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Page last updated at 10:16 GMT, Friday, 24 July 2009 11:16 UK

Handset apps: is there gold in the code?

By Ian Hardy
Reporter, BBC Click


One company has created their own medical platform

Once upon a time, most applications for mobiles were limited in what they could do and appealed to few. For most developers striking it rich by writing them was unthinkable.

Apple's iPhone has changed all that and now this tech industry is gaining a reputation as a potential goldmine for some developers.

Some lucky coders are not only managing to earn a living out of their apps, but some have earned their first million that way.

Mac novice Rob Murray is one of the lucky ones. He is now one million dollars richer thanks to a game called Flight Control.

He wrote the basic code for it in days, and managed to complete it within two months with some help from graphic artists.

Apple inroads

Rob Murray, from game development studio Firemint, said he can focus on the coding because the "huge job" of selling apps is not his responsibility.

"Apple takes care of all the currency transactions and transfers, the laws, ratings requirements and actual distribution to the user across all the countries," he said.

Rob Murray, Firemint
Rob Murray has earned $1m from his handset game Flight Control

Budding app developers are liberated by fewer financial and legal obstacles than in the global gaming distribution.

Also, most mobile games retail for between one and 10 dollars (£0.60 - £6), which is much cheaper than games for other handheld devices such as Sony's PSP or Nintendo's DS.

Neil Young, head of iPhone game developers ngmoco, believes Apple's handset is starting to dominate mindshare among tech enthusiasts.

"It's just very easy for anyone to download something from the [iPhone] App Store," he said.

"So if I'm Nintendo, and especially if I'm Sony, I'm probably concerned about the inroads that Apple's making into this market place."

Handset maker Palm and mobile operating system maker Symbian have begun following in the footsteps of Apple by releasing public Software Development Kits (SDKs).

These sets of development tools will allow software engineers to create applications for their mobile platforms.

But a greater range of devices also means more headaches for certain companies such as music streaming service Pandora.

At present, the service has seven different app programs that replicate the Pandora experience on any given handset.

Tom Conrad, chief technical officer at Pandora, said some devices were easier to cater for than others.

ngmoco, iPhone game developers
Neil Young from ngmoco:) the iPhone is dominating app mindshare

"The fact there are three iPhone devices floating around out there makes it easier to develop for the iPhone than say for the Blackberry where's there's six or seven.

"Windows Mobile or Android bring a set of even greater developer challenges because you've got to deal with not only the platforms, but also the idiosyncrasies of each of the implementations," he explained.

The interest in handset apps is so high that Stanford University is offering a free online course on how to build them.

Big companies too are investing much more in their app development departments, so it is uncertain whether the app store will remain a goldmine for stay-at-home developers.

Many firms realise that once customers have a collection of apps they love, it will be more difficult for them to move phones and carriers.

Mr Conrad believes the Android platform may ultimately shake up the industry far more than even Apple.

"The model of openness and the licensing approach where anybody can take it… without any monetary exchange with Google is fantastic and good for the industry," he said.

Developers are already making progress in pushing mobile phone companies to change their ways; in America inflated SMS charges are being targeted by apps that make these cheaper.

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