Smartphones drive business for software writers

Companies find mobile apps provide a potential gold mine

By João-Pierre Ruth

As smartphones pack ever more computing power, the menu of mobile applications designed for this market continues to grow, leading entrepreneurs with novel ideas and technical skills to create software designed for such devices. Apple Inc.’s iPhone opened the floodgates for mobile software development, now other device makers and wireless networks are seeking new “apps” for their products.

In August, ALK Technologies, of Princeton, released its first app for the iPhone and Google Android-based phones. The software, CoPilot Live, uses the Global Positioning System signals received by smartphones to provide driving directions; it’s hoped to be the first of many mobile apps, said Alain L. Kornhauser, who founded the company 30 years ago.

ALK is just getting its toes wet, but other local developers have waded deeper into mobile apps. Software from Smarter Agent in Camden, uses GPS signals to help real estate agents find local market information in the field. EarWorm Media, in Milford, is a media producer making short, animated videos that users download and play on their wireless phones.

ALK developed the PC-based version of its CoPilot software 12 years ago, Kornhauser said, providing navigational assistance to users. Laptops and personal digital assistants were the first mobile computing options available, Kornhauser said; in its latest form, as CoPilot Live, the software includes a database of 7 million miles of road across North America.

CoPilot Live is the company’s first foray into the consumer-driven mobile app scene, but “it could easily become 50 percent of our business. It could easily dominate it,” Kornhauser said.

The privately held and profitable company generates between $20 million and $50 million in revenue. ALK has a staff of 120 in Princeton, and employs another 60 in Europe and Asia.

Fellow software creator Smarter Agent, meanwhile, called mobile app development “a really big leap for our market that we sell to,” according to Brad Blumberg, its chief executive.

The company’s software uses GPS technology, combined with real estate listing data, to let mobile users research pricing on residential property where they are standing. The company’s first software, Recently Sold Homes, debuted in 2006. Soon after came Apts for Rent, which shows apartment listings, and Homes for Sale.

The software line initially was available exclusively to Sprint customers, but each title is now widely available, with prices ranging from $2.99 to $4.99 per month on most any phone and operating system.

Blumberg said some would-be software writers might rush to create mobile apps to cash in on the demand, but the market is not easily fooled by copycats and hasty offerings. “It’s not something where two guys in a garage can create something that works everywhere,” he said.

Rob Feldman, owner of EarWorm Media, said the public is growing accustomed to buying, downloading, and using software through wireless phones and devices. “Within the next year, app growth on other devices and through other carriers will explode pretty widely,” he said.

But Feldman said some mobile apps may be coming on too fast and furiously, without offering features beyond their novelty factor, while developers who address the real needs of wireless device users may find better traction.

“People get tired of things very easily. Functioning apps, apps that serve a purpose in your daily life — those are going to be hot.”