOS Developer Meetup on meetup.com, for example, has more than 1,000 members and is free to join.
Apps Meet Things
Where the larger app market is headed in terms of successes is hard to predict, but a few clear trends include health and health monitoring (including fitness-tracking apps) and an emphasis on security. For the latter, expect new apps that increase privacy generally, as well as existing apps’ upgrading to higher-security operations.
“We’re also going to continue to see all these different devices—things you wear, appliances, what they’re calling the ‘Internet of Things,’” says CU’s Pierce. The term refers to new products like “smart” kitchen appliances, thermostats, locks, light bulbs and more. “All these different things are going to be controlled from devices, and apps are how they’re going to work with each other.”
So while the Field of Dreams approach to apps—meaning if you build it, it will sell—may be over, the maturing mobile-development industry is robust and fascinating.
Pierce cautions, however, “People and companies also need for their app strategy to be well thought out and planned, rather than just an add-on. Everyone has that app they downloaded and never use, right? You don’t want to be the developer or company that spent thousands on an app that nobody uses.”
Kate Jonuska (www.katejonuska.com) is a Boulder freelance writer of features, fiction and food.