Sonoma County app developers search for gold

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Got a great idea for a mobile phone app? Join the party.

Sonoma County developers have released applications for gamers, wine lovers, amateur photographers, conference attendees and those who don't want to answer a text or call while driving.

The success of such efforts varies, and some developers admit they're still refining their products or moving on to new challenges. They all voice a passion for their endeavors, even while acknowledging the long odds in creating a blockbuster.

"Chances are, if you have a great idea, it's been done," said Michael Hourigan, a longtime computer programmer from Petaluma who has released three of his own apps for gaming and for observing online search trends.

Last month Hourigan and his 15-year-old daughter Lily won the Best of Show prize at an app development camp in Mountain View attended by 500 people.

Their app, which they conceived and created at the camp during a long weekend, was a game named Stingsong, where the gamer uses his or her voice to control the movement of a "bee" visiting flowers. They now are exploring the possible public release of the app, he said.

The mobile app market will grow this year to $27 billion, according to ABI Research. The majority of that revenue is tied to phone apps, but analysts project that revenue linked to the growing tablet sector will move to the forefront by 2017.

One of the county's larger app developers is Santa Rosa's ATIV Software. The 11-worker company publishes EventPilot, which conference goers use for checking session times, planning their schedules and gaining offline access to a seemingly endless amount of technical papers and presentation slides. The app, featured in a 2011 New York Times article, is free to users, but medical and scientific organizations pay ATIV to customize its content for their conferences.

Such professional gatherings easily may feature more than 5,000 sessions, said ATIV co-founder and CEO Silke Fleischer. Going digital saves conference goers from packing around reams of papers, but the customized apps "have to be so good that they can handle this amount of data."

ATIV this spring released a second app, EventPilot Journal Edition, which allows journal subscribers to search through multiple volumes and download selected articles to peruse offline, such as while traveling by airplane. "That's often when you have the time to read articles," Fleischer said.

The company doesn't release sales data, but Fleischer insists that business is growing.

Even so, the county's app sector could best be described as fledgling, especially compared to the greater Bay Area, said Bill Langley, moderator for the North Bay App Developers Group.

The group, whose online presence began in December, has 40 members, 10 of whom signed up within the last month. Langley is trying to arrange the group's first gathering since he stepped into his role a few months ago.

In January, Apple announced that its iTunes store contained more than 800,000 apps, up from 50,000 in 2009. That growth helps explain why app developing isn't for the faint of heart, Langley said.

"It's much more difficult to get front and center than it was just four years ago," he said.

A former programmer for Flash-related video and music content, Langley released a free Android wine app last fall. It's called Yno Wizard, and one of its uses is to help wine drinkers know whether a particular bottle is selling at a store for a good price. The user can scan the bottle's bar code and find online prices of the same vintage — or even purchase the wine online.

Langley is working to release the app for the iPhone. But his bigger challenge, a common one for developers, remains finding a way to make money, or to "monetize" the product. In order to better understand the wine industry, he has taken a part-time job at Chateau St. Jean near Kenwood. One thing he's concluded is that the wine consumer isn't going to pay for the app.

Free is a distinct trend for apps, said Pascal Honscher, general manager for corporate development at O'Reilly Media in Sebastopol.

Some games and other apps are valuable enough to consumers to command a price. But Honscher said it's more common for the app to be "an extension of a brand/service rather than a standalone business opportunity."

Even those who can't write computer programs have succeeded in turning their ideas into apps.

Among them is Marla Ghiringhelli of Petaluma, who last fall released the Android app Safe Text Sender. The app, featured on the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch blog, automatically responds to calls or texts so users don't feel compelled to pick up their phones while driving.

Ghiringhelli, who sells promotional marketing products to companies, said she got the idea because she found it dangerous that so many people are using their phones while driving.

She paid $16,000 to a Utah company to build the app, which sells for 99 cents. She acknowledged she has not made back her investment, but she said it still will be worth it if the program keeps some people from using the phone while driving.

"I have absolutely no regrets," Ghiringhelli said. "I had a vision, an idea, and I actually did something with it."

Gabriel Fowler of Occidental also isn't a programmer, but he worked with two partners from Serbia to devise the iPhone app, Doubleshot Photo. The $1.99 app allows amateur photographers to easily combine two photos into one.

Fowler, a chauffeur for a limousine company, is now seeking to develop an app where users look at people's anonymous portraits and earn points for how well they can guess details about the subject, possibly including age, annual income and political orientation. Those who submit the photos could receive feedback on what the masses say about them.

"People are sort of very interested in how other people see them," Fowler said. "It goes to our insecurities."

However, first he needs to find a technical partner who can build the prototype.

Also in the development stage is Joe Henderson, owner/broker of Heritage Realty in Windsor. His proposal, Hot Shotz, a mobile dating application, seeks to combine geolocation with information on potential mates.

Imagine being in a bar, Henderson said, and being able to learn from the app, "Hey, Kelly matches you at 90 percent (compatibility) and she's here." Users could choose whether to meet, as well as how much information to reveal on the app to others.

Henderson said he developed an earlier version of Hot Shotz but didn't release it once he got key user feedback on how to improve it. Now he is seeking enough new financing to allow another round of development.

With new technology, Facebook already has shown new ways to bring together people who know one another, Henderson said. He suggested that the mix of geolocation and social network capabilities now allows the opportunity to "bring folks together who don't know one another."

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