When it comes to making iPhone apps, if you snooze, you lose - Macenstein

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 iPhoneโ€™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.

But the second, larger issue I found, and one of the larger reasons I planned to give my similar app away for free, was that many states actually have a “terms of use” clause found in their registry database which claims that the information compiled by the state may NOT be used for commercial gain. So I would have to either leave those states out of the app and sell an incomplete version, or include them and give the app away for free. I’m not sure how ThinAirWireless was able to get around that issue, or even IF they did, but they are selling their app for 99ยข.


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…

18 Responses to “When it comes to making iPhone apps, if you snooze, you lose”
  1. I hope you get there someday Doc ๐Ÿ™‚ Maybe there’ll be someone someday (and hopefully soon) that wants to strive for a good purpose just as you ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Joe says:

    You can charge for the app because you are providing a convenient way to access the data on a mobile device…not charging for the data itself.

    Well, that would be their claim anyway.

    I’ve got a similar story, although mine was going to be for getting news and review about cigars. Maybe I should have taken a programming class!

  3. William Miller says:

    Foundations concerned with victims rights and community safety might be interested in funding something like this if your implementation seems promising. There’s money for things like this. The philanthropic community is staggering because of stock market losses and other issues, but they’ve committed to giving out much more funding this year to help with the economy. They are really looking for innovative solutions to societal problems.

  4. Michael says:

    I’ve got an equally unique app (but with a much wider audience IMHO) that has yet to be built. I went as far as contacting a third party developer to discuss, but they were going to charge me $5-10k also. There are no legal issues, it’s cash in my head that really makes me wish I had some programming skill. *sigh*

    It’s really true – ideas for iphone apps are a dime a dozen.

  5. Dick Applebaum says:

    Wow! I just bought the app. I have 3 grandkids, ages 9, 11, 13.

    There are over 100 hits within 4 miles of their home.


    Great Idea for an app, though.

    11 months ago, the mapping part of the app would have been much more difficult than it is today. There are new APIs in the current OS that provide better [google] maps (zoom, pan, scroll, reverse geocode, street view) than the static bing map.

    I am not the best iPhone programmer, but if you have similar app Ideas, I would be happy to consider writing them, pro bono.


  6. John Doe says:

    Sick. I guess it is an app for the paranoid and compulsive. Seriously, did you know that some offenders are on state lists for urinating in public or streaking? Your witch hunt app idea will probably cause some of these minor offenders to commit suicide.

  7. Danny C. says:

    Hey Doc:

    I’ve been trying to work on a similar app. Would you like to work with me? Our app would use similar technology and databases but instead be marketed towards the sex offender. Sort of like a match.com for sexual deviants. We can call it “Sex OFriender.”

  8. Ryan says:

    Hey John Doe,

    Are you by any chance on that list for any of those minor reasons listed?…

  9. Dick Applebaum says:

    @John Doe

    Do you lock your front door, car, locker, bike? Is that paranoid or just using common sense to be proactive protecting yourself, your property and your loved ones.

    @Danny C

    some things aren’t funny.

  10. John Doe,

    Well, perhaps you don’t have kids,or don’t like them, but if you were out driving around looking for a house to buy every weekend with kids to look after, you might find it useful. Are you saying you would feel just as happy hitting the “offender button” and seeing 50 pins drop around your house as you would if 0 or 1 landed?

    As for vigilantism of innocent public urinators, if you click on any of the results it tells you what the crime was that was committed, and when.

    – The Doc

  11. Jonro says:

    Just saw a more useful and interesting augmented reality app that shows you how to get to the correct subway line in NYC. It uses your current location and points the way to the various lines, showing you where they go. All you have to do is point your iPhone in the direction you’re walking and watch the display. Very cool. No offense, Doc. Your idea is excellent, but a lot of people have been working on augmented reality apps (not just for the iPhone) for years. The iPhone may be the first device that makes augmented reality practical for you and me.

  12. Dick Applebaum says:


    The app is not an AR app. The camera is not used. The compass is not used. GPS is not required– you can key in any address.

    It is a specialized geocoded database, with a andy and easy to use UI.

  13. John Doe says:

    No I am not in any way a criminal, sex crime or otherwise. Rather, I am a lawyer. I do not do criminal work at all, just boring corporate stuff. However, taking it back to basic Constitutional Law, the whole registration thing is unjust and most such offenders do not reoffend. The rate of murder reoffenders is higher and we don’t register them! Moreover, if there was a child rapist, by all means they should STILL be in prison. But what if a girlfriend or exspouse makes false report and the guy can’t defend himself and just pleads guilty to a lessor charge just to get the matter and the lady out of his life without realizing the new law would label him for life. It happens. Or the 18 male who’s 17 girlfriend’s parents turn him in for consensual sex for statutory rape…his life is ruined. An 18 year old girl never gets prosecuted for sex with a 16 year old male. The laws are unjust and the people are REALLY a danger, they should still be in prison. Once you have done the time and repaid society, that should be the end of it, punishment over and let the person live a reformed life. Do you really know how many false reports happen to men??? Again, if they are still a danger, they should be in prison.

  14. Ted Wood says:

    I agree with John Doe, being registered on one of those lists myself. Now I must live with the choices I made that landed me there. The idea that anybody can push a button and see a marker for my address scares me since it increases the threat to my safety, even though I’ve been living an honorable, productive life for years, have a happy, healthy family now. But I must still live with that shadow over my head and report in every year.

    Luckily the offenders lists here are private, not public, and can only be used by police in very specific situations.

  15. Walker says:

    It’s a shame you couldn’t get your idea out there on time. Just to offer up an idea, if you happen to have a concept for an iPhone app but can’t find any programmers willing to do it – why not talk to some students, such as the ones that have taken cs193p at Standford?

    It seems a good fit – students need experience to get jobs after college, and would therefore may even work for free knowing they could get something to put on their resume.

  16. ashergrey says:

    John Doe, you’re one seriously misguided lawyer. If you did any research at all into the the majority of these registry laws are written, you’d see that they’ve been refined in recent years to avoid such pitfalls you describe. And as Dr. Macenstein pointed out, registry entries in most states are listed with the date of the offense and the actual charge on which the offender was convicted.

    Your comparison of sex crimes to murder is disingenuous. When there’s a homicide, there’s most often a body and a clear chain of evidence which lead back to a suspect. But the very nature of sex crimes mean that they often go unreported, making your recidivism argument moot. Date rape, child molestation and other “minor” felonies don’t rise to the same level, legally, as first degree murder. That means many sex offenders serve shorter prison sentences and are released far before most people convicted of murder.

  17. Nick says:

    Waiting for “my” app to show up in the Appstore. Not mine in making it, but I did think it up. What will come first though, someone releasing it or me learning to code? I’d go with the former.

  18. krstlic says:

    I just can’t believe how primitive and paranoid you people are…
    Let the witch hunt begin!
    Doc, I have an idea for your next iPhone app. A CommieLocator. Oooohhh, I have a better one, GayLocator. That’s it! It must be useful. That way you can know how many gays are in your area so you can call your redneck, hillbillies friends to beat the shit out of them or better yet alert the priests in your neighborhood about the blasphemy.
    And your crappy excuses about having children or loving them is pure populism of the lowest possible kind.

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