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One billion iPhone apps downloaded. But how many are worth it?

As the marketplace for iPhone applications grows more crowded, young and innovative software developers struggle to make their apps stand out.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2009

The company logo is seen against the Apple store structure in New York City.


San Francisco

Apple is on the verge of its billionth iPhone application download. That means that loads of iPhone users are eagerly turning their pricey smartphones into virtual fishing rods, sheets of bubble wrap, and gimmicky noisemakers.

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Applications such as Flick Fishing, BubbleWrap (yes, you can actually pop bubbles with your fingers on the phone), and flatulence games have helped push Apple’s App Store to the brink of the billion-mark in just nine months.

While many iPhone users are apt to download the puerile, even tawdry, the iPhone and Apple’s App Store have indeed sparked a technology revolution – changing how consumers interact with computers and putting software development tools in the hands of novices – that is spurring a new economy built around a 4.7-ounce piece of plastic and glass.

They're also helping keep Apple's profits higher than expected. The company reported Wednesday that profits jumped 15 percent in its second quarter to $1.21 billion largely because of the sale of 3.79 million iPhones – a 123 percent bump from sales in the same period last year.

Suddenly, everyone from the biggest corporation to the tiniest firm, from experienced software engineers to people who have never coded a computer program in their lives, is fixated on a phone. They might want to hawk a product, promote themselves, or just design something cool. While their aims can be vastly different, they are striving for the same goal: making their app stand out amid the 25,000-plus applications now available for the iPhone.

“Over the past year, there have been a lot of developers, a lot of apps, and, frankly, a lot of junk,” says Dom Sagolla, a software developer who helped start iPhoneDevCamp, a gathering of iPhone developers that began soon after the first iPhone launched in 2007.

That was long before the opening of the App Store, which hosts third-party software for the iPhone, and before Apple was offering software development kits to programmers to build applications for its phones. Since Apple opened the store through iTunes in July 2008, it’s been a mad rush to get apps onto the store.

“The numbers kind of blow my mind,” says Mr. Sagolla, who is planning the third iPhoneDevCamp in August in San Francisco.

The most popular iPhone applications have been downloaded sometimes at a rate of 10,000 times a day. And at an average rate of 99 cents per download, Apple is generating serious money. It takes a 30 percent cut from what the App earns and the rest goes to the developer.

A high-tech gold rush

Some developers have struck it rich. The best-known of them is probably Ethan Nicholas, who developed the game called iShoot in his spare time and made more than $800,000.