In his senior year at Bowdoin College in Maine, Ben Johnson led the development of an iPhone application called Free Time – a shareable calendar that reveals blocks of availability amid hectic schedules. He knew he was onto something when feedback quickly poured in from halfway around the world.
"Getting a complaint from someone in Qatar that their weekend starts on Thursday, and we coded it to be Saturday and Sunday, is a pretty eye-opening complaint," Mr. Johnson, now 23, says.
Since its debut in May 2011, the app has been downloaded more than 200,000 times. Johnson's work earned the attention of Raizlabs, a Boston-based mobile software company, which offered the curly-haired Mississippian a job before he'd even walked the stage at commencement.
It's an impressive feat considering 53.6 percent of college graduates with bachelor's degrees under the age of 25 in 2011 were under- or unemployed, according to an April 2012 analysis by The Associated Press.
The mobile app industry is a rare bright spot amid an otherwise gloomy economy. The development of apps – specialized programs that run on a smart phone or other device – has created more than 520,000 US jobs over the industry's first five years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Entrepreneurial in spirit, social in execution, and global in reach, the industry is expected to experience job growth of 28 percent – twice as much as the projected average growth for all areas – between 2010 and 2020. The pay isn't bad, either. In May 2011, the median annual wage of applications developers was $92,080, according to the BLS.
"This industry, which literally did not exist five years ago, is exploding," says Jake Ward, cofounder of the Application Developers Alliance, a Washington-based industry association.
Most of the jobs are centered in the traditional tech powerhouses of California and Washington State – the homes of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. But the app economy has also taken root in unexpected locales like Georgia and southwest Virginia.
The app boom is impressive, but is it enough to put America back to work? Andrew McAfee, associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, isn't so sure.
"This idea of the app entrepreneur and this huge crowd of people making a ton of money off of apps – we need to be careful about that," Mr. McAfee cautions.
Tech companies are extremely productive, McAfee says, which means they don't need as many employees per dollar of revenue. What's more, some of the jobs advertised in the app industry are filled by programmers transitioning from older, obsolete software companies, he adds.
Some compare the infant industry to the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. Wide-eyed entrepreneurs quit their day jobs with false hopes of making millions off a single app.
The risks didn't deter Johnson's boss at Raizlabs, Greg Raiz. He left a job at Microsoft to start the company as a one-man operation in 2003, growing it to four or five people by 2006. When the iPhone debuted in 2007, Mr. Raiz sensed opportunity and shifted the company's focus to mobile.
As his company's 10th anniversary approaches, Raiz holds tight his original desire to make technology "more than just functional." "It should get done what it needs to get done," he says, "but it should be an enjoyable experience as well."