IAN LYNCH SMITH, a shaggy-haired ball of energy in his late 30s, beams as he ticks off some of the games that Freeverse, his little Brooklyn software company, has landed on the iPhone App Store’s coveted (and ever-changing) list of best-selling downloads: Moto Chaser, Flick Fishing, Flick Bowling and Skee-ball.
Skee-ball, Mr. Smith says, took about two months to develop and deploy and then raked in $181,000 for Freeverse in one month. The company’s latest bid for App Store fame? A game featuring a Jane Austen character in a lacy dress who karate-chops her way through hordes of advancing zombies.
“There’s never been anything like this experience for mobile software,” Mr. Smith says of the App Store boom. “This is the future of digital distribution for everything: software, games, entertainment, all kinds of content.”
As the App Store evolves from a kitschy catalog of novelty applications into what analysts and aficionados describe as a platform that is rapidly transforming mobile computing and telephony, it is changing the goals and testing the patience of developers, bolstering sales of the Apple motherships the applications ride upon — the iPhone and iPod Touch — and causing Apple’s competitors to overhaul their product lines and business models. It even threatens to open chinks in Apple’s own corporate armor.
Thanks in large part to the iPhone, introduced in 2007, and the App Store, which opened its doors last year, smartphones have become the Swiss Army knives of the digital age.
They provide a staggering arsenal of functions and tools at the swipe of a finger: e-mail and text messaging, video and photography, maps and turn-by-turn navigation, media and books, music and games, mobile shopping, and even wireless keys that remotely unlock cars.
“Apple changed the view of what you can do with that small phone in your back pocket,” says Katy Huberty, a Morgan Stanley analyst. “Applications make the smartphone trend a revolutionary trend — one we haven’t seen in consumer technology for many years.”
Ms. Huberty likens the advent of the App Store and the iPhone to AOL’s pioneering role in driving broad-based consumer adoption of the Internet in the 1990s. She also draws comparisons to ways in which laptops have upended industry assumptions about consumer preferences and desktop computing. But, she notes, something even more profound may now be afoot.
“The iPhone is something different. It’s changing our behavior,” she says. “The game that Apple is playing is to become the Microsoft of the smartphone market.”
The popularity of Apple’s app model has reached a fever pitch. Tens of thousands of independent developers are clamoring to write programs for it, and the App Store’s virtual shelves are stocked with more than 100,000 applications. Apple recently said that consumers had downloaded more than two billion applications from its store.
Major players like Research in Motion (maker of the BlackBerry), Palm (maker of the Pre), Google (maker of the Android mobile operating system) and Microsoft (maker of Windows Mobile) are taking note and scrambling to replicate the App Store frenzy.
App fever has even prompted cities like New York and San Francisco to open reservoirs of city data to the public to spur software developers to create hyperlocal applications for computers and phones.
One need not look further than the lobby of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., to see that the iPhone and applications that run on it are centerpieces of the company’s mobile strategy. Planted squarely in the lobby of the main office, at 1 Infinite Loop, is an impressive, 24-foot-wide array built out of 20 LED screens populated with 20,000 tiny, brightly colored icons.
As Philip W. Schiller, head of worldwide product marketing at Apple, describes how the wall works — each time an application is purchased, the corresponding icon on the electronic billboard jiggles, causing its neighbors to ripple in unison — he, too, becomes animated.
Normally reserved and on message, Mr. Schiller waves his hands back and forth and allows his voice to ascend into giddy registers as he speaks about the potential unleashed by the App Store.
“I absolutely think this is the future of great software development and distribution,” Mr. Schiller says. “The idea that anyone, all the way from an individual to a large company, can create software that is innovative and be carried around in a customer’s pocket is just exploding. It’s a breakthrough, and that is the future, and every software developer sees it.”
APPLE cloaks most of its inner workings in a shroud of secrecy — a tactic that has helped preserve the company’s mystique and generate intense interest in its product rollouts.
But the App Store relies on vast cadres of outside developers to populate its virtual shelves with products, leaving Apple in the unfamiliar and at times uncomfortable position of having to collaborate with folks who haven’t drunk the company’s corporate Kool-Aid.
This has led Apple to be deeply supportive of developers once shunned by big telecommunications companies, while also frustrating many of them more recently with what developers see as the company’s inscrutable and arbitrary process for accepting programs into the App Store.
Apple frames the issue differently.