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The iPhone moves from the quad to the classroom

College courses teaching how to make and market applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch are on the rise.

Most college professors will tell students to put away their iPhone or iPod once class starts. But not Ken Joy. His class requires them.

Professor Joy teaches ECS 198H, Introduction To iPhone Application Development, to undergraduates at the University of California at Davis. On the first day of class in late September UC Davis became one of a growing number of schools that are tailoring classes and focusing academic resources on the making and selling of applications for Apple's popular mobile platform.

A professor for almost 30 years, Joy has mainly researched computer graphics and visualizations, until he and a former grad student came up with the idea to offer a class that teaches to the iPhone SDK (software development kit). Joy didn't have much experience in mobile platforms, but he was game for teaching something "relevant" that would keep his students motivated.

"Nothing is more relevant than the iPhone or iPod Touch right now," Joy said in an interview this week.

UC Davis iPhone app
One of the apps developed in Professor Joy's first iPhone app making class. Sunny Dhillon and Fei Li

He's not the first to teach this class to undergrads. Stanford University has offered the class for a year, as have Florida's Stetson University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

But while those schools have taken advantage of Apple's iPhone Developer University Program--which provides free access to the SDK, Apple hardware, and Apple employees as teachers--Joy's course is a bit more of a grassroots effort.

ECS 198H wasn't approved as a university course until 10 days before the fall quarter started in September--in other words, students already had their class schedules set. But less than four hours after Joy placed it in the registration guide, the class was filled to its 35-student capacity, with another 40 people staking out wait-list spots.

"I saw the e-mail (about the class) and I thought, 'Oh gosh.' I jumped right on my computer and signed up for the class as soon as I saw it," said Kip Nicol, 22, a computer science and engineering major. "It was a pretty hot class."

Jules Houts, 21, also studying computer science and engineering, jumped at what looked like a "fun" class, he said. "It seemed better than operating systems or something like that."

Besides room on their schedules, students also had to provide their own iPhone, iPod Touch, or Mac that can run the SDK, thanks to the UC system's well-publicized budget problems.

"We had no choice; students had to find resources themselves," said Joy.

And they did. So did several faculty and university employees who chose to audit the class, or sit in without getting a grade, illustrating much of what we already know: the App Store is popular. Apple's online marketplace for iPhone and iPod Touch programs has been bombarded with submissions from developers in the year and a half it's been open for business. There are more than 100,000 applications currently for sale and 8,500 new and updated programs submitted every day. And its competitors want a piece too: Research In Motion, Google's Android, Palm, Nokia, and Microsoft's Windows Mobile have followed suit, opening up application marketplaces, though none has university professors teaching courses about them. Or at least not yet.

Granted, squeezing the entire learning and development process into a 10-week academic quarter was a challenge. The first five weeks were spent learning the SDK, some Objective C programming language, and making simple apps like an RSS reader, while the last five weeks they split into two-person teams building their apps.

Joy said he is impressed with what his newbie iPhone developers came up with: an app for properly tuning a piano, one for tracking location of the GPS-equipped UC Davis student-run bus system, and one application for all UC Davis students, including information about student groups, maps of the campus, class locations, to name a few. That one will be in the App Store next quarter, Joy is already predicting.

The class was deemed a success, but it's unclear if it'll be back on the schedule come next fall. "We hope to offer it next year, but with the budget problems of the University of California system, no one quite knows what's going to happen."

Either way, Joy says teaching to the SDK is one of the most hands-on real-world classes he's ever taught to undergrads.

"We got to develop some apps for the real world. Students got to see a really good SDK...This is something we normally don't get in a university," Joy said. Most classes "tend to solve limited problems and don't really deal with real world that much. These that do, trying to develop bigger applications, get the students closer to the experience of industry. Which is very good."

"It was one of the funnest classes I've taken because it was project-oriented, and it created a community of developers," said Houts, who created the piano-tuning application.

But besides teaching the programming language to build iPhone apps, Joy's class also included business how-tos for those who may want to create their own iPhone app developer companies.

Some students, like Houts, are already thinking that way. As a member of UC Davis' lacrosse team, he plans on making an iPhone game based on his sport, a market he believes has some good potential.

"There's nothing except for a lacrosse stats (app) on the App Store. I want to make a little lacrosse game, and be the first to get on that market. There's a new lacrosse Xbox game that just came out, so it's still a new market right now."

If all goes well, Houts said he could see himself starting an iPhone app-making business. "I think I'll submit the first couple apps under my name, and if they're successful then I might start something."