By Vanessa Lu | Mon Oct 03 2011
There are apps for banking, apps for the Leafs, and apps that can supposedly detect everything from cancer to scams.
There are even apps to manage your apps. And a lot of them are being developed in Toronto.
“We’re just at the tip of the iceberg of the explosion of new successful companies,” said Valerie Fox, director of Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone, which helps budding digital entrepreneurs get started.
The zone, overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square, offers free rent and Internet access — and though it has already expanded once and plans to again, there’s a rigorous selection process for a coveted spot.
“We don’t charge. We don’t take equity,” said Fox. “What we want ultimately is for these companies to thrive here in Canada, and not to go to Silicon Valley.”
California companies are known to look to Toronto. Last summer Zynga, of Farmville fame, bought Five Mobile, a Toronto-based app maker.
Mobile apps are hot because smartphone use is on the rise — everything from iPhones to Blackberrys and Android phones.
It’s unclear if tablets will enjoy a similar success, given HP has just thrown in the towel and Research in Motion’s PlayBook is struggling. But the iPad is flourishing and Amazon last week introduced the Kindle Fire.
And app stores are making it easier for entrepreneurs to bring an idea to market, though they generally take 30 per cent of all sales — so you need to sell a lot of 99 cent apps to make money.
Some go viral, like Angry Birds, though those success stories are few and far between.
GO train rider Matt Rix slowly developed his Trainyard game as he commuted to his job in Liberty Village. He eventually quit his job and started his own gaming company.
Other Toronto firms like Polar Mobile develop apps for clients, using its platform and adapting it to individual needs. Its media clients include CBS, Bloomberg and Condé Nast publications.
The company was created by six friends from the University of Waterloo just before they graduated in 2008. They launched an app before Apple created the App store.
“Four years ago, nobody knew what apps were,” said Polar Mobile CEO Kunal Gupta, who estimates they have released 1,200 apps to date from a Front St. office that now has a staff of 40. “Even two years ago, people started know what they were, but people didn’t care.
“Now companies care like you would not believe,” Gupta said, “around apps, what’s their apps presence, and what their apps strategy is.”
Dayton Pereira, chief operating officer of Indusblue, whose firm designed TSN’s iPad application, says the key is designing a product “that’s sticky” — meaning it has features that users keep coming back for more, which translates into higher ad revenue.
Pereira believes Toronto has become a hub, partly because of the number of experienced web developers here, who meet up regularly or are inspired by the success of others.
“Mobile is growing fast. It’s not slowing down at all. It’s at a breakneck pace,” he said, adding his firm is focusing on iPhone and iPad as well as Android applications.
Kathleen Webb, director of Mobile Experience Innovation Centre affiliated with the Ontario College of Art and Design, estimates there are 3,000 companies working on apps in the province.
That’s everything from big companies to freelancers and small companies of fewer than five people, she said, adding her centre is just completing a survey to calculate the presence here.
“What’s great about mobile apps is they are widely available,” said Webb, and for a few bucks, people can try it out. “And as they generate more revenue, developers can make improvements.”
The key is to keep entry point low, or free, and then upsell within the apps for premium plans, Webb said.
Indusblue’s Pereira doesn’t believe the demand for apps will slow down.
“It’s a question of have we built enough websites yet? No, there’s a billions of apps to make, and there’s a continuing source of opportunity,” he said.
Interactive music app
Jamie Alexander’s Sound Selecta app brings music and art together.
The former IBM engineer designed his iPhone and iPad app, where people can alter music by touching any part of an artist’s image.
“Instead of buying a song, you’re buying an interactive version of a song,” he said.
He’s featured everything from reggae music to toddler tunes and is working on various songs.
His latest, to be released later this month, features Toronto beat boxer Scratch Cat, who he heard busking in his a cappella style at Yonge-Dundas Square, and artist Maria Gernega, who just graduated from Seneca College.
One song features a typical Toronto scene complete with a subway car as Scratch Cat makes all the noises himself, from the train to the warning bell as the doors are closing.
“It’s idiot-proof music that will sound good no matter what you push,” said Alexander, who plans to offer a free app with one song, and then others ranging from 99 cents to $2.99.
The map app
Mapping company Avenza Systems in midtown Toronto counts among its customers the military, National Geographic and the CIA.
Technology means people can easily get directions on their GPS or through their mobile phones, but president Ted Florence said some people still want a paper map.
So Avenza’s product blends a bit of old with new — the PDF map app essentially scans in paper maps, but gives users interactive details. If you’re in a new city, type in Starbucks and you can find out how many outlets are near you. If you’re hiking in Algonquin Park, and there’s no cellphone service, you’ll still be able to use the app.
“If map publishers don’t adapt to changes like camera companies, from film to digital, they’ll be out of business,” said Florence.
“With paper maps, you have to guess how many copies to print, ship and warehouse,” he said, and any new streets require printing a new version. “With this, you can change a map on the server.”
Imagine you’re alone in a laneway at night and get the feeling someone is following you.
Instead of immediately calling 911, you could activate your Guardly app where it would immediately alert up to 15 people that you might be trouble. It will escalate to a 911 call depending on the situation.
“We see ourselves as the natural extension of the home alarm,” said CEO Josh Sookman, noting the app can tap into the user’s location as well as their friends and family to determine who is closest. You can also snap photos and send to your network
The premium version, which costs $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year, allows for a real-time conference or instant-messaging among your safety network.
Sookman’s idea was first incubated at OCAD’s Mobile Experience Innovation Centre, eventually grew too big and moved out on its own.
The next step is to get more universities to sign on — where they would pay a fee and all students on campus would have access to the app.