I love my iPhone (s aapl) and am practically obsessed with downloading new apps every week. I gravitate toward communications and publishing applications, but if it helps me be more productive, access my work tools remotely, or connect to news and information, chances are I have it on my phone.
As a big fan of iPhone apps and a reviewer of applications of all kinds, I’m constantly trying to come up with a “big idea” that will be a runaway App Store sensation — and bring in some passive revenue on the side — and so have been pondering the question “What does it take to make an iPhone app?”
To answer this, I interviewed Jeremiah Dunham, a programmer at Design-PT, Inc., an Anchorage-based technology solutions company, which recently came out with the latest version of its iPhone app Here Say. The premise of Here Say is that you can be in a location, take notes digitally through the Here Say app and post them. These notes can be viewed by others who are close by. Your notes could be a quick restaurant review, a mention of road conditions, a particularly scenic view, whatever you’d like to remember next time you are in an area or that you’d like to share with anyone else using the same application when they pass through the same area.
The early impetus for creating Here Say came from the way Design-PT’s principal, Orion Matthews, carried a notepad around everywhere taking notes about anything and everything. In speaking with Dunham, the idea for a digital version of this analog location-based note-taking seemed like the start of a promising application.
Like any software product, Here Say has gone through several iterations so far. v1.0 users had the basic ability to post geo-coded notes; browse notes posted nearby up to 500 miles away (there is a slider where you can adjust your perimeter); and choose private or public posting. v2.0 added the ability to post photos; comment on other people’s posts; view everything posted in the world; see a compass heading, and the ability to report abuse. Dunham also moved the “My Notes/All Notes” filter from the settings page to a button on the main view.
As with any development process, feedback from users can initiate changes although the developer stands firm that Here Say will never become another community building app. With v2.0.1, the radius of nearby notes was increased to 2,500 miles away; the ability to ban abusive users was added; and due to user feedback, Dunham moved the My Notes/All Notes filter back to the settings page — the button on the main view caused too much confusion.
iPhone App Development Challenges
“The example apps are great, and Apple’s documentation is very good, but there were a few subtle aspects of developing Here Say that could only be discovered empirically,” Dunham explains. “One good example of this is the trade-off between speed and accuracy when accessing the GPS in the iPhone.”
In order to provide the maximum accuracy with acceptable speed for Here Say, Dunham had to come up with an algorithm that allows the user to see something relevant quickly, but then refine what they are seeing as more accurate GPS coordinates came in.
The limited resources of the iPhone were also tricky. “As developers, we always try to write applications that perform well, but the iPhone raises the performance requirement pretty substantially. When compared to a standard laptop or desktop machine, it has a limited amount of computing resources on it and the usage pattern is totally different,” says Dunham, adding, “Apple’s philosophy on this is that you maximize the usage of the iPhone’s limited resources and hence the user experience by only allowing one app to run at a time. That is a blessing and a curse to developers. It’s a blessing because you don’t have to worry about another app hogging all of the resources behind the scenes, ruining the user experience. It’s a curse because you have to do a lot of caching and other performance optimization tricks, since you have the user starting and stopping your app all the time.”
Business Reasons Behind Developing iPhone Apps
There were a couple of reasons for Design-PT to develop an iPhone app.
- To get experience with iPhone app development. Says Dunham, “I believe that mobile application development will continue to be a growth area for many years to come and the demand for skilled mobile application developers will increase substantially. As someone who writes applications for a living, getting this experience is an exercise in survival as much as it is fun or cool. I experimented with developing for Windows Mobile (s msft) and BlackBerry (s rimm), but the iPhone is miles ahead of those platforms, so that’s why I got serious about writing an iPhone app as opposed to something else.”
- Business diversification. Dunham says that as an IT services firm, all of the company’s revenue comes from contracting,
consulting and IT support services. “It’s only natural that we would want to use the software development capability that we already have to create a product that offers a revenue stream that is entirely uncorrelated from our other lines of business.”
Reaching “Critical Mass”
Some reviews of Here Say note that the user base for the app is still small and to work well, there needs to be a higher adoption rate. However, according to Dunham, it really depends on how and why you are using Here Say. The most common use for the app today is informal polls and discussions, like a traditional web forum or message board. The current user base — a few hundred users per day — seems to be using Here Say effectively in this manner.
In terms of the application’s potential for news and reviews, Here Say could achieve a critical mass in individual markets — cities or regions — with only a few hundred or a thousand users in that market. Dunham says the ultimate goal is to create a global community so that you could pick up Here Say and get the buzz on every major city or landmark in the world. “That would require maybe a thousand users in every major city or region — probably a few million users in total.”
The Pay Off
Because Here Say is free, I asked Dunham where he sees revenues coming in. Dunham speaks of an “augmented reality” with the possibility of leasing every acre of land in the world as an advertising space.
“Let’s say that you wanted to advertise to people in Times Square. That would probably be prohibitively expensive in the physical world,” says Dunham. “In the augmented world of Here Say, anyone who wants to lease that space can put their message at the top of the app. This is, of course, predicated on the idea that the app is getting a lot of eyeballs in Times Square and that advertisers really want location-based advertising. The critical mass for this is, like most things for Here Say, location specific. A bunch of users in a small area would make that area valuable to advertisers.”
Besides dollars, Here Say has helped to establish the firm as a player in the mobile application space in Alaska. The company has also received inquiries from existing and potential clients because of it, and gained PR opportunities related to the app.
“It has also been a great morale booster for our organization,” Dunham admits. “Most people in our office have iPhones. and there was a lot of excitement about the fact that we were going put our own stamp on it. This was one small way for us to reassert our focus on innovation.”
Have you developed an iPhone app? What has it done for you and your company?