@Play: D.C. area developers find success through iPhone App Store

Keith Shepherd and his wife, Natalia Luckyanova, develop iPhone apps out of their D.C. apartment under the Imangi Studios banner.
Keith Shepherd and his wife, Natalia Luckyanova, develop iPhone apps out of their D.C. apartment under the Imangi Studios banner. (Kevin Clark/the Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, December 13, 2009

It's been a successful year for Imangi Studios, the two-person iPhone application-development shop run from the Dupont Circle apartment of Keith Shepherd and his wife, Natalia Luckyanova.

The couple's biggest hit, a game called Harbor Master, rose to the No. 3 spot on the iTunes App Store best-seller list this summer, representing hundreds of thousands of copies at 99 cents a pop. For the couple, who left their day jobs as programmers to pursue this dream, it's looking as if their leap of faith into the nascent business of designing iPhone-compatible games and selling them on iTunes has paid off.

"I wouldn't say we're phenomenally, gigantically successful," Shepherd said. "But we're making more money than we used to, and we love doing this so much."

The App Store is an increasingly crowded marketplace for start-ups such as Imangi. When Shepherd launched his studio in 2008, there were all of 500 products available at the then-new online store. By comparison, Apple said in November that there are 100,000 apps available now, a figure that the research firm IDC recently predicted would triple by the end of next year.

Washington area developers such as Shepherd's studio, which aims to release a new title every few months, will no doubt be contributing to the pile.

Just last week, the Chinatown-based start-up LivingSocial launched its second software offering on iTunes, this one aimed at bargain hunters looking to score deals from local merchants.

LivingSocial is still more famous for its Facebook applications. After all, some 80 million Facebook users have used the start-up's applications as a way of cataloguing their favorite movies, books or video games. But as more people are using their iPhones as a way to connect with the services they use, "we're making a big push into mobile," said LivingSocial chief executive Tim O'Shaughnessy.

With LivingSocial Deals, O'Shaughnessy's start-up brokers discounts with local merchants, which agree to offer their services at lower rates if enough LivingSocial users sign up for a deal. In the Washington area last week, one restaurant, PS 7, gave the service's users a chance to buy a $50 gift voucher for half price. Another day, a spa offered a half-off deal on massages. The new app, which the company says is the first of its kind at Apple's online store, is a mobile version of a service the start-up has been offering on Facebook since August.

Meanwhile, Imangi has also just released a new app, a game called Hippo High Dive, in which iPhone users tilt their iPhone or iPod Touch back and forth to guide the flight of a hippopotamus as it dives into a tiny pool of water. There's no telling yet whether it'll catch on like this summer's Harbor Master, in which players where charged with guiding waves of ships safely to their ports, while avoiding bad weather and other hazards.

Most Apps hit their sales peak early on, developers say, but one locally brewed software app has demonstrated remarkable staying power. More than a year after its release, Sterling resident Todd Moore's White Noise program is still a top-10 seller in the "Healthcare and Fitness" section of the iTunes store. The application generates soothing noises in order to help users drift off to sleep.

Moore's next release is a new version of White Noise with a wider range of ambient sounds specifically aimed at infants; the new app should be available in the next couple of weeks, though it's tough to say for sure, thanks to Apple's sometimes cryptic approval process.

Moore said that he's noticed that the app-development world is already becoming more like the traditional software development world; for one thing, he's spending a lot more time and money on marketing than he did a year ago. "It used to be that all you needed was a good idea, but that's certainly changed," he said.

"Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" spoofed Moore's hit application earlier this month. With tongue in cheek, Fallon introduced the "Axl Rose edition" of White Noise, featuring the hard-rock singer's raspy voice screeching over the program's soothing collection of, for example, whale sounds.

But a funny thing about being in the app business is that you never know what's going to be a hit or what's going to inspire downloads. After the comedian gave White Noise a shout-out, Moore logged on with the expectation to find he'd gotten some sort of sales boost.

Nope. Actually, he had a few fewer downloads than usual the following day.

As an app developer, "you're always trying to figure out, why are some things popular?" Moore said. "Even if you get on a TV show, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to get you any traffic."

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