It's a well-worn adage, especially within the software development industry, but necessity really is the mother of invention for some of New Zealand's most successful iPhone application developers.
Polar Bear Farm, Orsome and Smudge Apps began by designing from need as consumers themselves. Now, high-profile companies at home and abroad are hiring these early innovators to develop applications to further their brand and offer new services to clients.
In fundamental terms, an application or app is a piece of software with a purpose. These apps are then sent to Apple for approval, and when approved the app goes to market via The App Store.
The store is divided into 20 categories that include games, entertainment, utilities, productivity, reference and news. Those with iPod Touches and iPhones can then "purchase" the applications, though many of the apps are free, and download them on to their mobile devices.
The iPhone applications market has seen extraordinary growth since the launch of the iconic device in June 2007 and The App Store in July 2008. By the start of 2010 the App store clocked 3 billion downloads. Perhaps more incredible is the speed at which downloads have accumulated: the first 500 million downloads came within six months of the store opening, however, the next 2.5 billion came within the following 12 months.
Identifying the potential of the iPhone as a platform early on was the key for Layton Duncan, director of Polar Bear Farm. After Duncan unlocked one of the first iPhones in the country more than two years ago, the University of Canterbury electrical engineering graduate began writing the video recording app ShowTime.
ShowTime is now installed in more than one million devices and was the first app to allow the iPhone to record video. "It was a very technically challenging app to create, and it pushed the phone to its limits in almost every way."
Polar Bear Farm is also responsible for Face Match, a clever application at the forefront of image detection technology that matches faces in photos by cross referencing them with online tagging data, including Facebook. Both ShowTime and Face Match were products that came from personal inspiration but Duncan says Polar Bear Farm also takes on contract work; however, much of what he does remains under non-disclosure agreements. Even so, solutions work makes up a lucrative portion of business for all three companies
Working with flicks.co.nz, Smudge Apps produced the Flicks app. A free utility, it reached No 1 on the New Zealand App store and has been downloaded more than 20,000 times, quite a feat for a New Zealand-only application.
Flicks utilises one of the major strengths of the iPhone, its GPS. With the application, movie fans can find movie theatres and session times within a given radius, all with the slide of a finger. Reuben Bilj, one of two directors of Smudge, says the radius feature was implemented with intuition in mind but "many developers are still thinking inside the box, developing in a desktop style" and ignoring the power of the mobile device.
After a number of successful applications including Chords, which identifies a played musical note and Sound Grenade, which was based on the grating potential of a dog whistle with human targets, Smudge Apps hired their first fulltime employee.
Smudge director Toby Vincent believes the most vital asset for mobile device software developers is an agile problem-solving mind. Teaching this almost innate talent is notoriously difficult. Yet, Waikato University hopes to change this by launching its own application development company, ILinkApps.
Technology development manager Bram Smith says ILinkApps was established to create an environment in which students can gain experience working on commercial products, with an end goal of building a business so students at the university can try their hand at creating applications for a real market.
As well as a number of games, ILinkApps have created Power Curve, an application that uses the accelerometer to "calculate and graph acceleration, power, and torque [of a vehicle] in real time" in order to assess vehicle performance.
Finding niches is crucial to creating a successful application and New Zealand-based content is an area that Peter Watling of Orsome, feels is not being totally satisfied.
"I hate it when you get other devices that are cool and everything, but not so relevant as they are in the US or wherever."
Watling is responsible for the TVGuide app, Weather New Zealand, myTrade and the MetroInfo app, all of which focus on local content.
The MetroInfo app uses the GPS tracking system on Christchurch's buses to show how long a passenger may have to wait for the next bus as well as showing the credit on the passenger's MetroCard.
"As a user of the bus system in Christchurch, I found it very handy. It hasn't been a big earner, but I do get a lot of mail from people who do find it useful," Watling says.
And it's this sentiment that drives the developers. As Bilj says, "It's a great feeling knowing that people are using our stuff and getting pleasure out of it."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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