It started out as a simple task: turn my great idea for an iPhone app into an iPhone app. I wanted to see what the process involved, with the ultimate goal of creating a tangible end-product. My editor agreed to this story, as he was interested to see what people who have good ideas that they want to turn into iPhone apps, but no programming knowledge, can do. Along the way, I was determined to prove co-workers wrong (“you can’t invent an iPhone app in two weeks!”), and cross the longstanding item off of my to-do list.
If only it were that easy.Here’s what happened:
Step one: Google ‘How do I invent an iPhone app?’
I was immediately led to an article titled How To Create Your First iPhone Application, complete with a how-to guide of steps to turn an idea into an app. The first step is to determine if the idea is a good one, based on if the idea meets the site’s “indicators of success.” My idea meets four of the five indicators, so I confidently moved on to the next step, where I was slightly discouraged to learn that I only had one of the tools, a spiral bound notebook, on the tool checklist.
Step two: Return to Google.
I read “Young Brothers Invent Bestselling iPhone App ” and quickly thought, if an 11-year-old and a nine-year-old can invent an iPhone app, I’m pretty sure I can too. I also read about Lim Ding Wen, a Singapore boy who released his first iPhone app at the age of nine. He originally created a finger-painting program, called Doodle Kids, for his two young sisters, but now anyone can download the program that allows users to draw images on the screen using their fingers. Again, I was buoyed by the thought that if a child can invent an iPhone app, then I can too.
Just to be certain, though, I checked with Lim Ding Wen’s father, Lim Thye Chean. We corresponded by e-mail and he assured me that his son is “not a genius of any sort.” Lim Ding Wen, who learned how to write games at the age of seven, just finished a program for the iPad and is currently working on a kart racing game. “Programming is just something fun for him,” says his father, “People are usually fascinated by the ability of a nine-year-old to write an iPhone program, but in fact any kid can do it. They just need the proper mindset and environment.”
Step three: With that in mind, it was time for some market research.
I’d been coy about my great idea for an iPhone app, staying tight-lipped around prodding co-workers for fear of my idea being stolen. I’d like to see what else exists in the same realm as my idea, so I start searching and quickly learn that I might not be the only one out there with this “great” idea.
Others, it seems, aren’t so worried about their ideas being stolen – I read this piece on mobile garage-sale apps. The description is almost identical to my idea: “an app that finds garage sales near your current location, then maps them on your phone and gives you driving directions. (And of course it takes into account the hours of the sales.)” My app would include a few more features (which I’m still staying tight-lipped about), but that’s the foundation, right there on the Internet for all to see. I’m not sure where to go from here, so I track down a software developer who gets paid to develop apps and schedule some time to talk.
Step four: “The idea isn’t the hard part,” says Brandon Tennant, a Vancouver-based software developer.
“Ideas are all over the place and there are good ideas and bad ideas, but that’s really not the hard part. The hard part is the execution, it’s how you go about testing the idea as a good idea and how you go about getting it into the hands of people, so that’s the part where you actually build it – that’s the hard part.”
I was sort of hoping Tennant would help me invent my iPhone app on a very tight timeframe and nonexistent budget, or point me in the direction of who could help, but as he began to describe to me the process of creating an iPhone app, I realized there is no way this is going to happen. “It’s a pretty big process,” he says, laughing.
Step five: So what is that process of inventing an iPhone app?
First there’s an initial interview-like process, where Tennant talks to the client who has the idea for an app and asks questions to determine what the purpose of their application is. “If what you’re trying to accomplish, the stated goal, is not clear, the software that comes out the other end is equally unclear and usually not successful,” he says.
Refining and elaborating on the initial idea is followed by an early design phase, “almost like engineers designing on a paper napkin.” After drawing up the rough ideas of how the screens will connect to each other and how the user will navigate the information, the developer will typically return to the client and further refine the now-roughly-designed idea.
The application’s overall aesthetic is considered, then it’s time for user testing, with feedback resulting in even more revisions. A prototype can then be created, which doesn’t handle error conditions but gives people an idea of what the product is generally like. Before the final product is complete another stage of acceptance follows and revision happens again. “It’s a really extensive process,” says Tennant, who estimates he has helped to write about 15 applications since beginning to write specifically for the iPhone in early 2008.
Step six: You mean I can’t invent a successful iPhone app in two weeks?
After learning just how extensive, costly and time-consuming the process of turning an idea into an app really is, I remained curious to know if Tennant often encounters people who want his help. Yes, says Tennant, noting the typical reaction from anyone who finds out his day job is, “oh cool. I’ve got a great idea. Let’s talk.” He does have a few pieces of advice for those aspiring to turn their ideas into an app: “Becoming involved with it as best as you possibly can is the best way to do it,” says Tennant. “It’s almost impossible to have a successful product just by saying I have an idea and then leaving it at that.”
Step seven: There has to be some other way.
Following my conversation with Tennant, I knew I could hypothetically work with him, or any other developer, to turn my idea into an application. I was also quite certain I didn’t have the money required to produce the sort of products Tennant makes. “The budgets of the projects that I have been on have typically been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions,” says Tennant. Surely there has to be something out there, though, for all the aspiring iPhone app developers just bursting with good ideas. I turn to Google, again, and discover MEDL Mobile’s app incubator. “We’ve opened the playing field so that everyone can have a chance to bring their creativity to life and share in the profits,” states the site, which lets users pitch ideas that, if chosen, will be designed, developed and marketed by MEDL, with the person who had the idea receiving 25 per cent on the profits.
Step eight: This sounds exactly like what I’m after.
Just to be certain, I got in touch with someone who knows MEDL much better than I do. While working as a trash collector in England, Robert Shoesmith submitted a few ideas to MEDL’s app incubator. “I was collecting rubbish by day,” says Shoesmith, “and a couple of weeks after submitting my ideas, MEDL came back to me and said they were very interested in one idea and they developed it.” That idea turned into Problem Halved, an app that allows people to post a problem that others can then solve – after all, a problem shared is a problem halved.
Shoesmith won’t say how much money the app made him, due to investor confidentiality, but it is clear its impact has been life-changing. He now works fulltime for MEDL mobile as a marketing and PR executive and is currently in the midst of an experiment that involves camping out for the iPhone 5.
Shoesmith says that he had initially looked at other avenues to develop his ideas into apps, but financially wasn’t in a position to invest such money. He used the app incubator and marketed his own app to great success. “I put off telling MEDL that I worked as a trash collector because I thought that they might stereotype me a little bit, but that wasn’t the case at all,” says Shoesmith. “When I told them I worked as a trash collector, I remember someone saying Hollywood couldn’t script this better, as it made such a good human interest story.” Shoesmith now works for MEDL marketing others’ apps – “each app has an individual story behind it,” he says.
Step nine: See what others are doing.
For those not willing to settle for 25 per cent of profits, inventing your iPhone app can be done on your own – it just requires a lot of background knowledge, or a willingness to teach yourself that knowledge as you go. A college journalist recently invented an iPad app called SoundNote and a farmer in Alberta recently developed his own iPhone app, though the headlines don’t mention that the farmer is a former corporate software developer and the college journalist has played around with programming as a hobby. And be warned that your work isn’t over once the app is developed – you still have to get people to buy it, as the inventors of a shopping app are learning. With over 300,000 apps in the Apple store, competition is tough.
So repeat after me: “the idea isn’t the hard part.”