The Indian Apps factory for iPad / iPhone

There's a touch of India in the success of the iPad. A bunch of small companies have developed apps that are already a rage on the iPhone and are now flexing muscles on Apple Inc's tablet computer too. With global gadget makers such as Google, Apple and Nokia seeking new apps to make their products more popular, these Indian companies could be on the threshold of a billion-dollar business opportunity.


Apps is short for applications. The difference with using them is that you can get information over the Net, but without opening a site. For instance, if you want to get the latest news on sports, you need to just click on the icon and see them, rather than opening an Internet browser, typing in the site address and then getting the scores.


Ever since Apple launched App Store in 2008, more than a billion apps have been downloaded. Following this, Google launched its Android system, and several apps now run on that platform. Nokia did the same with its Ovi store, which has several categories of apps, as has Blackberry. Taken together, the market for apps, across these platforms and Microsoft Windows Mobile, is slated to cross $3 billion by 2012, according to IT research and advisory firm Gartner. And it is here that Indian companies are proving their mettle across various platforms, and capturing eyeballs worldwide.


The rewards have been quick to come. Take Sourcebits for example. It took them just three months to develop an app, commercialising them and earn a million bucks. Popular apps are usually listed in the Top 100 of the Apple App Store and mean around Rs 50 lakh in income, says Rohit Singal, director, Sourcebits, which is being touted as one of the most successful emerging companies in the space. Indeed, an app developer's revenue can shoot up to Rs 50 lakh from zero, for an app priced at just $1-2, all within months. For some free apps, it might take around six months, with the earnings coming from advertisements in the app. "Making your first million was never this easy," Singal says.


Sourcebits was started by Rohit Singal in 2006, around the same time that Apple was working on iPhone. From creating its first application in 2008, after partnering with Apple Inc, the Bangalore-based company now has made over 100 apps, netting around Rs 15 crore, some of them in the top 50 in the App Store. It's own app, Night Stand HD, was downloaded over 4 million times in less than four months. From here, the company branched into making mobile apps and services for blue chip companies like GE and Coca-Cola, and also making apps for other companies, which is based on the outsourcing model. It has a team of 200 developers at its Bangalore centre and another few in the US and other countries, making apps for the iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android, Mac and the Web.


Apple takes a third of the revenue for all the valuable services they provide in bringing the app to their platform, says Sridhar Bhat, chief executive of iRemedi, another top app maker. "We share the net 70% of revenue with our media partners. In some cases we also have options for media partners to license our platform for fixed fee per app or hire us for consulting," he says. iRemedi has made a name for itself by selling more than 200 Amar Chitra Katha comics for the iPhone and the iPad.


A sure way these companies can climb up the ladder faster, both in revenue and peer respect, is by having their own brand. "A product company can scale up quickly and be in demand if they do a good job, something like Microsoft," says Professor S Srinivasan of IIIT Bangalore, who has researched on such technology startups. Many of them, he points out, have offices in the US as well, to create brand awareness in that country. Sourcebits is one such example, as is iRemedi. This makes sense as most big platform makers like Apple of Microsoft, usually strike deals locally.


Sourcebits sells its apps under the SpoonJuice brand. There are 11 apps under it right now, and they already have launched two for the iPad. Another company, Robosoft Technologies, has gone the same way. It sells its game apps for the iPhone, Android and Nokia phones under the brand 99 Games. It also has utility and productivity apps, which are sold under the brand Global Delight. Robosoft started coming out with the apps around 2008, and since then has got a couple of apps that became wildly popular worldwide, like Wordsworth, which netted the company a cool Rs 50 lakh. Another application, Camera Plus, saw an even better response. "The iPhone sofware didn't allow for the camera to zoom and pan. We made that possible in the same set," says Rohith Bhat, director and CEO. In the next two years, the software company, in which the apps team is a separate division, hopes to earn Rs 45 crore from apps alone.


Is this a trend already? "It sure is," says Prof Kumar, referring to the growing number of companies around Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai which are at the forefront of this field. There is even a company called iPhone Application Development India (IADA), which is ready to make any app for the iPhone or the iPad for you as a third party developer and is into offshore iPhone enhancement projects as well as provide mobile application development solutions.


This mix of outsourcing and own brands is working well, says Srinivasan. Its clients include NatGeo or TopCap, who market and sell the apps under their own name. A chunk of the business emanates from the outsourced business model, accounting for more than 90% as in the case of Robosoft. For Sourcebits, the mix is rather balanced, but similarly spread. It is now making apps for BlackBerry and for Adobe AIR, the rich Internet software. For some others, the mix is more like 60:40 in favour of outsourcing.


More players are joining the fray as the iPad offers yet another chance to score big. Apple says that around 300,000 iPads have already been sold within days of its launch, and companies like Robosoft and Sourcebits, which have already sold millions of apps, stand to gain similar rewards. Not surprisingly, this is spawning even more developers. When apps related to Gods and mythological characters were first launched, it was a risk but worth taking, which made iRemedi go ahead with it. Since then, tales of Arjuna and Hanuman and other heroes have been downloaded over a million times in a span of a few weeks. "This is of course a good way to connect with the users here and also with the NRI users," says Bhat of Robosoft, which has launched Shri Vishnu Prarthana and Shri Durga Prarthana on the iPhone.


But all these come with their own share of problems. There are more failures than successes as is the case elsewhere. Just because it is an iPhone app does not guarantee it will be a success. Creating the app is just the tip of the iceberg. Marketing it and making everyone aware of it is the real big deal. "There are cases when the app is so catchy that it becomes a runaway success without much marketing but those are given there are over 175,000 Apps out there," says Bhat.


Indian firms, however, have seen the good times roll. Today, millions have downloaded the games and other applications developed by these companies and the number is increasing as you read this. From riveting games to apps designed to help raise your productivity and keep you slim, to bringing the Gods right into your phone, these companies have done it all. And, in the process made themselves into million dollar companies in just a few months. The market is so big and there is room for more, says Singal with a hint of delight. "Let a thousand apps bloom!"


16 Apr 2010 / ET Bureau