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Inside Apps: How carriers can provide a kick start

AT&T's application contest is one way a developer can establish a public presence, get a little validation, and develop new partnerships.

For developers looking for that extra leg up, there are few better places to start than with the wireless carriers.

AT&T's developer contest is one avenue for app developers looking to break out. AT&T

Last week, I wrote about the critical importance of finding the right partners. And for many, getting the blessing of a carrier is like Kobe Bryant getting a clear lane to the hoop: you're all set up for that slam dunk.

There are many potential rewards, including monetary support, an increase in public awareness, possible new relationships, and a stamp of approval from a major player in the wireless industry. But with so many developers angling for the attention of so few carriers, how does one stand out? One way is through developer contests, which are often sponsored by or run by the carriers.

"It's given us a chance to show the world the work we're doing," said Brendan McBride, founder and executive director of Remas, a nonprofit organization developing an app that allows immigrants in the U.S. to more smartly send funds back to their home countries. The app won a contest run by AT&T. "Having won the prize has given us a degree of credibility that would have been difficult to achieve as a start-up organization."

While these contests open some doors, there are some limits. AT&T has been shying away from preloading applications, so that avenue is largely closed to developers. A lot of the success is still dependent on what the developers do after they win. Even with the clear lane, you're still the one who has to dunk that ball.

Each of the carriers has its own developer outreach program. Over subsequent editions of Inside Apps, I'll be looking at how they differ in bringing apps to the spotlight. But for today, I'll be focusing on AT&T and some recent contest winners.

When AT&T began its developer program roughly six years ago, it was more about generating awareness within the development community, and was largely focused on business-centric applications. From about 5,000 members over the first few years, the program has grown to include nearly 20,000 developers, according to Carlton Hill, vice president of consumer devices for AT&T.

Now, it's more about creating new kinds of content and services to offer to customers.

"By running our contests in categories, we can stimulate programs in certain areas," Hill said. "We can bring to the community or part of the economy an app for a need that hasn't been addressed."

Ajay Jain's Electrify app, which shows you how much energy (and money) you can save Ajay Jain

Summer project
Most kids spend their summer at camp or, in my case, lazily watching cartoons. But 13-year-old Ajay Jain has higher aspirations. Jain and his 15-year-old brother, Paras, have been working on an application for a recent contest started by AT&T that focuses on energy efficiency and the environment. (Their father entered the contest for them.)

The app, Electrify, is a tool that shows users just how much power they are using with traditional lightbulbs or an air conditioner, and how much they can save if switching to more efficient fluorescent lamps or using the fan. The results are practical and fun; they show how many Starbucks drinks, movies, and Xbox 360s you can purchase with the money saved.

"A lot of people think they can't make much of a difference," Jain said. "Electrify shows the impact they can make."

Jain isn't a stranger to these contests. Electrify won another AT&T-run contest earlier this year, and is tweaking and resubmitting it for the new contest. During the last competition, he showed off the app to a forum of judges and other developers in a fast-paced three-minute pitch. He answered questions about the technology used to develop it, and its future uses, and ultimately won the prize under the category of sustainability.

If he wins, he plans to use the resources from the latest contest--which carries a $20,000 prize--to add to the application, including tying it into smart-meter readings for a more accurate and timely assessment of power usage. He wants to be able to give the app the ability to look at how a whole city could reduce their power usage, and convert the savings into how many new policemen, firemen, or teachers you could hire. Ultimately, he wants to expand from his home town of Cupertino, Calif.

For Jain, winning the contest and getting the application out in the market isn't about turning a profit.

"The main thing isn't making money, it's me making a change," he said.


Higher profile
The increased visibility from winning a contest may be just as valuable as the monetary gains from the prizes. Winning a developer contest gives you a stamp of approval that you can take to investors or potential customers, and opens the door to new partnerships.

"We're helping these guys make the first big step," Hill said. "The ones who win usually have very successful apps."

New York-based McBride, who helped create the Remas app, said the contest win provided a huge morale boost to his team. It's less of an app and more a feature-phone-friendly version of a Web site that can connect immigrants with information on where the best rates are on money transfers, allowing them to more cost-efficiently send funds to their families in their home country. With exchange rates and fees constantly fluctuating, McBride saw a need to develop Remas, which also works as a full-fledged Web site and text-message-based service.

For now, the service only works for people sending money to Mexico, but McBride said he hopes to expand the app to cover other parts of the world.

Since winning, McBride said he began talking to One Economy, a nonprofit organization that uses technology to connect poor and underserved communities around the world and another sponsor of the contest. He said he hopes to tap into One Economy's resources and network.

"We now have a feel of approval," McBride said. "It's something that gives us credibility as we develop ideas, seek funding, and establish partnerships. That's a very powerful thing."

Another previous winner, Santa Clarita, Calif.-based DDX Media and its EdRover application, has gotten technical aid from AT&T. The app lets businesses pledge a certain amount of donations to local schools, which are paid out when people check in at their location.

DDX Media President Tania Mulry said the company is working to officially launch the app before the start of the school year, and hopes to also go back to AT&T for some marketing support.

"Holy grail" pretty unattainable
Last week, SpaceTime Studios CEO Gary Gattis called getting an app preloaded onto a phone "the holy grail," because it ensures a lot of first-time users will at least take a look. But that's become less of a possibility as carriers reduce the number of apps they push.

Hill said she didn't know if a contest winner was ever preloaded onto a phone, noting that AT&T has been moving away from preloading applications. Sprint Nextel product chief Fared Adib said last month that the carrier had also reduced what's commonly known as "bloatware" due to customer feedback.

A screenshot of the game Metropolis Logia Group

Despite winning the category for best game at the last developer contest, Metropolis, developed by Israel-based Logia Group, hasn't shown up as an AT&T-backed application. The game, which is like a real-life version of Monopoly using FourSquare as the tool to "purchase property" and charge other people virtual cash for rent when they check in, is available in Israel and Singapore.

Tamar Shachar, an executive with Logia, said AT&T showed some interest, but talks have stalled.

"Initially we had discussions about launching it, but it stopped," he said.

Shachar said the company built the app partly to develop closer ties with carriers around the world. Beyond AT&T, Logia is working with other carriers such as Verizon Wireless and Vodafone Group on other apps and games.

He praised the developer contest as a good way for AT&T to reach out to the development community.

"It's a good way for an operator to say, 'We're here for you developers. We're in this game and we're in the application world,'" Shachar said.