In 2013, for the first time in history, smartphone sales were greater than basic cell phone sales.
This may seem obvious—or even surprising that it didn't happen earlier—that more people are buying fancy smartphones than old, clunky flip or home phones. But many people, especially in older generations and in more rural settings, rely on home phones, not wanting to switch to some gadget. They can make calls, receive calls, and access voicemail and called ID. And basic cells send and receive texts (and might even have an ancient version of Snake or Tic-Tac-Toe). What more could they want?
Suddenly in 2008, cell phones became entertainment devices, dating devices, communicate-across-the-world-for-free devices, ever-changing the tide against home phones. Close to 1 billion smartphones were sold in 2013.
As of October 2013, there are approximately 1 million apps in the iPhone app store (up from a mere 800 in 2008) and nearly 1.2 million apps on the Android market. Breakout apps like Whatsapp have sold for record-breaking amounts, while breakout mobile games like Flappy Bird are creating international superstars out of a silly pixelated side-scroller.
Mobile apps are now a massive industry, with entire education streams dedicated to app development. With 1 million apps come countless jobs, but what do you need to break into this new, ever-changing field?
"More than anything, mobile products need to be simple," says Ted Livingston, founder and CEO of Kik Interactive. "To succeed, you and your team will need to iterate on your product over and over again until you arrive at the simplest possible solution. This takes a lot of talent, but even more perseverance."
Kik is one of Canada's most successful apps. It allows users to chat to one another on many different mobile platforms, sending multimedia no matter the distance or country. The app now has over 100 million users worldwide, (myself included).
The app began at the University of Waterloo with a small group of students, including Livingston. They began with a different app, Unsynced, which allowed users to have music on Blackberry and PC, sharing with friends through BBM.
"When we were working on Unsynced, the iPhone started gaining popularity and we realized that the messaging functionality needed to be cross-platform for it to succeed," says Livingston. "That idea had a lot of appeal, so we started working on Kik Messenger. We released the app as a beta in early 2010 and fully launched in late 2010. Within a few weeks, we had over 2 million users and realized that Kik Messenger really resonated in the market."
Like many app developers, Livingston didn't specifically study app development in school, but rather mechatronics, (a combination of mechanical, electrical, telecommunications, control, and computer engineering). Like many of the designers in our careers in video games article in February, many developers take on app creation as a side project, feeling the need to create something in this technical space.
"You can learn a lot from other people who have done similar things in the past," he says. "For example, there are a lot of amazing books with stories of companies that succeeded, people who have created new markets, and leaders who have a lot of experience and insights to share. Hearing other people's stories lets you pick and choose the things that are helpful and relevant to you and apply them right away with your product or your team."
Designing a home run app doesn't come without its share of challenges to balance the successes. "We've had a lot of major turning points at Kik, where something has happened that was out of our control and we had to respond really quickly," says Livingston. "Every time that's happened to us, it's led to the creation of an even better approach and an even better product."
But he says there isn't something that is more problematic or difficult to deal with, but that the entire process is challenging.
"In general, building something from nothing is hard. That's why the team is so incredibly important. You're going to be working side-by-side with your team for a really long time, under some pretty intense circumstances. I'm really lucky to be able to work with people that I can learn from, people I trust implicitly, and people who are willing to debate with me about how we approach our work. That's really important to Kik's success."
On the other side of mobile development is less function and more fun. Mobile game development is the new way for indie designers to get noticed and make a big stamp in the industry, creating their own full careers.
"I've always been interested in games, since I was very young," says Tom Frencel, CEO and founder of Little Guy Games, an independent game studio out of Toronto. "I wondered how computer graphics were made and was always interested in it."
Frencel's path is much like other designers. He went to school for computer science and wanted to games after graduating. After a long stint as a database programmer, he started working on games, first at Capybara Games, and eventually starting Little Guy Games with his business partner Bill Kouretsos.
"I'd been in the industry for 14 years when we decided to found it", he says. "Me and some partners said 'we've been in the industry a while and we'd like to try our hand at our own studio' and that was the genesis of it." He says the group were looking at successful marketplaces and identified mid-core games for mobile and tablet as a launching point.
"We'd been doing this a long time so we had a ton of ideas," says Disbrow. "We barfed all our ideas up onto a whiteboard. We looked at it with a variety of factors and asked 'What's a good fit for the platform?' It's a touch platform, it's portable, and there's a different play session length. There are a variety of factors associated with every platform."
There's a different mentality to creating games on a mobile platform than either creating games for consoles or creating mobile apps.
"I found myself playing mobile games both as a consumer that consumes them in bite-size form, meaning I would only play for minutes at a time when I'm waiting in line for something," says Frencel, "but I also play mobile games at home when I do have some free time and I can almost play them as I would otherwise play a PC game."
This shows that mobile games have to be more accessible and appeal to a wider audience so they can be experienced in a number of ways. To do this, there are plenty of steps a designer has to go through to develop a successful mobile game.
"The very first stage is the conceptualization stage," says Frencel. "This involves learning more about the ideas you have discovering the essence of your idea. It can be a pretty grueling process because typically ideas, when they're prototyped, don't quite work as well as they work in your head."
If you've found something worth pursuing, you go into the production phase, where you can scale your team up a bit, he says. "You can start planning the other aspects of your game, content-wise, whether it's going to be a game that tells a story or a game that's level-based. You basically start planning all the other elements of your game that are on the periphery of the core idea."
Following that comes a long period of actually developing the game, designing every element. To keep up, Disbrow says you need a variety of skills, including communication, self-motivation, a constant desire to learn, and a willingness to work hard.
He relates the constant work with the Pony Express, a Wild-West-esque mail service from 1860 that only hired orphans. "They were going to work you to death and didn't have to worry about your family," he says. "For a while that was the video game industry. You get in there, the studios take advantage of the youthful exuberance and excitement, and then work you to death."
Luckily, with the ability to work in small studios, on your own, in modern environments, the mobile game scene has flipped that 180 degrees. Although you still need to work hard, you'll still be standing when the game is done.
So, what does it take to jump into mobile app development?
"Immerse yourself in that world," advises Frencel. "If you want to tell stories, create games, and be a designer—which I find a lot of people aspire to be'immerse yourself in the worlds of art, literature, film, music, and games." He mentions that successful games often reference other forms of art and culture, so don't keep your focus narrow on just apps and games.
"Work for somebody else first. Get some experience with the mobile developer," adds Disbrow. "Get some experience on somebody else's dollar." He believes networking is extremely important, so meeting other developers can only benefit your process. Festivals and other events are great ways to get out there. If you get noticed, you get a whole bunch of free press.
This isn't an easy industry, since there's so much competition in the app store. Think about standing out and creating something that you want or need. And take a risk, because sometimes it'll pay off.
"At Kik," says Livingston, "we've learned that it's better to just launch something and then work like crazy to overcome all the challenges than to never launch something at all."