NH News
7:00 am
Mon October 7, 2013

N.H. A Surprising Hotspot For Making Mobile Apps

Alfonso Fabrega co-founded the Happ-A-Thon, a 30-day challenge for New Hampshire app developers.
Alfonso Fabrega co-founded the Happ-A-Thon, a 30-day challenge for New Hampshire app developers.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

More than half of all Americans own a smartphone.  The explosion of this technology over the past few years has created a rapidly growing job sector in designing and developing smartphone apps.  This week, we launch our series "The Download on New Hampshire's App Economy." looking at how this industry is growing and changing in the state.  We begin with an introduction to the world of mobile app development.

Ok…quick! Stop what you’re doing! 

Really. 

What’s the temperature outside right now?  My guess is, you looked it up on your smartphone.  Mine says it’s 55 degrees in Concord.  And I know because, as Apple explained when the iPhone launched, "There’s an App for That."

All this info is in the palm of our hands because of something called an app.  That’s really just a general term for a piece of software that’s designed to do something specific.  It doesn’t really have to be on a phone or tablet computer.  But, that’s where the growth is.  And Luke Wroblewski would know.  He’s CEO of an app development company in Silicon Valley. 

“Like today, there’s 371,000 kids born per day?  There’s about 3.6 million mobile devices entering the planet," Wroblewski says.  "That’s an order of magnitude more mobile phones entering the planet per day than children.”

In the geek community, Wroblewski is best known for pushing his Mobile First philosophy.  When the iPhone first hit the market in 2007, companies just tried to reverse engineer their websites into mobile sites and apps.  A lot still do.  You’ve probably seen them—slow, clunky, cluttered, and difficult to navigate on a small screen.  At a 2010 conference in Seattle, Wroblewski argued that with the explosion of mobile, it’s worth it for companies to throw their effort—and their cash—into smartphone-friendly sites and apps.

“The mobile web growth is out-passing [sic] desktop growth by about eight times," Wroblewski said.  "And about a year and a half, maybe two years from now, smartphone sales are going to pass PC sales,”

Actually, it happened just a few months after Wroblewski’s talk. 

And that’s meant job growth in the app labor force.  "Software Developer, Applications" is a broad category tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Here in New Hampshire, about 4,800 workers.  The state actually ranks fifth in the country for the proportion of people working under the app development umbrella.  And that increasingly includes smartphone development.

"Like today, there’s 371,000 kids born per day? There’s about 3.6 million mobile devices entering the planet." --Luke Wroblewski

On a recent night in Portsmouth, a group of about 30 or so young techies gather in a big, funky, open workspace called “The Hive.”  There are some khakis and polo shirts popping out in the crowd.  But they’re far outnumbered by jeans and clever t-shirts. 

They’re all here for a…well…I’ll let event cofounder Alfonso Fabrega tell you.

“So I’m not sure if we can say this," he responds with a lighthearted hesitation.  "It’s the Make S*** Happ-a-Thon.”

The goal is to build an app in 30 days.  You can make apps for a phone one of two ways.  You use the coding languages for an iPhone or Android to customize it for that device.  Or, you can actually build it for the web and move it over to a phone, using more general coding languages.  Either way, there’s a lot to it.  It’s nothing for developers to take months—even a year—to create an app from scratch.  The Happ-a-Thon is a huge ask—create a working prototype in your free time, in a month.  The attendees circulate around the room, pitching their projects.  

Data: N.H. Employment Security
Data: N.H. Employment Security
Credit Sara Plourde, NHPR

For something so small, the obvious question is…what takes so long?  Depending on the project, coding can be really time-consuming.  And even though the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has a job category for Application Developers, it covers several positions with very different skill sets.*  So at the Happ-a-Thon, a lot of people are going in front of the group, pitching their ideas in the hope of enticing the right people to make a team.

“I’m a developer," one man announces.  "I’m looking for design, UX…everything.” 

Designers, developers, pizza and PBR: Everything you need for a successful Happ-a-Thon.
Designers, developers, pizza and PBR: Everything you need for a successful Happ-a-Thon.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

In tech circles, a developer does the coding, and makes sure the stuff you can’t see—like security and networking—runs smoothly.  A designer figures out how to make the app look good on a small screen.  And then there’s the user experience--or "UX"--designer.  That person’s job is to get inside the head of a regular person, to make sure the app design is intuitive and easy-to-use.  Very few people can do all three jobs. 

But here in New Hampshire, Fabrega says the growing app development workforce just isn’t turning out a lot of big name, buzzy apps.

“I see a lot of Meet-ups and gatherings, especially of developers.  There’s a lot of activity.  The actual output, um…" Fabrega stops.  There's a long pause before he continues, putting it as delicately as he can.  

"I’m not seeing as much.  I think it’s a percentage thing, you know?  I see stuff happening in Boston.  I think we’re getting there.  I think we’re on the cusp. I think that…very soon, we’re going to see it.  What you’re seeing right now is the energy before.”

When the Happ-a-Thon wrapped-up, there were a small handful of working—or semi-working—prototypes.  The winners took home low-tech trophies: Gold-sprayed Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, nailed to a piece of wood. 

That same push for expanding mobile is also happening in Manchester.  Recently at the abi Innovation Hub in downtown Manchester, app entrepreneur and designer Steve Street gave a presentation about the Mobile First philosophy.  

"This is a couple million devices every day--mobile devices--being activated, being turned on.  That's a tremendous number," Street said, before moving on to the next set to stats.

But unlike the group in Portsmouth, the crowd in Manchester is more traditional.  Blazers and buttoned-down shirts rule here.  And it’s not just the techies you’d expect in Manchester.  With the increasing demand for mobile, application development has bled into some surprising arenas already.  Loren Foxx is Account Director at Wedu in Manchester.  The company does marketing and public relations.  And app development has become a big part of its work.

“It was one of those things that the last couple years, it’s picked up, definitely," Foxx says.  "It’s something that clients now know to ask for, either by name or they’ve seen it, and they want it.  I want that little icon on my phone that somebody’s just going to be able to download and get to it and get my app immediately.”

It can easily cost companies $50,000 to  $100,000 to commission a mobile app. 

And they don’t necessarily pay off. 

Google’s survey of American smartphone owners found that on average, nearly three-quarters of apps downloaded were free. 

Tomorrow, we take a closer look at the challenges and rewards of being a mobile app entrepreneur in the Granite State. 

*The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups occupations under categories based on required tasks. Since there is heavy task overlap in computer fields, some positions may actually be counted in other related categories or subcategories.  The people who work in app development, however, tend to recognize developer, designer, and UX designer as the three primary occupations in their field.