Smartphones come with about as many default functions as a Swiss army knife, but users still stock up on add-on applications for their individual needs. Some of them log on to online app stores and pick from thousands of productivity programs, social media tools and games. Others, like Sherwin Sowy, develop their own and get to make a little cash on the side.
Mr. Sowy, who works for Globe Telecommunications, Inc., started developing applications for the Apple iPhone last year. "I got into it out of curiosity and because of my admiration for the iPhone platform," he said in an e-mail.
His first attempt was EasyTweet, which allows users to update their Twitter feeds with the ease of a text message. Since then, Mr. Sowy has put four other apps on the market: QuickPing, which uses the Ping.fm service to update as many as 40 social media accounts at a time; the self-explanatory SMS Templates; Profiler, a people search tool; TwitterToy, a clock-like app that shows one's Twitter feed; and Encrypt SMS, which protects a text message with military-grade encryption before it is sent out.
The applications, said Mr. Sowy, tend to stem from his personal need. His SMS Templates app was motivated by his frustration at having to send the same messages again and again. "In the iPhone, there's no easy way to do that—despite Nokia phones having had [this function] for years," he explained.
It sounds like a task best left to IT experts, but it seems that anyone can try their hand at building a smartphone application. One example is 12-year old Cameron Cohen, who taught himself how to program while recovering from orthopedic surgery. He subsequently donated part of the profits from his iSketch drawing app to the Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA, where he was treated.
Mr. Sowy, who is neither a developer nor a programmer by profession, is also a self-taught app maker. "There are a lot of books, tutorials and even videos out there that can teach any newbie," he said.
But the self-professed geek says technical knowhow is not enough to create a winning product; one also needs an eye for design. "It's not as simple as putting buttons here or there—you really have to think about how the person will use the application," he said. "If it doesn't feel natural for him to press this button, he won't. If it doesn't look like a button, he won't press it either." For one of his apps, Mr. Sowy had to hire a graphic designer to do the interface.
Marketing the apps can be a challenge, and not only because it has to stand out among hundreds of thousands of available applications. "Admittedly, living in the Philippines is a disadvantage when you're an independent iPhone developer. The biggest market for apps is the US—if you don't know how to reach that market, your app will never get discovered or downloaded," he said. To get the word out, he maintains a blog called "Mobilefutures: iPhone apps on steroids." He also submits his apps to reviewers and plugs them on his posts in Facebook and Twitter.
When users need help with one of his applications, Mr. Sowy corresponds with them via e-mail. He addresses problems in software updates and welcomes requests for certain features.
Apple, Inc. takes 30% of the revenues from apps made by third-party developers; similar arrangements exist with the companies behind other smartphone operating systems. Mr. Sowy bases his own sticker price on the cost of similar apps and on the effort it took to make them, but they tend to go for roughly $0.99 each. On average, he takes home about $200 a month.
"It's not bad, but I certainly wouldn't quit my day job," he said. Still, he says he is open to turning his hobby into a full time occupation should one of his apps become incredibly popular among iPhone users.
At Apple's annual developers conference in June, CEO Steve Jobs said that the App Store, which has facilitated five million app downloads since it opened two years ago, had made developers over $1 billion in revenues. The online store was selling some 225,000 apps at the time of the gathering.
The July 2010 report of Dutch analytics firm Distimo observed that smartphone OS users gravitate toward certain types of apps. Games or entertainment apps were most popular among Nokia and iPhone users, while theme apps were a hit among Blackberry users. The highest-ranked paid Android and Windows Mobile apps were a mix of phone system tools and games, while Palm unit owners preferred information feeds and social media tools.
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