They're Apps to Make Money

Keith Shepherd quit his day job and is trying to make a go out of it with word puzzle games and a downhill sledding game called "Little Red Sled."
Keith Shepherd quit his day job and is trying to make a go out of it with word puzzle games and a downhill sledding game called "Little Red Sled." (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Todd Moore didn't foresee that he was about to embark on a new career when he bought his first Mac last year. It just sort of happened.

Moore, a 35-year-old Sterling resident, had been spending his working life pulling down six figures as a network security professional -- a job he liked well enough. But after reading a few get-rich-quick stories about programmers making good money from selling applications designed to run on the iPhone or iPod Touch, he decided to give it a go. How hard could it be?

Learning the tricks of iPhone development in his spare time, Moore rolled out a handful of applications and posted them for sale on Apple's App Store. Some went nowhere, sales-wise, but a couple have hit the big time.

The biggest success, so far: White Noise, a $1 program that generates soothing sounds for people who have a hard time getting to sleep. Card Counter, a $3 application designed to help users learn the principles of counting cards to win at blackjack, has also been a brisk seller. Last month, on the software sales-tracking charts at iTunes, both programs appeared on the "top 20" most-purchased list. That's about the time Moore gave his two weeks notice and decided to pursue this dream full time.

"In one week, I made what I would've made in four months," he said. "That's when I decided to pull the trigger."

Apple's online software shop has given rise to a new set of entrepreneurial programmers such as Moore, hoping to make a living, or a bit of supplemental income, by dreaming up software products that will prompt iPhone users to part with a buck or two.

Jumping into this area requires a bit of programming knowledge -- even experienced programmers say it takes a few weeks to master the ins and outs of developing software for the device. But thanks to the App Store, which pays developers 70 percent of the sale price, an application devised by an inspired programmer such as Moore has as much chance of making it big as an iPhone game designed by a team at, say, Electronic Arts. Apple announced last week that the App Store has had 800 million downloads since it launched last summer, though that number also includes the store's many free downloads.

Moore isn't the only Washington-area dreamer who has hopped into this hot new area of software development. Local programmer Keith Shepherd gave up his job as developer of health-care software last year to start his one-man iPhone game shop, Imangi Studios, out of his Dupont Circle apartment.

So far, Shepherd has released a pair of well-reviewed word puzzle games, Imangi and Imangi Word Squares. Last month, he released his latest game, Little Red Sled, in which players tilt their iPhones left or right to steer a sled down a series of snowy hills. He's not making as much as he did at the job he left, "but I'm getting there" he said.

Fresh ideas are precious commodities in this space, so developers tend to keep mum about exactly what they have in the works.

Julie McCool, a former AOL executive who lives in Reston, designed a program in which you create your own virtual snow globe. Shake your iPhone, and you set the program's virtual snowflakes in motion.

Good idea, right? Well, she wasn't the only one who thought of it. "When I first started thinking about snow globes, there was already one in the store," she said. "By the time I started working on it, there were 10."

McCool's start-up, Hawk Ridge Consulting, has a few projects in the works in which she has paired up with entertainment companies wanting to connect with consumers on the popular App Store. You'll understand if she keeps the details of those projects to herself, for now.

Even for folks who are keeping their day jobs, there's a sort of do-it-yourself excitement to building applications for the iPhone (and the iPod Touch). There's a gold rush mentality out there, but some say they just like the ability to dream up something and execute it by themselves, without having to work with a huge development team or a big budget.

I've written about Peter Hirschberg before in this column; he's an AOL worker in Linden who constructed a two-story building in his yard to house his collection of vintage, '80s-era arcade games.

These days, Hirschberg is working to bring his passion for that old-school style of videogame to the App Store. His recently released game, Vector Tanks, re-creates the simple graphics you'd perhaps remember from 20-year-old pizza parlor classics like BattleZone. He's got a long list of similar projects he hopes to get to, if time permits.

"It's not about storyboards and product marketing," he said. "It's more like an indie film. It's one guy saying, 'I want to do this because I think it's cool.'

"The iPhone has brought back to computing and gaming what used to get me excited about computing and gaming," he said. "This is what I've been waiting for since I was a kid."

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