What does it take to get started in mobile application development? E&T finds out.

Ethan Nicholas's story reads like a get-rich-quick ad from a Sunday newspaper, the sort that promises "You too can earn $$$$$ from your armchair!" In this case, though, it may be true.

The US engineer says he made hundreds of thousands of dollars in one month from his tank-artillery simulator for the Apple iPhone, in part because it placed targets in unlikely but dramatic locations, such as Mount Rushmore. He wrote iShoot between shifts at his day job at Sun Microsystems, ostensibly to help pay for medical bills. Word of mouth pushed his game to the top of the iPhone App Store charts.

Could you do the same? The advantage of the App Store for the lone programmer is that it provides a lot of the sales infrastructure that you would otherwise have to create for yourself. All you have to do is write the code and find a way to promote the application. Apple takes about a third of the selling price as its commission: you keep the rest.

Getting the SDK

Despite what some might see as onerous terms, things have never been better for mobile-application developers. The expensive schemes that demanded that developers pay heavily for access to tools and application-signing services - sometimes needed to get software to run on handsets - have fallen by the wayside. Operating-system suppliers have realised how important third-party applications are to the success of their platforms.

Apple will only supply the iPhone software development kit (SDK) to members of its development community, but access is free. For Google's Android operating system, it is simply a matter of downloading the SDK. In many cases just typing 'developer.' in front of the relevant URL will put you in the right place to find an SDK. In its transition to an open-source platform, the Symbian Foundation, however, is keeping its paid-for application-signing system, set at $200 per year, largely to prevent the spread of viruses by Trojan horse applications.

Since Apple's entry into the mobile applications business, applications have proliferated. Apple claims some 50,000 programs can be found in its App Store. That's not necessarily good news. The Apple App Store has almost become a byword for near-useless software, such as the iBeer 'simulator', which is little more than a showcase for the iPhone's ability to know which way up it is being held. Other platforms have their own share of joke and low-utility programs, of course, such as the Fart Machine on BlackBerry. A program with a spartan user interface that plays one of 12 trouser-coughs on a time delay, it was in the top ten BlackBerry applications for the first half of 2009, according to online-store operator Handango.

Some App Store developers have sought success simply by producing a lot of very limited utilities. Developer Perfect Acumen had, until early August, the third most iPhone applications on Apple's App Store. By that time, the company had built up a set of more than 900 applications, many of which were simple lists of things, from city tour guides to 'Skin Care Updates'.

Apple banned Perfect Acumen and revoked its developer's licence because of complaints over intellectual property violations in the software. Perfect Acumen applications such as 'Top Sexy Christina Aguilera' still appear to be available for Google's Android.

The individual applications in the Perfect Acumen portfolio were rarely well reviewed but the large number of programs kept the money flowing in, financing a small army of programmers in New Delhi. Even with 50,000 or so apps in the store, users seem only too happy to plunk down a few dollars to try out a huge variety of obscure software.

Moreish smaller apps

For a number of years, Windows Mobile has been the top-selling platform for Handango on the basis that its applications generally cost $20 or more, but these are often designed to be analogues to desktop software. Apple has encouraged developers to build smaller utilities and charge less. Even those applications that have desktop counterparts are frequently heavily stripped-down versions of the original.

By encouraging developers to keep their works small and lean, Apple has uncovered something of a 'Pringles' effect in buying behaviour: some people just can't stop. Public relations consultant Steve Rubel claims to have amassed no fewer than 150 apps on his iPhone, many of them used regularly.

You have to sell a lot of $5 apps to make a return on a serious project, but there is a reasonable chance of selling in large numbers if the idea is good or competition is sparse in a particular area. The biggest risk for the App Store wannabe is that Apple will simply reject the software or take ages to approve it. For example, Apple reserves the right to reject apps that are too similar to services already on the iPhone, even if they are high-profile programs available on other devices.

Although Apple has not rejected the Google Voice application out of hand, it is still not available in the App Store. The music-streaming service Spotify also had an iPhone app ready in late July, but it took a month for Apple to approve the application for sale, rather than the two weeks that the company says 95 per cent of applications spend in its approvals cycle. 

Go where the money is

Whatever the risks of not getting approval, the iPhone is currently a more lucrative target for developers than Android. A survey of 1,000 users by Admob, a mobile advertising business, revealed that Android and iPhone users download an average of 10 applications per month, but iPod Touch users were more acquisitive, grabbing more than 18 each month. However, iPhone users were more than twice as likely to buy applications for their devices than those using Android. Factor in the much larger market for iPhone and iPod Touch - 50 million users versus three million in August 2009 - and there are good reasons right now for developing for the Apple devices ahead of the others, as long as you are confident that the software will get approved. According to Admob, right now the Apple market is 40 times bigger than that for Android.

Getting a good ranking or having an application for a specific task seem to be vital to the success or otherwise of an app. Users are more likely to find applications by looking at the rankings on store pages or by searching than relying on word-of-mouth recommendations from other users, according to Admob. Having a free version with a paid-for upgrade is also a good plan, with at least half of the users surveyed saying that this was the most likely reason for them buying an application.

The situation for a lone developer wanting to break into the mobile-applications business has never been better. But you need to take a careful look at the competitive landscape before committing code to compiler.

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