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Customers look over the Apple iPhone 3GS at the company's retail store in San Francisco, California. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Customers look over the Apple iPhone 3GS at the company's retail store in San Francisco, California. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

The age of the app Add to ...

As a young programmer just out of grad school in France, Fabien Sanglard dreamed of building a computer graphic that could produce a realistic illusion of a liquid-filled screen. But the hardware required wasn't yet readily available, and he set the task aside. Sanglard eventually settled in Toronto and took a gig writing code for Rogers Communications. But in 2008, after Apple unleashed the iPhone and the accompanying development software that allows programmers to create applications for the device, he quickly realized the solution to his problem was at hand.

It only took a few weeks for Sanglard to create Fluid, a program that allows a user to make the iPhone screen ripple and glisten with the stroke of a finger. After passing muster with Apple's vetting teams, Fluid debuted in Apple's App Store on May 9, 2009. Thirty thousand people downloaded it on day one; within two weeks, the tally had reached one million, making it the No. 1 app worldwide that month.

Sanglard had hit a mobile gusher. Though Fluid is free, he promptly released an updated version that sells for 99 cents. Under Apple's profit-sharing model, the company gives developers 70% of an app's revenues. A few months later, with 6,000 downloads a month, Sanglard, 31, realized he was earning more from Fluid than he did as a full-time programmer at Rogers.

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Welcome to the Wild West world of the app-those stamp-sized software applications that iPhone owners download at a voracious pace. With 150,000 apps now available through iTunes (up from only 10,000 a year ago), Apple has deftly ignited an entirely new market. It's easy and inexpensive for entrepreneurial developers to create apps that run the gamut from the utterly inane and gimmicky to the relentlessly practical. Some of them go further, providing novel ways for companies to connect with increasingly transient consumers.

There's no question that Apple dominates this space. But in the past year, Nokia, Samsung and Research In Motion have all rushed into the app business because, as Mark Beccue, a consumer mobility analyst for ABI Research, says, most consumers "now know they can do much more than just phone and text. Everyone with a smartphone is thinking, 'I can do something else.'" Google, for its part, has further upped the ante, introducing its own smartphone platform, Android, which leverages the search giant's fast-growing inventory of apps as well as its proficiency with online advertising. And in March, Sony announced it would launch a smartphone that will allow users access to the company's vast inventory of games.

According to the tech industry research firm Gartner Inc., smartphone owners will download 4.5 billion apps in 2010, up from a trickle two years ago. This virtual market is worth almost $7 billion (all currency in U.S. dollars), and will balloon to nearly $30 billion by 2013.

With that kind of traffic, product marketers can no longer ignore the mobile consumer, any more than they can avoid the conventional Web. Indeed, as established corporate brands begin to make forays into this frenzied environment, a key question looms: Will the app universe continue to be dominated by digital ephemera, or will it become an important new commercial frontier? Given the worldwide proliferation of creative energy spawned by the iPhone, it seems it is only a matter of time until the next Jeff Bezos happens upon a disruptive, game-changing app that will do for the frenzied world of mobile computing what eBay, Amazon and Google did for the Internet in the last decade-that is, change everything.

For anyone who owns an iPhone-or its phone-free sister, the iPod Touch-procuring an app is an absolutely fuss-free transaction, steeped in the intuitive simplicity for which Apple is renowned. You can log on to the App Store from the iPhone using a 3G data connection or WiFi, or download the app to your desktop computer, which will automatically transfer it to your handset the next time you connect.

The inventory is heavy on novelties and games, as well as media sites, navigation tools, price aggregators, personal finance trackers, religious offerings ("iTalk to God" is enormously popular) and even adult-rated apps (although Apple banned the more explicit ones in February, a move that aroused some controversy). Prices range from 99 cents to $8.99 or more, but there are a growing number of freebies every day, created by companies looking to extend their brands into this new universe (Tim Burton's latest film, Alice in Wonderland, has its own app). Apple's clever slogan-"There's an app for that"-is essentially an open invitation for consumers to shop constantly in what has become a digital dollar superstore, teeming with impulse buys.

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