TOPICS > Science

Entrepreneurship? There’s an App for That

September 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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While the recession has battered most industries, it has sparked innovation across a range of many others. Case in point: the cell phone application market. Simon Marks reports.

JIM LEHRER: Now another in our series on how people are innovating in a bid to overcome the recession — tonight, a report — a report from NewsHour correspondent Simon Marks on a cottage industry for the digital age.

SIMON MARKS: The movie “Wall-E” has been called many things. The New York Times’ reviewer said it’s an earnest ecological parable. The New Yorker called it a classic. But it hasn’t previously been thought of as inspirational, until last year, when two young men did what thousands of tech-savvy, design-minded individuals have done.

Using the computer animated film as a muse, they created an application for the iPhone, a software program that runs on the phone. Theirs was designed to help people manage their weight. And then they created another, a program that converts units, dollars to pesos, for example, or meters to miles.

MARK JARDINE, Tapbots: I’m sure there’s a certain number that they…

SIMON MARKS: Mark Jardine is the designer, Paul Haddad the programmer. Mark drew two designs that were clean, white, robot-like. Paul wrote the code. Their initial investment cost them next to nothing.

PAUL HADDAD: We released the application and I think, within about a month, we found out that, you know, hey, we’re really making a good amount of money, more than certainly we expected at the time.

SIMON MARKS: After selling about 200,000 copies of their applications at less than $4 apiece, they had enough money to start their own company, Tapbots. Aspiring developers everywhere are clamoring to do the same.

The apps industry, which is dominated by Apple, has become a multimillion-dollar business. Apple now has more than 65,000 applications available to its users. BlackBerry has more than 2,000. And the Google Android has roughly 6,300.

A few months ago, more than 5,000 techies weathered the long lines and buzzing crowds to attend Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. And, last fall, Stanford University partnered with Apple to a course on how to build iPhone apps.

By May, one million people had downloaded a video of the class. Stanford Professor Mehran Sahami was the faculty adviser.

Transforming the way we work

MEHRAN SAHAMI: I think, for many people who do computer science, computing in general, one of the real points of satisfaction they get is seeing people use the technology they have developed.

And things like the Apple iPhones, App Store, for example, provide the mechanism for students or anyone to be able to get their applications out into the hands of others very quickly. So, I think students find that exciting, that there's a means for them to be able to distribute the things they have built to their friends and other people who, you know, have never met them.

SIMON MARKS: The applications available to smartphone users run the gamut, from popular games, to applications that help manage personal finances. There's even one that helps tune a guitar.

One app simulates Bubble Wrap. Another turns the phone into a lightsaber. But while frivolity is easy to find in the app world, so are serious professional tools that could revolutionize daily practice in many critical walks of life.

Dr. Cameron Powell was an obstetrician until last year, then he turned his attention full-time to developing a software application that enables doctors like himself to monitor a pregnant patient's contractions, her heartbeat and other vital data remotely from a smartphone.

WOMAN: How are you feeling?

SIMON MARKS: Real-time data from a hospital bed can be monitored by medical professionals from anywhere in the world where their phone is online.

And Dr. Powell says the concept can be applied in a broad variety of critical care circumstances.

DR. CAMERON POWELL: We really want to extend across really that whole health care enterprise. So, anywhere where remote access to data is important, whether it would be video, imaging, echocardiograms, cardiology, EKG tracing, again, images, waveform data, whether it's from a neurosurgeon or an intensive care doctor or an obstetrician.

SIMON MARKS: With growing competition, finding success in this area of software design is increasingly challenging. Matt Hall has written 30 gaming applications, eight for the iPhone, four the Google Android, and 18 for the Sidekick.

One is a drumbeat-making kit. One makes comics.

MATT HALL, Larva Labs: ... and add text bubbles.

SIMON MARKS: Another, he describes as a game that is a cross between Scrabble and Tetris. Many talk about a gold rush mentality among developers in the field, but he says real success can be elusive.

MATT HALL: If you're first place, you're making a fortune. But, if you're 10th place, you're making, you know, probably, a 10th of a fortune. If you're 100th place, you're just doing OK. So -- so, we're not even 100th place on the iPhone. So, that kind of gives you an idea. It's fine, but it's not -- you don't get rich unless you get things really right.

SIMON MARKS: The future of smartphones and the innovative entrepreneurialism they have unleashed is still unclear.

KARA SWISHER, columnist, All Things Digital: Hey, how you doing? I saw the video's up, but the post is not up.

SIMON MARKS: Kara Swisher writes a column for the Web site All Things Digital, and wonders whether small-scale design has long-term sustainability.

The future of apps

KARA SWISHER: So, the question is, will there be just one or two really major apps makers and then a lot of little ones, or will this -- will this ecosystem allow -- because there's so many phones and so many different things, will there be an ability for these people to have relatively small businesses and make a lot of money on all these various devices?

SIMON MARKS: The founders of Tapbots have faith that smartphones can secure their livelihoods for a long period to come.

MARK JARDINE: Everybody is going to get smaller. And more people will be doing their computing work on smaller devices, like the iPhone, rather than on bigger computers, because these small devices are going to get more powerful. And then the technology -- technology is going to get better. And it's not -- we have a feeling that this platform is going to be big and it's going to be around for a very long time.

SIMON MARKS: And Kara Swisher argues, there are more exciting technological changes on the horizon. She says the ability of the common devices to recognize gestures and movements could render today's standard equipment -- things like a keyboard and a mouse -- obsolete.

TOM CRUISE, actor: Time frame?

ACTOR: Thirteen minutes.

KARA SWISHER: If you ever watch the movie, Tom Cruise, "Minority Report," where he's in front of that screen moving things around with a glove, that was based on technology that is available today.

And, more and more, our houses, everything is going to be a screen, and you are going to be able to interact with these screens. And your phone, you will put it down on a table. It will interact with the table. Very big change is happening, and it's being led by these smartphones.

SIMON MARKS: All of which suggest small-scale software design by enthusiasts could find a long-term place in the American marketplace and provide a steady stream of income to those with skill and luck, even in the midst of a recession.

JIM LEHRER: The New York Times reported today that heavy use of applications on iPhones has caused an overload on AT&T's cellular network. And customers have complained of delays, dropped calls and spotty service.