Cameron Oelsen was in high school when he started to build his own company.
The graphic communication freshman and a friend built RumbleApps in 2009. More recently, he built a single app called PaperHelper.
Traditionally, iPads don’t let users truly multitask. PaperHelper allows two windows to be open next to one another, allowing users to research and write on the same screen. Users can individualize the screens so the web browser becomes full screen, make the text editor window full screen or go back and forth.
“You can kind of say that we pulled off like a Windows 7 snap feel to it,” Oelsen said.
The idea was inspired by a paper Oelsen had to write early in high school and the frustration he felt having to go between programs, he said.
PaperHelper currently has approximately 300,000 users worldwide, having been downloaded from places spanning Australia to Boston, Oelsen said.
The development of apps seems to be exploding all over the world. According to Businessweek, Apple users spent $10 billion in the App Store in 2013.
The meaning of the word ‘app’
An app tends to be a mobile app, meaning it’s an application that’s running on a mobile device, computer science professor David Janzen said. However, because the word has been used to describe web-based applications and applications on a desktop or laptop, there has been confusion about the meaning, he said.
For Oelsen, an app is “something that makes your everyday tasks a lot easier,” he said.
Shea Brucker, business administration alumnus and CEO of HomeSlice, said the word “app” is a very generalized term. He categorizes apps as tools to solve problems and things that provide entertainment. He hopes that HomeSlice is a hybrid.
HomeSlice is an app that allows roommates to essentially create a private social network that is equipped with all the tools needed to stay on top of household supplies and chores. It began in a senior project class and was officially launched onto the App Store on Nov. 21, 2013. It was released on the Android market, the Google Play Store, Dec. 17, 2013.
The reasons students create apps
Janzen teaches an upper level Android course. He said he was “fortunate enough” to teach three sections of the class this year, meaning he has approximately 100 students making apps.
The course began in Winter 2010, he said, and a course for iOS apps came a couple years later.
Janzen said he wanted to start a course like this “because it’s cool.”
“Students love it because it’s an emerging platform and we knew there would be opportunity for students to do amazing things,” he said.
Though it is a lot of work, it is relatively fast to get an app up and published, as compared to other projects where someone might have to design psychical pieces then actually build them, Janzen said. The “big innovation” with apps is that they are easy to sell and distribute, he said. For example, if a student wanted to sell an app, they only have to put it into one market (the Apple App Store or GooglePlay) rather than trying to sell their product on Amazon and then getting it into Wal-Mart and Target, for example.
According to Brucker, college students are attracted to developing apps because of how cheap it is.
“I’ll tell you year to date, we’ve spent like $800 developing this app,” Brucker said. “And I’d say $100 was maybe paying an independent contractor to come in and help develop a certain piece of code.”
The rest went to marketing materials, Brucker said. Thanks to a Reddit post by partner Patrick Montejano, HomeSlice received 6,000 downloads in one night. Today, it has more than 10,000 downloads.
What it takes to be great
Of course, with so many apps on the market, it’s hard to get noticed, Janzen said.
Oelsen said coming up with an idea for an app is the hardest part because the app store is such a “diluted market.”
Therefore, there is another ingredient to make an app marketable.
“To build a great app, it takes collaboration, I think,” Janzen said. “It’s hard for a computer scientist or a software engineer to build a great app on their own, because many of them are not good enough graphic designers to really make it into a business. They don’t really have all the business skills they need like marketing and monetization strategies.”
Janzen said he would like to create “collaborative teams of computer scientists, software engineers, graphic designers and business folks and put them together in a class” for app development, especially to make businesses from the apps.
He knows of at least six apps that have gone on to create businesses.
Punchd came out of the very first course, Google acquired the company about a year-and-a-half later. Janzen’s own startup company, Papyrus, has had over 1 million downloads in Android. It was also just released for Windows phone and has about 200,000 so far.
App development, however, is not easy. All the developers in the classes are upper-level division students. It’s busy and time-consuming, Janzen said.
“People come and they think, ‘Oh this is easy, you should be able to finish it in a couple of weeks,’” Janzen said. “And it depends, but most of the time the app ideas are too complex and it takes more like nine months to a year.”
As for the future of app development, Janzen said there is still plenty of room to grow and mature. Also, more and more employers are asking for employees who can make apps, he said.
“Nobody can predict the future,” Janzen said. “But I think they are going to be around for quite a while.”
For the future of HomeSlice, Brucker sees it growing beyond a college roommate app and becoming a more expansive home management and operation software.
“I joke about it all the time but I’m actually kind of serious about,” he said. “I really it being the software that gets preinstalled on whatever device makes it onto your refrigerator door, at some point.”