When he is at home, Raghav Sood spends most of his time with his Apple Mac laptop and the half-dozen smartphones, including a Google Nexus, he possesses. But, unlike most kids his age, this 15-year-old does not merely play online games. The Class 10 Delhi student also makes mobile applications, or apps, for BlackBerry and Google's Android-based devices. How did he get hooked on app development? His father, Atul Sood, is a senior executive with tech giant IBM, but Raghav insists that was far from being the trigger. "It has nothing to do with my father," he says. "I am completely self-made."
Raghav began learning computer programming when he was nine years old. He first designed a few websites and desktop applications
. He started making mobile apps in February 2011 after he got his first Android smartphone, an LG Optimus Plus, as a gift from his father.
It took him a week to develop his first app, a simple tic-tac-toe game called Knots & Crosses. Since then he has developed more than a dozen of them, including one that tests a person's reflexes. He has also set up a company called Appaholics to make apps and written a book on Android apps for a US publisher.
His efforts have been earning him some pocket money, too - about Rs 4,000 a month. Around 1,745 km away in Bangalore, another schoolboy, Rahul Dominic, not only makes apps but also has a couple of companies as his clients, which pay him between Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000 per app. Rahul, also 15, first discusses the proposed apps with his father, who works with software giant Tata Consultancy Services. He has developed more than 50 apps for Android and Windows phones. What are they all about? One of them, Network Share, enables mobile devices which use different operating systems to share information over the Net. Another is called Duco Paint and is used to create colourful graphics. What excites him about his new-found hobby? "The most interesting part about apps is that you can build something which no one else has done," he says.
There seems to be no minimum age limit to qualify as an app developer
. Raghav and Rahul are part of a new generation of school- and college-going youngsters in India making apps for mobiles and tablets. There is no estimate for the number of such developers, but the trend is catching on. "There are definitely a large number of student developers, or what we call hobbyist developers in the country," says Joseph Landes, General Manager, Microsoft India, whose job responsibilities include helping developers make Windows apps. The opportunity is huge.
There are more than 700 million smartphone and 150 million tablet users globally, according to technology research firm IDC. In 2012, the size of the global app market was about $25 billion to $30 billion, according to estimates by various research firms, and is likely to grow 20 to 30 per cent annually in the next few years. "App development is a faster-growing business than any other tech phenomenon," says Vikas Saxena, CEO of mobile instant messaging company Nimbuzz.
Until a decade ago, an 'application' meant a software programme created by companies such as Microsoft for other companies to run their businesses better. But the explosion in the number of mobile devices has opened up a vast market for consumer apps that individual developers are tapping into. These apps do not require large physical infrastructure to develop. Many can be made at home on a personal computer. What has made developers' job still easier is the availability of free app platforms such as Android, and access to resources such as online storage space for as little as $10 (Rs 550) a month. "You even get online help without moving an inch from your seat," says Raghav. Analysts agree. "There are no entry and exit barriers today to becoming an application developer," says Sanchit Vir Gogia, Principal Analyst at IDC. It is not even necessary to know coding, or any programming language, to become a developer. "With software like Orangescape you just need to visualise how an app should look like and write a flow chart accordingly," says Gogia. The software figures out the backend and codes automatically.
Rahul Dominique, 15, is already making apps for companies. He has made more than 50 so far Photo: Nilotpal Baruah
A key reason for the boom in the number of young app developers is the support they get from technology companies such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Intel and Nimbuzz. These companies organise app fests or developers' meetings to engage with students. Many allow developers to use their app platforms for free. Nimbuzz even permits students to train at its facility in Gurgaon.
Bangalore's Vincent Anup Kuri, 19, and Ranchi's Kasturi Shrivastava, 21, are among those who have benefited from such app fests. Vincent won Rs 30,000 in an app fest organised by his engineering college for an Android app that was similar to Apple's voice recognition tool Siri for iPhones. He also took part in an app contest organised by Yahoo, where he made an app called Book Hustler, which can be used to buy and sell books. Vincent, who earns as much as Rs 25,000 a month from apps, is now focusing on developing gaming and education apps for Windows and Android. These will be free to download, he says, but users will have to pay to access more features.
Kasturi, a computer engineering student at Chennai's Vellore Institute of Technology, represented her college at a Microsoft app fest in Bangalore about a year ago. This included a contest which required its more than 4,000 participants to develop an app within 24 hours. She produced one called Danceomania, a compilation of many dance forms with their specifications. That, in turn, led to her selection as an intern at Microsoft's App Excellence Labs in Hyderabad. She is now a Microsoft Student Partner, part of a global initiative in which the students chosen spread awareness about new technologies such as app development. Kasturi, who has also developed a quiz app called Predict Your Baby, says the apps she is working on now will be more interactive.
To be sure, many a time, there is not much money in app development. Kasturi says she initially priced her dance app at Rs 70 on the Windows app store. At that price it got just two downloads a week. "The moment I made it free on the store, it got 300 downloads in a single day," she says. It is important to market the app on social networking sites such as Facebook, get people to review it and talk about it. "Only then can you monetize it," she adds.
Anshul Gupta, Principal Analyst at global technology research firm Gartner, agrees. "Making money is very, very tough," he says. Which are the apps that do? "One has to see if the app addresses one of the pain areas of the consumer," he adds.
That is exactly what Bangalore engineering student Ahmed Shahib did. Ahmed, 20, made an app to help his sister prepare for Spelling Bee, a national spelling contest. He put together a list of words, along with their meanings, synonyms and antonyms, in a readily accessible form, so she could go through them any time. He has also made a multi-language chat app for Windows Phone that automatically converts messages to the user's preferred language.
Perhaps the most useful of Ahmed's apps is Search Skill, a GPS location-based app that helps users find carpenters, plumbers or even maids for household work. "My job is to make cool apps," says Ahmed, whose first app was an Android-based music app in 2009 which could play drums. "But you need to have very good ideas. Otherwise, it's not worth it."
Kasturi Shrivastava's 'Danceomania' app, presented at a contest, saw her chosen as an intern at Microsoft's App Excellence Labs Photo: G. Keshav Raj
No doubt making money from apps is still a problem, but there is more support now than ever before for young developers. For once, investors have started looking at the new-age business. A Venture Intelligence report suggests that mobile app development is one of the most favoured sectors for private-equity and venture-capital investors. "India is beginning to have an early-stage funding ecosystem, which will boost entrepreneurship," says Google India Managing Director Rajan Anandan. "The West has seen a lot of successful entrepreneurs at a really early age. This will soon happen in India too."