How to break into the apps business

When it comes to the mobile world, it's all about apps.

When it comes to the mobile world, it's all about apps.

More than ever, people are using apps to augment the capabilities of their smartphones. They can remind you of your next meeting, play the latest Lady Gaga song and make catapulting virtual birds into evil pigs a family pastime.

Likewise, they're increasingly important to the technology world. The apps market is expected to generate US$9 billion in revenue this year, and nearly double that next year, according to Gartner. The lack of apps, meanwhile, has crippled some smartphone platforms. Just ask Research In Motion (RIM) and its BlackBerry line, or, for a more dramatic example, the folks at Palm, now part of Hewlett-Packard (HP).

Yet, it has to be overwhelming for a developer starting in this field. Even if you build a good app, how do you stand apart from the hundreds of other apps that emerge each day? How do you dethrone the top sellers? It's not easy, but there are a few tricks to give you a leg up.

Good partners

Few of us can do it alone, and that's never truer than in the mobile applications business. The right partnership can vault your app into the best-sellers list, and from there you can sustain your own momentum.

Take Gary Gattis, chief executive of Spacetime Studios. He already had a hit game with Pocket Legends for both Apple's iOS mobile software and Android, but still opted to work with Sony Ericsson to jointly promote the Xperia Play smartphone, which initially launched with Verizon Wireless. Some promotions included vanity items in the game tied to Sony Ericsson, and a presence in the handset manufacturer's booth at E3.

The work paid off, and the company's next game, Star Legends, began its beta test as an exclusive on Verizon's VCast store in July (the game has since gone beta in the Android Market). The "holy grail", Gattis said, is to get his game preloaded onto a phone.

Likewise, Edith Yeung, who runs marketing for MoboTap and its Dolphin Browser, believes that marketing with other better-known application developers is also a good way to gain some recognition. Dolphin is an alternative browser with different features, such as gesture control, that set it apart from the standard Android browser preloaded on phones.

"If you're solving a problem an existing app doesn't address, they wouldn't mind cross-promoting you," she said.

Marketing doesn't hurt

Some developers create a great app for the sake of a making a great app. That's all well and good, but it'll never sell if they don't apply a marketing lens on it. Patrick Mork, chief marketing officer of independent app store GetJar, says that hiring a public relations firm to get the app out there could pay off handsomely.

The public relations folks are responsible for getting those apps into the hands of people like, well, us.

"If you're a consumer and you go to a market, if one has a quote from CNET, it can move the needle and help differentiate," Mork said.

Still, the cost, which can be tens of thousands of dollars, could be daunting for developers who are just starting out.

Tony Sandoval, a partner in app development firm Angry Villagers, has a deal to advertise his upcoming app, Transit Map, on various tourist maps in New York. The application works like a proximity alarm, ringing when you get near your destination. That's handy if you tend to sleep on the train on the way to and from work, and don't want to miss your stop.

Many of the children's apps that Angry Villagers develops are typically based on licensed properties that have their own marketing muscle behind them. But for his own proprietary apps, he has set up Facebook fan pages, and hopes that his network of friends can perpetuate the word of mouth.

That said, developers admit it's a hit-or-miss process. With so many companies advertising their apps, it's a crowded market of mixed messages. Sometimes, you just can't tell how effective it is.

Beyond marketing, Mork said it's also crucial to have the right search engine optimisation, and to be extremely specific and accurate in your description of the app.

"Many app developers fall short here," he said. "You really need to craft your message."

Be everywhere

There's a reason why Angry Birds is ubiquitous. Smaller developers can learn from Angry Birds' success and extend their applications across different platforms for better reach.

In fact, developers may get more attention if they focus their efforts on newer operating systems, such as Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 or Hewlett-Packard's webOS. They are less attractive areas to develop for right now, because they offer a smaller customer base, but developers could benefit from a higher profile in a smaller pool of developers.

Gattis benefited from such an effect when Android was still gaining momentum, and his game didn't spike until it jumped on to the Android platform last year. At the time, there were still more applications on iOS, and there was more opportunity to get attention with Android. The same could be said now for the newer platforms.

"You're a big fish in a small pond," he said.

Developers who have gone on to be successful are the ones who do not just rely on one successful app, but on a suite of them. The developer can use a more popular one to promote a newer or ignored app to fuel growth from both sides.

Paying for downloads

A more controversial, but increasingly popular, process of attracting customers is paying for what's known as incentivised downloads. A developer pays a firm, such as Tapjoy or Flurry, a set fee and it will guarantee a certain number of downloads.

It usually works like this: when in the middle of a game, a pop-up ad or a banner ad will show the user an option to download and run a second app in exchange for credits or better weapons. Wanting the extra virtual bucks, the user downloads the other app.

The idea is that by paying for downloads off the bat, the app will shoot up the charts, creating its own momentum as more people see it.

Gattis said that he is unclear on the effectiveness of these services, since some customers tend to ignore or delete the second app that they downloaded. Major app developers like to offer these promotions because they get paid a bounty for each download they drive, which has helped drive the "freemium" model popular with mobile games.

It starts with quality

Ultimately, if you don't have a good product, you don't have anything. Yes, that sounds obvious, but looking at the various fart apps out there, it's clearly a lost concept to some.

"Having a really high-quality product has never been more important," Mork said. "For you to have a chance to be discovered, it's through word of mouth and viral."

When MoboTap got started with the Dolphin browser, it looked at what was missing in the stock Android browser, and addressed those missing qualities. Its browser was able to get multi-touch zooming and tabbed browsing before Android could add those features.

"We just picked one thing and got really, really good at it," Yeung said.

Part of the success came from the company's desire to improve an existing service, filling a real need.

"It seems like a no-brainer to improve upon existing things, but all developers want to create new things," she said.