For Omaha's iNet Solutions Group, a large part of business these days is developing apps for mobile devices, and that includes apps that allow salesmen to pack away bulky catalogs and laptops and yet carry more information about products on iPads.
And after a meeting, they can “email PDFs of the resulting business plan to customers,” iNet President Chet Slump said.
Luke Miller, owner of LMent LLC, an Omaha-based software and marketing firm, started work on his new mobile app in May and released it for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch earlier this month.
The app is called Exposure, and it mimics the style and feel of pre-digital photography.
Slump and Miller provide a glimpse behind the scenes for people who wonder about the genius behind their favorite app or those who dream of making it big in the app development world.
For smartphone software developers, it might take a few seconds to find inspiration but weeks and months to make a user's quick download possible.
Miller said he came up with the idea for Exposures earlier this year while at a wedding.
“The bride and groom put disposable cameras at the tables so they had lots of interesting perspectives from the evening,” Miller said.
Since the results weren't instantly viewable, the couple weren't sure what they would end up with until the photos were processed. That's how Exposure works, too. Instead of instant photos, the app hides the pictures until the “camera” is full. Users choose the number of exposures and share their digital camera with friends.
“It's like a disposable camera, but with a modern digital — and social — twist,” said Miller, who employs three iOS programmers, one Web programmer and one graphic designer at LMent.
Exposure is free to download, and users can add additional features — like photo filters and instant exposure — for 99 cents each. Though many apps use ads to create income, Miller wanted to keep Exposure clean and visually appealing.
“Ads can be distracting,” he said. “When people click on them, they're taken away from your app and the engagement is over. You want to keep fingers and eyes on your app as long as possible.”
Deeper engagement with the app means users are more likely to purchase an add-on feature. On both iOS and Android platforms, developers keep 70 percent of the revenue from app purchases while Apple and Google, respectively, keep the rest. So far, Exposure has been downloaded 2,620 times over just a couple of weeks.
Miller hopes to push that number higher with a marketing push through the holidays, when lots of people are expected to find new gadgets under the tree.
LMent will focus its efforts on Miller's alma mater, the University of Missouri. Through social media contests, partnerships with student organizations and giveaways, Miller wants to engage the large Missouri student body and let the social nature of the app spread from there.
iNet in many cases is hired by clients to inform their customers, so it has a different revenue stream from LMent.
Slump and Miller are part of a growing number of software developers taking advantage of the rapidly expanding smartphone market. According to consulting firm Strategy Analytics, the number of smartphone users worldwide topped 1 billion in October. That number was around 700 million a year ago. And it's expected to reach 2 billion within the next three years.
A growing array of tablets are is boosting demand for apps.
Mobile computing has forced traditional developers — those who write software for desktop computers — to adapt. For iNet Solutions, a six-person firm specializing in agribusiness technology, that meant learning how to speak in an entirely different computer language.
“We were primarily a Microsoft .NET shop,” Slump said. “We were mostly in Web space, and in desktop application space before that. Mobile apps are a very large portion of our new business today.”
When clients ask iNet to design an app, they're typically trying to deliver timely information in an easy-to-use package. Compare checking the weather on a smartphone Web browser to using a dedicated app.
Once Slump and his team have direction from a client, they look to maximize an app's capabilities by using the full power of the device. The GPS receiver, for example, can be used to determine location and deliver localized news and weather. Or the app may call upon the phone's camera functions for recording photos or other data.
Through the company's apps like Farm Progress, Gavilon Grain and Beef Market Central, users can stay up to date on markets, agriculture news and weather.
No matter how advanced a mobile app is, it often starts with a decidedly old-school twist — drawings and notes on a whiteboard or notepad. Miller sketched out the basic feel of Exposure on paper before moving forward with his ideas.
“I made a crude drawing of an iPhone screen and what I wanted it to look like at the start,” he said. “You have to map out each possible thing you can do on it — like editing your name or changing the password; the help screen. There are lots of intricacies.”
From there, he started talking with programmers and designers to help make Exposure a reality.
Along the way, Apple released its latest mobile software platform — iOS 6. And then came the iPhone 5, with a larger screen and higher resolution. Both situations required reworking the app.
“We had to completely do it all over again for iPhone 5,” Miller said. “It set everything back a couple of weeks.”
This week, he launched an update to the app, based on suggestions from users.
Slump and his team have faced similar challenges, though they're compounded by the much larger scope of Android software and devices. Unlike Apple, which controls its software and hardware, Android is licensed by Google to many different manufacturers. That means many different screen sizes and resolutions and plenty of hardware discrepancies.
“We have a lot of phones and tablets around here that we use for testing,” Slump said. “It's a challenge.”
All told, there are more than 700,000 apps available for iOS devices and another 600,000 built for Android. And as Google's system catches up, the company also is laying a foundation for the next generation of software developers.
The Omaha-based AIM Institute, through a $54,000 grant provided by Google, held a pair of app-development academies in Council Bluffs this year. The Android App Academy was designed as an opportunity for high school students to get an up-close look at mobile app development.
“Our goal is to interest these kids in technology and engage them with hands-on activities,” said Nadine Baker, educational grants manager at the AIM Institute. “The academy really helped them decipher the magic of it all. It's not really as difficult as what they imagined.”
The AIM Institute has held the academies for two years and is exploring future options that may include an advanced course for program graduates.
“It was a very successful program,” Baker said. “Usually we lose a few kids along the way, but that never happened with this program.”