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Photos courtesy of Tom Smallwood, Dimitri Bouniol and Caleb Davenport

Tom Smallwood (left) and fellow University of Arizona student Cody Jorgensen together run Objective Coders, an app design business based in Tucson. They have found success in developing iPhone apps for a variety of local businesses.

Dimitri Bouniol, 19, filled a niche when he introduced an iPhone periodic table of elements. The app sold over 50,000 copies in just 21 months at a price of $4.99. "College money," he quips.

Bouniol's EleMints 2, an upgrade of his successful paid app, is scheduled to be released soon for both the iPhone and iPad.

Caleb Davenport"s app MyGPA Calculator has been downloaded by over 20,000 users. Though offered for free on the App Store, MyGPA Calculator generates a steady stream of income for Davenport through small ads.

Tom Smallwood and Cody Jorgensen developed iDress for Weather, an app featuring a customizable "clothing closet" to help developmentally-challenged kids choose what to wear depending on the weather, for a business client.

Published by Times Publications, January 2011

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In the movie The Social Network, Justin Timberlake, playing Napster co-founder Sean Parker, psyches up Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with a pact to score the next billion-dollar idea for their generation.

“Napster wasn’t a failure!” Timberlake shouts over loud techno beats at a San Francisco nightclub, explaining how the revolutionary music file sharing service Parker co-created with college friend Shawn Fanning was inevitably co-opted by venture capitalists, lawyers and finally Best Buy. “What the VC’s wanted to say was, ‘Good idea, kid. Grown ups will take it from here.’ But not this time. This is our time!”

It’s an exultant moment, and one that accurately defines technology’s new guard: creative young entrepreneurs empowered by the do-it-yourself Internet to create and market their own Next Big Thing, without any help from the old suits.

The Social Network was about Facebook’s phenomenal rise, but that movie is already, like, so three months ago. In real time, it’s the mobile phone application developer on Zuckerberg’s barstool right now. And no one is hearing the call “This is our time!” louder than the gifted computer coders who know how to put those hot little “apps” into the palms of our smartphone-loving hands.

“It’s a great time to be an app developer,” says Tom Smallwood, a Phoenix-born University of Arizona computer science major who co-runs an app design business in Tucson with fellow CS major Cody Jorgensen. “A tremendous time for growth. I’d compare it to 1997 or ’98 with web work.”

“It hasn’t reached the point yet where every business has decided it needs an app,” adds Jorgensen, contrasting today’s mobile app market to that boom time for website design work. “But it’s going that way.”

Operating their company, Objective Coders, out of a two-room office suite just about four miles east of the UofA campus, Smallwood and Jorgensen have found early success in developing iPhone apps for a wide variety of local businesses, ranging from a series of interactive storybooks for an Arizona children’s author to a client management system for a Tucson hairstylist salon.

Not bad for a pair of college students with two semesters yet to go on their CS degrees. But the two already feel they’ve missed out on the first wave of app-mania.

“We really wish that we were at this point two years ago, when the App Store first started,” says Jorgensen, referring to the software downloading service introduced by Apple in July 2008. Begun with an initial offering of 500 apps, many offered free or for 99 cents, the service now boasts over 300,000 and recently passed its seven billionth download. Similar services have since emerged for the competing Android, BlackBerry, Palm/HP and Windows smartphone platforms.

“We would have gotten to see the gold rush of doing your own apps, instead of doing apps for other clients, like we’re seeing now,” Jorgensen laments. “Back then, it was all about who could put in the first Tic-Tac-Toe game, or the first grocery list. Because none of that existed then. It was an empty App Store.”

“If we had only graduated two years ago and dove head-first into this field then, I think we’d be rich right now,” adds Smallwood, who sees some irony in the fact it’s taken less time to launch a profitable business than it has to acquire the degree supposedly required to do such things. “Hate school!” he adds, smiling. “Hate it! I can’t wait to be through with it.”

In real life, this is what “This is our time!” feels like for the majority of the young computer geeks behind the mobile app revolution: less a jubilant Silicon Valley-style cheer than an irritating alarm clock going off just a little too early.

“We have a love/hate relationship with school,” explains Jorgensen, who says he took his first programming course in freshman year and decided to switch his major from engineering to computer science. “On the one hand, the two of us would have never met and started a company if it hadn’t been for college. I wouldn’t have even gotten into programming without college. And some of the classes in CS are essential to what we’re doing.

“On the other hand, the general classes we have to take to get the degree take away so much time we could be devoting to the business,” he says.

“I just bring my laptop to class and work on apps there,” Smallwood confesses, with a grin.

App Aptitude

Certainly the Apple iPhone App Store and its imitators on the other smartphone platforms have made it easier than ever for young programmers to launch their own businesses, even while on a college student’s tight budget.

“The barriers to entry in the mobile app market are almost nonexistent,” says Caleb Davenport, a 23-year-old computer science major in Newport News, VA, who met Smallwood two years ago while attending the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, a key annual gathering of coders.

“My total operating costs are literally $100 per year, and that is the amount that Apple charges you to keep your apps on the App Store,” Davenport says. Microsoft charges the same fee for developers to contribute to its Windows Phone Marketplace, with Android and BlackBerry developers paying $25 and $200, respectively, to sell in their stores. In trade, each mobile operating system provides a downloadable software development kit (or SDK) with tutorials, emulators, debuggers and everything the budding programmer needs to create an app that will run on the selected device.

From there, developers simply upload their compiled code along with some screen shots from the app, a description and a unique name and icon, along with their tax and bank account information to facilitate direct deposit of their take from the sales. Once the app is approved, they’re in business.

In exchange for supplying developers a prime electronic storefront for their wares, Apple takes in 30 percent of the sales revenue from each app — a fee most young developers feel is well worth the cut.

“Before the App Store, if you wrote software and wanted to sell it, you’d have to worry about marketing, hosting a server, payment processing and all of that,” Davenport says. “The launch of the App Store meant I could just do what I do — develop software — and put it online somewhere that would be infinitely visible and accessible.”

Already, one of Davenport’s apps, a grade tracker for fellow students named MyGPA Calculator, has been downloaded by over 20,000 users. Though offered for free on the App Store, MyGPA Calculator generates a steady stream of income for Davenport through small ads, which appear at the bottom of the screen and transmit view counts back through the Internet.

“As long as they open the app once, I get some revenue from the ads,” Davenport explains (Apple pockets 40 percent of the revenue from its iAd advertising platform). “But if it’s an app people use frequently, that turns into a dependable monthly income for me.”

Dimitri Bouniol, a 19-year-old programmer from Hollywood that Jorgensen and Smallwood also met at the WWDC, has already achieved that level of success with a periodic table app called EleMints. Introduced during that early “gold rush” of the App Store’s first year, Bouniol’s elegant science app quickly filled the niche for students looking for an iPhone periodic table of elements and has sold over 50,000 copies in 21 months. Priced at $4.99, that amounts to some serious income for the recent high school graduate, even after Apple’s cut. “College money,” he quips. Smartly, Bouniol already has an EleMints 2 scheduled for release in 2011, for both the iPhone and iPad.

“My parents were really surprised when they saw the initial sales,” Bouniol says. “They expected I’d sell maybe two copies in a month. Instead there were like seven in the first hour!”

Obviously, not everyone has the aptitude to create mobile apps. Developing for the iPhone requires a thorough understanding of Objective-C, an object-oriented variation of the venerable C programming language. Most other smartphone platforms require comparable expertise in the Java software platform.

But the brainy Bouniol, who plans to major in computational physics, insists almost anyone can create an app using the available resources.

“It’s very difficult work, but also very possible for anyone who puts their mind to it. It’s not something only very smart people can do. You just have to have a certain OCD about it,” he adds, with a laugh.

If anything, Bouniol predicts, it may soon become a little too easy for anyone to make an app.
“Soon I think it will be too late for people to learn how all this actually works,” he says. “Instead of writing code from scratch and thinking up algorithms, it’ll all be drag and drop. Compiling programs will do all the nuts-and-bolts work for you.”

At 19, Bouniol already talks like an elder statesman of the app design community. “We’re making the things that the later generations will take for granted,” he says. “And that’s what I find really exciting.”

Goin’ Mobile

Jason Tayles has been in the computer business since 1999, and has ridden most of its waves, beginning with network maintenance at the height of the Y2K crisis and venturing into web design, Internet marketing and eCommerce for most of the past decade. His north Scottsdale firm, Net-craft.com, has designed websites for high-profile clients like the Phoenix Suns, the Dodge Theatre and the US Airways Center.

So it was perhaps not surprising that Tayles decided to jump on the app design bandwagon in 2009 with a spin-off division called SHARKfuel Interactive, assigning three of his 15-member development team to full-time creation of iPhone & Android apps.

“When the app world exploded with the introduction of the iPhone, we had one of our clients ask if we could do an app for them,” Tayles says. “Our developers looked at it and said, ‘This uses object-oriented C programming,’ so it wasn’t a big jump for us as far as what our guys had expertise in. So we decided to test our feet in those waters, and it’s grown from there.”

Tayles, age 38, acknowledges that app design is largely a younger geek’s game at this stage, but feels there’s plenty of work for the old dogs, too.

“In our world, you see a lot of college kids cranking out code on the side — and that can work for some clients, depending on their tolerance for risk,” he says. “But a lot of businesses prefer to deal with something more rooted, so they’ll go to a company like ours that has been around for a while.”

Tom Smallwood has found that to be true as well, which is why he and Cody Jorgensen co-rent their office space with another friend. “We were originally thinking of working from home, or out of the student union building at UofA,” he says. “But people take us more seriously having an office.”

Ironically, app design is one line of work that can be done entirely in the clouds, and in fact often works best when insomniac coders are collaborating on their own computers late at night. “Skype and iChat are pretty much the means of communication,” says Caleb Davenport, whose Christopher Newport University is located nearly 3,000 miles from Silicon Valley. “And in Skype, you have screen sharing, so you can have someone in a different state looking at your code while you walk them through it, and share ideas. It really comes down to who you know, not where you live.”

Nevertheless, Smallwood says coders in the Bay Area still draw the biggest clients and are able to charge the highest hourly rates, based purely on the region’s rep as a tech capital.

“If this was my freshman year, I’d seriously consider just quitting school and moving to San Francisco to do this work,” he says, adding that he’s not sure he’ll remain in Tucson after finishing college.

“But we’re so close to graduating right now — just two semesters to go,” he adds. “Honestly, it can’t come soon enough.”

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