When it comes to making iPhone apps, if you snooze, you lose
Last October I had what I thought was a killer idea for an iPhone app. I know, I know, who hasn’t? But this was (I thought) a better idea than another Suduko puzzle or restaurant tip calculator, it was actually a fairly unique idea. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I am an animator, and while I can muddle my way through basic PHP and Flash’s Actionscript, and write some After Effects and Maya expressions, I am HARDLY a programmer. So I put out a vague call to my readers looking for help in making an iPhone app.
Since I felt it was an idea with some potential, I didn’t want to broadcast all the specifics of the idea. I described the programming requirements thusly:
“The app in question would rely heavily on accessing information from a website and then plotting that information on a Google Maps display based on the iPhone’s current location (GPS) or Zip code (sort of like a restaurant or movie finder app, but slightly more involved)… at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I feel my app could potentially save lives.”
The responses I got ranged from “I’ll help for $10,000″ to “Sorry Doc, ideas are a dime a dozen”.
So I picked up a “beginning iPhone Programming” book, but quickly realized it wasn’t going to be enough for my needs. I decided to ask around the developer-sphere for help, starting with Erica Sadun (hey, why not start at the top?). I don’t think I actually even got as far as outlining the idea to her, as she pretty much immediately told me she was sorry, but she was too busy to take on extra projects. So since I knew my app needed to access map data, I asked a friend of mine who has a map-based app out for the iPhone and who I know knows his stuff. Unfortunately he too was too busy with his own app to devote any kind of time to it, as were another 4 or 5 programmers I spoke to.
Probably the biggest hurdle in my development process was that I wanted to give the app away for free, or for a very low cost. Everyone I spoke to liked my idea, and some even came up with some ideas to help make it better, but as we know, time is money, and apparently good iPhone developers don’t have enough of either.
“My” app gets made
Well, long story short (too late) here we are about 10-11 months later, and “my” app just hit the app store, and has been hovering around the 8-10 most downloaded PAID apps in the app store. The problem is, I never made it.
It is an app called “Offender Locator” by a company called ThinAirWireless, which takes your current location, and tells you how far you are from the nearest sex offender. The app is not nearly as nice-looking or full featured (or as catchily named) as what I had envisioned, but it made it to the app store, which is more than I can say for mine.
The app pulls its information from the US state registries that compile the location of registered sex offenders in the US and let’s you know how far any offenders are from a given location, or from your current location using your iPhone’s GPS. The information is freely available on the web, so you do not need the app to see how many sex offenders might be living near you, but the “go anywhere” convenience of being able to easily check for “bad guys” with the push of a button is still pretty sweet, if for no other reason than to point out to your friends how bad a neighborhood they live in.
How’d they do it?
Well, a great idea is a great idea, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone had the same great idea as me. However, in doing my original research for this app, I found a couple things that seemed like potential trouble spots, and I wonder how Offender Locator managed to get around them.
The first issue is the somewhat minor chance that people would use such an app to harass registered sex offenders, or worse, assault them. A rather large disclaimer upon launch asks people to agree they will not use the app for such purposes, but in today’s society, even a lawsuit you win can cost you thousands to defend.
Well, as much as it would have been great to get a successful app to the app store, I’m not all that bitter about Offender Locator’s success. If anything, I suppose it shows that I had a pretty good idea, and ultimately I’m just glad it got made. Deep down I know that I probably never would have gotten the app together without some major funding and some pretty smart programmers willing to work for a piece of an unguaranteeably-sized pie, not to mention supporting a backend of servers and such that I definitely do not know how to maintain.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I still wouldn’t want to help work on my much cooler, way more fully-featured version of the app, if anyone wants to make one…