Don’t be surprised when you find out that the favourite puzzle app on your smartphone was actually created by an 18-year-old on the computer in his bedroom. Apps — nifty bytesized programs that allow you to perform small tasks or indulge in casual gaming — are being created by a fresh bunch of young entrepreneurs, many of whom operate as garage start-ups.
Software that can help you drape a saree, block unwanted SMSes, teach you the Devanagari alphabet, and calculate your taxi fare are just a few popular offerings created by Indian app developers – a community that includes students, engineers and even stay-at-home housewives.
Erstwhile copywriter and present-day “digital strategist” Siddhartha Banerjee was not a techie until last year when all of a sudden — because of his “love for Apple and admiration for Steve Jobs” — he decided to take a plunge into app development.
“I wanted to do something different from advertising; something innovative where I could blend creativity with technology. And app development for the iPhone and iPad seemed like the perfect venture,” he says.
Banerjee took time off and began learning Objective C – the programming language that would help him create applications for the iOS platform.
“I studied for 13 to 15 hours a day for almost two and half months,” he says. “My first app called MeterDown was created to see how I’d stack up against other app developers in the market.”
His “free” program helps Mumbaikars calculate their taxi and rickshaw fare. Users enter the reading on the meter. The software takes into consideration the new fares to compute the exact amount that passengers have to pay.
“The app was a hit and was downloaded by more than 40,000 users from the iTunes India Store.”
Banerjee didn’t make any money from MeterDown, but its success encouraged him to try out a few other projects, including a $1.99 SARI App that provides women with step-by-step instructions on how to drape a saree.
“SARI is actually my wife Bhavna Sharma’s brainchild. It is based on an insight she gave me: women need a saree manual on the go.”
The app is a success and has been downloaded around 1,800 times since its launch on March 8, 2011.
“In 2012, I’m hoping to take up app development as a full-time business,” the Mumbaikar says.
In nearby Pune, Sagar Bedmutha has already made app development his career choice. In 2008, he launched his company Optinno Mobitech from a mere 300-square-foot room with two other employees.
Today, his app, SMS blocker, has been downloaded by almost 70,000 mobile phone users from more than 110 countries, giving him worldwide acclaim.
Bedmutha admits he would not have been able to make it this big as an entrepreneur if it wasn’t for the new software market created by the proliferation of smartphones. “With mobile apps, small start-ups and individual developers can reach out to an audience spread across the world in a shorter period of time,” he avers.
Indeed, software development is beginning to see a democratisation of sorts what with more and more programmers finding it easier to fund their own mobile start-ups because of the lower overhead costs. Besides, they don’t have to invest thousands of rupees on guerrilla marketing before launching a product. With online market places like the Apple App Store, Google’s Android Market, Nokia’s Ovi Store and RIM’s Blackberry App World, it is cheaper and easier to reach out to customers directly who are willing to spend a few bucks on a good app.
Also, these markets have a ranking system — based on user ratings and number of downloads — that pushes good apps to the top of the charts, thus ensuring that even the smallest developers, if they have a good product at hand, have a chance of making it big.
Three years ago, Shailesh Prabhu’s Mumbai-based Yellow Monkey Studios was left in the lurch after the publisher of a Nintendo DS demo game they had developed went bankrupt.
“So we decided to evaluate platforms where we could publish content on our own,” the 29-year-old CEO says. “It was then that the Apple App Store had just launched. It gave us a great opportunity to be able to publish our own games,” he adds, explaining how his company was drawn into the world of app development.
Still, making it to the top is not easy. “You have to be ranked in the top 100 in the paid US iPhone market to make money. And to get into the top ranking it has gotten a little harder these days with tons and tons of apps and all the big players entering the market too,” says stay-athome mother of two, Survi Gopal, who quit her job at a multinational to take care of her children and now makes apps for her company Niyaa in her free time. Her ‘Monkey and the Crocodile’ (an animated app that narrates the Panchatantra tale) broke into the Top 10 in the Education category of the Indian App Store, while her app ‘Hindi Alphabets’ managed to make it to the top 50.
Speaking of big players, Udipi-based Robosoft Technologies — with a head strength of more than 350 developers — made over a million dollars from their mobile camera app, Camera Pro.
“The paid version ($1.99) which comes with better features has been downloaded close to a million times, and the free version has been downloaded over 20 million times,” CEO Rohith Bhat says.
Cutting the clutter
Given the potential of earnings, app developers are trying every trick in the book to promote their offerings, improve market-place rankings and to reach out to consumers: Banerjee, for one, is offering his SARI app for half its price (99 cents instead of $1.99) from October 10 to 30 in a “festival sale”.
Bedmutha, on the other hand, believes in seeding the marketplace with free versions of his apps. “We gave out our SMS Blocker app for free in the beginning as a means of promotion, but now we have added a few extra features and made it a paid app at Rs 199,” he says. Most small-time entrepreneurs also make it a point to attend developer’s meets such as those organised by IAMAI (Internet and Mobile Association of India) and Mobile Monday Mumbai, a forum for mobile professionals and enthusiasts. Besides, interacting with their peers and exchanging ideas, these meetings sometimes result in international funding, especially since venture capitalists and private investors attend these events to find maverick app developers. “We don’t have deep pockets like big software firms so we usually publicise our products amongst peers on social networks, by using email marketing, getting reviewed on web sites and even participating in international festivals and contests,” says Prabhu.
In September, Yellow Monkey’s game app for the iPad ‘It’s Just a Thought’ bagged the Best Original Idea Award at HoPlay ‘11 – an international video game festival that was held in Spain.
“The event gave me a great opportunity to interact with peers on a global scale. These events are always good for developing contacts in international markets,” Prabhu says. “Besides, if it wasn’t for my app, I wouldn’t even have made it to Spain,” he jokes.