They can give you your horoscope, teach you to play the piano and organize your time. Want to compose a tune on a virtual instrument or create a digital shrine to your favorite sport? As the iPhone advertisements say, yeah, "There's an app for that."
Mobile apps -- applications for mobile-phone and tablet operating systems such as Apple's iPhone and Google's Android -- are an ever-expanding craze. And techno-centric Silicon Valley, home to both Apple and Google, is a mobile-app developers' hotspot.
Apple's website boasts 273,885 active iPhone apps, each vying to be the next hot, new thing.
Communications behemoth AT&T (the carrier of choice for iPhones) recently announced plans to open a multi-million-dollar tech center in Palo Alto for app development, partnering with Menlo Park-based venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, which offers the iFund, a $200 million fund solely for innovations using the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch platforms.
The massive -- and rapid -- success of the Apple App Store surprised even industry experts, according, to iFund leader Matt Murphy.
The Palo Alto area is home to a number of thriving app startups, including Tapulous, a downtown Palo Alto app start-up incorporated in 2007 and responsible for the popular line of "Tap Tap" games for iPhone. Tapulous is still going strong, with 35 million users and at least five trips to the No. 1 spot on the Apple App Store chart. The company was purchased by Disney in July.
"We live and breathe (technology) here; it's part of every-day life," said Menlo Park-based Katherine Barr, a partner with Mohr Davidow Ventures.
And although, unlike the iFund, Barr's venture-capital firm tends to invest in larger companies rather than app-only start-ups, she said the high-tech companies she deals with develop mobile apps as part of their overall strategy.
"The idea is that companies want to reach users wherever and however they can. Mobile is an extension of the company," she said, mentioning Burlingame-based Wordnik, an online-dictionary company that has received funding from Mohr Davidow Ventures and features a free Android app.
Appealing to the mainstream
The most successful apps either have high-entertainment value or high utility, "with a really good user experience," Barr said, "and of course it needs to be customized to look good on a phone or iPad screen."
Bohm Kim, founder of the Mountain View-based company Great Appaloosa, agrees.
As with all technology, fresh, innovative ideas are key, he said.
"If you're going to make an app, have something you're excited about. The day has passed when you could just make an app and someone would buy it just because it was out there and new. Have a product that's compelling and worthwhile, not more of the same," he said.
Kim first began professionally developing mobile software more than a decade ago for the Palm Pilot device but has since switched his company's focus to the iPhone. The company's original name, PocketSensei, was changed to Great Appaloosa to appeal to a broader audience, "not just techies," Kim said, reflecting the iPhone's spread to the mainstream.
"We're always focused on graphics and a good user experience and we really like the additional powers (the iPhone offers). It's exciting," he said of the potential in app development.
His first app was Daymation, which was released for Palm in 2004 and revamped for iPhone in 2009. The app is modeled after traditional print page-a-day calendars ("You know, like with 'The Far Side' or cats," Kim explained), but with a high-tech twist.
"Daymation was originally conceived as a screen saver with fun animations to show off the handheld device. Games usually have tiny little guys; we wanted big characters. The idea was to have a different animation each day," Kim said.
Each day, Daymation shows a fully animated page, complete with virtual sticky notes, facts, colorful characters in motion, information on sporting events, historical dates, trivia and various calendar/clock settings to keep users organized. It's much less expensive than a paper calendar, Kim said of the $3.99 app. Unlike the old-fashioned variety, Daymation's continual updates and new additions mean the calendar keeps running even after the year changes.
"It will run forever. There are new stories all the time so it doesn't matter when you start."
Great Appaloosa's latest offering is "Corky," a virtual version of a decorative corkboard. Corky, also priced at $3.99, allows users to choose from a wide range of "flair" items, including buttons, pictures, ribbons and other trinkets, to customize their "blingboards." They can then share them electronically with friends. Example boards have themes such as "Senior year," "European vacation" and "Pet palooza."
"It's just meant to be a lot of fun," Kim said.
Corky is available for iPhone but is even better with Apple's latest wonder toy, the iPad, Kim said, because of the larger screen size.
The biggest challenge for app designers is that the market has become saturated, increasing competition and making it easy to become lost in the crowd, said Kim, whose company does almost all of its design and illustration in-house.
"We've taken the approach not to crank out as many as we can but focus on quality and not release many," Kim said. "The volume model isn't going to work."
"All our apps have at least six months of full team development invested. This is a long development cycle more like desktop development and is actually unusual in the mobile world."
Enter the Android
More options for developers are cropping up with the expansion of smartphone technology. Phones based on Google's Android operating system, which overtook the iPhone in sales in the third quarter of 2010, offer another platform for app movers and shakers.
Stanford grad Tim Su came up with Astrid (Android's Simple Task Recording Dashboard), a free to-do list/productivity app, while on a week's vacation in Las Vegas. He'd never programmed using the Android system before but said it wasn't too different from other computer work he'd done.
"I just sat down and learned how to do it. I would work on the app during the day and do Vegas things at night," he said.
Despite the utilitarian nature of a to-do app, Su's Astrid is not all business -- the Astrid character takes the form of a cheerful, wisecracking cartoon squid.
Today Su, along with business partner Jon Paris (the two met at Stanford and operate from a California Avenue office), are responsible for Astrid and the "Todoroo" line of apps, all of which incorporate humor and personality into the apps' functions.
Astrid users set up lists of tasks, such as "finish homework" or "lunch with Emily," (arranged by importance, date or using other options). If the items are not checked off in a timely manner, Astrid pops up and, with a cheeky grin, asks such questions as, "Are you ever going to do this?"
"Astrid uses humor and creativity to get under the skin," Su said. "Some have said to make it more 'professional'. The squid is very polarizing, but a lot of users find it a nice contrast to more bland, corporate stuff."
"We try not to make it too annoying -- just annoying enough," Paris added, laughing.
Within a week of releasing Astrid, the free app had more users than Su and Paris' previous website had total. It was surprising and made them realize the power of mobile. They now work on apps full time.
"With apps you can make money through advertising, which we don't do, sell premium versions of free apps or get deals with phone companies to pre-install the apps," Su said. Su and Paris have also formed a new site, act.fm, to merge their apps with their online presence.
Astrid has been featured by Google and by Sprint, a phone-service carrier using Android. By the end of 2009 the spunky squid had been downloaded more than 400,000 times and has brought in around $25,000 for Su and Paris over the past two months.
The pair's second app venture is a series of helper "roos" (portrayed as cartoon kangaroos) dedicated to particular lifestyle goals or areas.
"We came up with the Todoroo idea because Astrid helps people organize, but we wanted to also help people focus and self-improve. The roos nag me so my wife doesn't have to," Paris said.
The roos take into account "that we are forgetful, lazy and easily distracted," the website states.
Todoroo's "Roo Market" features a range of characters including "Gary The Relationship Roo," "Tyler The Thrifty Roo," "Rachel The Recovery Roo" and "Paul The Bible Roo," all with personalities and styles of their own.
"Paul is a little snarky," Paris said of the roo that helps a user study the Bible.
What makes the roo apps special, Paris said, is that authors and experts collaborate with the developers. Gary The Relationship Roo was named after Gary Chapman, author of "The Five Love Languages." Gary, the roo, keeps track of important anniversaries, suggests romance tips, remind users of what they like about their partners, and offers custom suggestions based on information entered by the user. He will advise the happily married Paris to take his wife on a movie date, for example, or remind him, "You're a lucky guy."
For Isaac The Piano Roo, Su and Paris connected the app to a series of YouTube videos offering a series of piano-tutorial videos that increase in difficulty.
"It doesn't replace piano lessons but it can augment them, and it's certainly more affordable," Paris said of the free app.
Initially all the roos were free but some now cost a buck or two, as Su and Paris share revenues with the authors with whom they collaborate. Paris said in the coming months, several high-profile author-connected roos will be released, declining to reveal his partners.
Although Astrid and the various roos are currently Android-only apps, protoypes for iPhone and iPad are in the works.
For Paris and Su, customer satisfaction -- and feedback -- is of the utmost importance as their business grows.
"Our big challenge is supporting users, making sure they continue to love our products," Su said. Responding to customers constitutes their biggest time and money expenditure.
The two even encourage other developers and fans to suggest features and help with development for all their products.
Astrid fans have translated the app into 17 languages, while roo users are invited to create a roo of their own to share.
"We rely on the wisdom of the community," Su said.
Launching from Stanford
It is perhaps not surprising that Silicon Valley's most prestigious university is on the pulse of the app revolution.
Su and Paris met at Stanford, and the university offers an iPhone Application Development course.
In addition, the Stanford School of Design's 10-week Launchpad course has helped student teams create and launch innovative businesses.
Launchpad professor Perry Klebahn said that while fewer than half of the projects undertaken by students last year were digital, he predicted more app-based projects in future classes.
Calling the class a weekly "mosh pit" of ideas, Klebahn said, "What Launchpad does is put students through business hurdles and forces them to break early on" while still under the guidance of the course.
"It's a brutal treadmill," he said of launching a company.
One such enterprise conceived of and founded during the course is Alphonso Labs, which originally produced a news-reading app called Pulse for the iPad (now also available for iPhone and Android).
Developers Ankit Gupta and Akshay Kothari wanted to create a tool to help readers keep up with their favorite news sites in a user-friendly, visually appealing manner.
"We were frustrated with our news-reading experience. When the iPad came out we stood in line to get one of the first ones and once we had it we realized, this is the best consumption device for data. We thought, 'How can we build the best news-reading app for this?'" Gupta said.
"I was the kind of person who had a lot of RSS (a format for syndicated Web content) feeds all over. My Google Reader (a site-aggregate page) was a bad experience for me -- too text heavy, too cluttered. Once I logged in to find more than 1,000 messages, and it scared me away so I never came back," he said.
Kothari, on the other hand, took the opposite approach, visiting many sites daily.
"It took too long, they all have different layouts, and it was insufficient for sharing," Gupta said.
Enter Pulse, an interface that "makes a mosaic of your news." With little navigation, Pulse takes up to 60 of a user's favorite sites and tiles them across the screen, "like a movie strip." Sharing with Twitter, Facebook and e-mail is easy and the layout is clean and graphic intensive, according to the pair.
"We're hoping Pulse will become the go-to app (platform) for any kind of news," Kothari said.
Pulse, which goes for $2 for iPad and $1 for the "mini" iPhone version, so impressed Apple head honcho Steve Jobs that he featured it in his 2010 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. And though Kothari and Gupta declined to disclose download numbers, Pulse is currently sitting in the No. 2 position on the iPad App Store's news-category chart.
"We didn't expect it to be this successful. All we hoped for initially was to recover our money for the iPad," Gupta said.
"I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur. App design is something I saw myself doing because it's very exciting to be able to build something that could have millions of users and that people can use and give feedback on pretty much right away," Gupta said.
"It's very satisfying to be working for yourself. There are risks, and there are ups and downs, but we have a good team and good feedback, and we're learning so much. I don't think we'd learn as much in any other computer job," he said.
Though late work nights (often until 3 a.m.) at their Hamilton Avenue office leave little room for a social life, Gupta said it's worth it for the satisfaction he gets from his work.
"We have Saturday off, but on Saturdays I can't wait to get back to the office," he chuckled.
A social-networking future
Even local high schoolers have gotten into the app business. In April, four Castilleja School students won $30,000 in venture capital to develop an app for the Google Nexus One Phone. Emily Scharff (daughter of Palo Alto councilman Greg Scharff), Shreya Ramachandran, Lindsey Wang and Emilie Robert Wong formed the award-winning Team ZEAL during their time in the eight-week Technovation Challenge, a program for young Bay Area women to work with mentors from leading Silicon Valley companies and gain skills in technology and business.
Team ZEAL's idea for a high-tech version of the classic "M.A.S.H." fortune-telling game, with results that could be shared via Facebook and Twitter, came away with the top prize: $30,000 in development funding from MobMark and AdMob, along with a $1,000 college scholarship for each team member from Women at Microsoft.
"It's an amazing opportunity and incredibly valuable," said Mohr Davidow's Barr, who served as a mentor and judge at the event.
So what's in the future for mobile apps?
As the app universe continues to expand, Greater Appaloosa's Kim predicted that people will want more apps based on communication and social networking.
"We're going to see more connectivity, more social interaction," he said.
Barr agreed, also pointing to the success of location-sharing apps such as Foursquare, which allows users to "check in" at real-life locations and broadcast their comings and goings with friends.
Paris, too, sees social connections as the future of apps.
"I think the next thing is adding a social component to everything we do. We are starting to test out a service which will allow users to invite friends to help them with their tasks by providing encouragement, insights or accountability," he said.
"Astrid has already helped people complete 7 million tasks. We think with the help of friends, people will continue to have even more fun and get more done."