SF AppShow gives developers leg up on competition

The San Francisco-based app showcase is now selling out and attracting some of the hottest apps around. Those presenting see a clear benefit.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
SF AppShow hosts Dale Larson (left) and Seth Socolow on-stage at the beginning of their event Tuesday night in San Francisco. The showcase gives app developers a chance to get their projects in front of a crowd of eager influencers. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--With more than 200,000 apps bursting the seams of Apple's App Store, how can developers get their projects to stand out?

That's a common sentiment among those creating apps, and among those looking for quality content for their iPhones and iPads. But to Seth Socolow, himself a developer and businessman, it was the question that inspired what has become one of the hottest tickets on the Bay Area technology scene.

On Tuesday night, Socolow and Dale Larson, his partner in a consulting firm called SF App Studio, hosted the sixth iteration of their app showcase, the SF AppShow. And before a packed house of more than 200 people--their biggest crowd so far--at the famous 111 Minna Gallery here, the two gave a series of app developers the chance to get up on stage and take six minutes to explain their projects.

Part DiggNation, part Demo, and part real-world App Store front end, the SF AppShow seems to have a growing influence in the world of app development--be it for Apple's iPad or iPhone, Google's Android, or the BlackBerry--and the people who create the mobile products and evangelize them.

And while it's hard to quantify the specific impact the showcase has on the app ecosystem--in terms of boosting sales, at least--there's little question that among the sold-out crowd Tuesday night were plenty of people convinced that it was in their best interest to be there. In part, that's because several apps that have been shown at previous iterations of the event--like Moe's Notes and Magic Window--have, coincidentally or not, gone on to prominent placement on Apple's App Store and been written up in The New York Times and talked about on network TV.

"We're here because it gives good exposure to press, influencers, and to people in the app economy in a casual setting," said Peter Evers, who was at the SF AppShow to promote the latest app--Slingshot Safari--from his client Digital Prunes. "I think in the world we're living in now, the developers here to show their own wares are also the people who will go back and talk about things other than their own company and product. And that's kind of a change--and I think an event like this is nice--it's one step up from a meetup or a tweetup--(and) without pressure."

Like the well-known Demo conferences, the SF AppShow gives its presenters six minutes to show off their apps. But rather than stand up and potentially bore the audience with a bad presentation, Socolow and Larson have chosen the route of putting the developers on stage with a seasoned interviewer, one who can draw them out. On Tuesday, that role was played by Gina Smith, the co-author of the Steve Wozniak biography "iWoz" and a former co-host of Good Morning America.

The sixth iteration of the SF AppShow was sold out. More than 200 people showed up to see some of the latest and greatest apps.

On tap Tuesday night were nine apps--SugarSync, an iPhone and iPad app for file-sharing and backup; "The Mongoliad," an interactive serial novel from authors Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others; the star-gazing app Distant Suns; Double Dutch, a Foursquare for the enterprise and other affinity communities; E-Contact Pro, a service that produces "guaranteed accurate manual transcriptions of business cards;" PatternMusic, a music-creation app; Slingshot Safari, a game about hunting African wild animals; Moe's Notepad, the iPad version of the best-selling iPhone app, Moe's Notes; and UberCab, an app designed to help people with on-demand car service.

SugarSync was one of the event's sponsors, as was Intel, which showed off a series of prototype mobile devices and implored the audience of developers to come and build apps for them.

No developers in the Apple Store

In the past, SF AppShow co-founder Socolow recalled, the best way that a consumer electronics or software developer could get the word out to a community of users was to do a demo at a store like Fry's Electronics. But in the app ecosystem, there are much better ways to do it, Socolow reasoned. So after launching his own iPhone app in 2009 and seeing it disappear into the App Store, he wondered what he would do next.

It was obvious, though, what he needed to do: help developers get their apps in front of the right people. So after getting in touch with Apple, he and Larson hosted the first SF AppShow, last November, at a San Francisco Apple Store. The event was a hit, and everyone agreed to do it again in late January.

But on New Year's Day, Socolow said, he got a call from Apple explaining that they couldn't return to the Apple Store. The iPhone maker didn't want to continue, worrying that it might look like it was giving preferential treatment to the developers that took place in the showcase, Socolow said.

Rather than give up, though, he and Larson decided to move the event to 111 Minna. They were also asked to host a version of the showcase at CES, and the rest is history. With events in late January, in March, in April, and now a sold-out show on Tuesday, it would seem that the SF AppShow is well on its way to being seen as a crucial stop for any developer looking for help getting the word out.

Many people at the SF AppShow Tuesday night were excited to hear about The Mongoliad, the forthcoming interactive serial novel from authors Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. Subutai Corporation

Not everyone can show their apps, though. Socolow explained that prospective demonstrators must submit an application form, and he and his team go through each of them, looking for the best apps and a good mix of genres to show the eager audience. Those selected to present are asked to pay a fee to help offset the cost of putting on the event.

For now, the showcases are only in San Francisco, but they're broadcast live on the Internet. Socolow hopes that soon the number of people watching online will be larger than attending in person, but they haven't gotten that far yet. In part, that's because the event has reached only a Bay Area audience.

Word of Mouth

If one thing is clear about the event, it's that those who take part in it are relying on the power of word of mouth. In interview after interview, developers said they hoped that by presenting to the SF AppShow audience and talking to their peers about their projects, they'd be able to generate word of mouth among one of the most wired app ecosystem communities in the world.

At the same time, the developers also seemed to feel that they could do a lot to help each other by trading war stories about building apps, getting them into the various app stores, and more.

"There's a lot of strategy around [app] pricing and features," said Michael Ang, one of the developers of the hit app Magic Window, which was presented at the April SF AppShow. "It's so helpful. Moe's Notes was featured [on the Apple App Store] and we were talking with [Moe's Notes creator Christopher Schardt] about pricing strategy, and sharing that information was helpful. There's a big difference between pricing an app at $4.99 and at $2.99. It's huge."

To Joel Susal, the director of product development at app maker Pana.ma, being part of the SF AppShow is an opportunity to mingle and network and share ideas with the cream of the "burgeoning iPhone and iPad community."

More to the point, Susal said, the SF AppShow benefits from being held in San Francisco's SoMa district, which is a hotbed of iPhone and iPad app development. That alone is worth the price of admission, he suggested.

"I think there are influencers here," Susal said. "It's not to say that being here is a recipe for success, but it certainly gives you the resources to get there: [taking part] in this community, [and] participating and putting yourself out in front of your peers to get word of mouth promotion, which is so significant when the epicenter is here in SoMa."

Drinking on stage

If you've ever seen DiggNation, the mega-hit Internet TV show hosted by Digg founder Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht, you're familiar with the notion of two hosts sitting in front of an audience, drinking beer, cracking jokes, and talking tech. Intentionally or not, that's one element of the SF AppShow shtick, but when Socolow and Larson do it, it doesn't come across quite as smooth as when Rose and Albrecht are doing their thing.

Still, on Tuesday at least, the SF AppShow crowd of 200 was engaged from beginning to end, and there's little doubt that the next iteration of the showcase--likely in September--will be standing-room only.

Those presenting know their fee doesn't buy them much more than a chance to get on stage and make their case, but they don't seem to care. They clearly believe it's worth the money.

"It's a package," Socolow said of what the SF AppShow is offering presenters. "You [may not] have the money to throw a launch party. But [we give you] an opportunity to do a joint launch party" with the heart of the apps community.