Not app-ily ever after


Developing applications is more than hop, skip and jump. Most times you trip, some say.

By JO TIMBUONG bytz@thestar.com.my

IT FEELS like there is an app for everything these days. These mobile apps allow you to put your mobile devices to use as a personal entertainment system, spirit level, panic button, traffic reporter and just about anything else under the sun.

We never think about how much work went into bringing that app from the mind of the innovator into the device that you hold in your hand. Some of these journeys are simple and speedy but many are fraught with wrong turns and other hurdles.

Bytz chatted with several app developers to get an idea of what it is like to be in their shoes and looking at the world through their eyes.

For one thing, they told us that many times they find themselves in a race to be the first ones to come out with such-and-such an app. While this is good because it provides impetus to their development efforts, it also makes them overprotective of their ideas.

It is good to be proud of a original idea, but keeping it heavily fortified means a developer can’t get feedback on it because he is reluctant to discuss it with anyone. Interface designer and a fresh graduate Cheoh Chuan Zhen, 23, can relate to this situation.

He said budding app-developers like him are keen to learn from others, but such opportunities are scarce because many fear that their ideas may be stolen if they share them.

He created a mobile game called Eco Monsters to teach children to care for the environment. Although the graphics and gameplay look fantastic, Cheoh believes his product would have benefited from the input of more seasoned game developers.

“But there aren’t many events where game developers like me can gather and share ideas. And I don’t see many game developers at the few existing gatherings,” he said.

Nurhanna Abdul Aziz has a different take on this. She has had other people take the credit for ideas that were hers.

“I shared some of my ideas with others, hoping to get some feedback and before I knew it, they were passing it off as theirs and taking the credit for all my hard work,” said the 33-year-old computer science lecturer.

To rub salt into the wound, she said, some person later profited from one of her ideas when another with deep pockets provided funding.

This hasn’t stopped Hanna, as she prefers to be called, from sharing her ideas with others but she is now more careful about this.

But that’s not the worst an app developer can suffer. According to Tan Yin See, 35, who has developed a mobile point-of-sales app, he had an idea ripped off after he pitched it to some potential investors.

“Sad, but true,” he said. “It is common to have some unscrupulous investors listen to your idea and then have some other team of developers hijack it.

“After all, it’s you who needs their funding. So it is not like you can ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement prior to making your pitch.”

Limited access

The developers also said that they face problems marketing their applications overseas. Tan said that while Malaysian developers have a good understanding of the local market, they need help marketing their apps on the international stage.

They don’t have enough funds to attend the trade shows that go on in various parts of the world, so they have to depend on public and private agencies to showcase their products.

The most recent was the Mobile World Congress that was held in Barcelona, Spain, in March, where MSC Malaysia initiative caretaker the Multimedia Development Corp (MDeC), presented several mobile apps that it felt had potential to be world beaters.

The apps, built by Cheoh, Hanna, Tan and others, were among these and the developers are glad for MDeC’s assistance. “But we wish that we could also have been present at the event, which is held annually.

“Being there would have allowed us to show the potential publishers and aggregators our passion for our own products, which is important for them to gauge how serious we are about the products,” said Hanna.

MDeC said it showcased 70 apps at just the Barcelona show, so it would be very expensive to fly so many developers to and fro such events.

But at similar shows hosted locally, it would ensure that all the apps developers would get their chance to be present, a spokesman for the agency said.

Anyway, the exposure in Barcelona paid off for three or four of the locally developed apps, according to T. Vijaya, MDeC corporate commmunications director.

“We are now working with about four publishers to promote these apps in the global market,” he said. But he declined to name the apps.

The developers of all the apps presented were participants of MDeC’s Integrated Content Development Programme (Icon), which is aimed at encourage Malaysian innovation.

The monster inside

Some of the developers told Bytz that they have to battle their internal demons all the time. They said it is as if a monster is forcing them to complete the app as soon as possible, by fuelling their fear that a rival is already about to release a similar product.

For bootstrapping developers like Jhet Chan, 22, it’s like having dual personalities — the Boss and the Worker.

“The Worker wants the app to be perfect before it can go out but the Boss wants the product on the market quickly, and is always cracking the whip. It’s hard to find a balance between the two,” he explained.

Hanna, meanwhile, said she has to fend off her Janji Asal Siap demon that wants her to finish off her development work quickly, even if the app isn’t performing as she intends it to be. “This demon can be quite persuasive, especially when I am feeling fatigued,” she said.

“But I know I must not give in. I have seen some apps get rejected because they were lacking. That demon does get around,” she laughed.

The solution, she said, is to remember the passion that got her started on developing her app and to reignite that.

“Many of us don’t want to work late into the night, but if we really care about our product, then we must put in the extra effort,” she added.

Last but not least, the developers feel that Malaysian consumers need to have more respect for intellectual property.

Hanna said she charges just 99 cents (RM3) for her MyJawi Word Builder app on Apple Inc’s App Store, but still there are some people who download jail-broken versions of the program that teaches children Jawi script.

“If they do that, I don’t make a cent from my hard work. Is that fair?” she said. Unfortunately, such theft of intellectual property is quite rampant and could impact the market. What if developers decided that it isn’t going to be worthwhile to spend time, money and effort when their products are only going to be taken for free?

“I often see people unashamedly admitting to jail-breaking their devices to get the apps for free,” Hanna said. “What if everyone starts doing that?”

On the plus side, app developers here like the new crowd-funding sites that are coming up online. Tan said sites such as Kickstarter are a boon to developers because it makes it easier to get funding for their ideas. “You just post your ideas on the site and anyone who likes it can give you money to develop it,” he said.

“I have even seen innovators supporting other innovators when they like an idea. You could say we are all like-minded individuals.”

A check at www.kickstarter.com revealed that some ideas were funded by Malaysians residing abroad.

“We need more people like this,” Tan added.

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