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Creating smart-phone apps becomes big business for IUPUI students

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Used to be a college student would work in the dining hall to make ends meet. Or paint houses to pay for the education that would lead to future earning power.

For IUPUI students Gagan Dhillon, 18, and Sarb “S.J.” Singh, 21, the future is now.

Dhillon, a business major, and Singh, who is studying computer science, created AppDar, an Indianapolis company that writes applications for Apple iPhones and iPads and other wireless devices.

Singh Singh

The so-called smart phone–Web-enabled devices like the iPhone or those running on Google’s Android platform and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry–has matured to the point where someone with computer smarts can write apps and make some money. No college degree needed.

AppDar’s youthful principals are fishing in the client pond alongside more established firms in Web development and marketing. Their 15 clients include a big-name anesthesia/medical devices company and restaurants such as Scotty’s Brewhouse and West Coast Tacos.

“I’m not even looking for a job right now,” Dhillon said. AppDar has potential to be a lucrative business of its own.

Dhillon Dhillon

Lucrative is relative, of course, when you’re a college student. Revenue, so far, is less than $100,000. But that’s a small fortune for two college students.

They already are looking ahead at business enterprise applications via smart phones and iPads, such as apps for the hospital setting.

“The iPad will change the way business does business in the future,” Dhillon said.

james burnes Burnes

Neither he nor Singh have the experience of, say, James Burnes, a Web marketing veteran and CEO of Indianapolis-based app developer Mobiltopia. Veteran Burnes’ Mobiltopia, for example, is building an iPad app for Indianapolis-based Scale Computing’s sales force, which is abandoning its bulky laptops.

“I’m so excited about what the iPad is going to do for business,” Burnes said.

While Dhillon and Singh have the vision, their business model takes a diverging path from many established firms. Like college student house painters, they’re competing on price—as in low. Some app developers for smart phones and iPads charge $5,000 and up. The AppDar guys have a package for around $1,000, such as for a restaurant app that allows customers to read the menu, find locations and link to their social media sites.

“A lot of businesses are pinched for money right now,” Dhillon said.

“I’ve seen app companies that throw out [prices] without even looking at the specs,” Singh said.

Of course, established players in the smart phone Web optimization and app-writing business will tell you making an app that functions is most important.

Upstarts like AppDar say they’re learning fast. Singh now has several designs for apps tailored to particular industries.

“As you make more applications, you just get better and better,” he said. “I’ve been doing this stuff since I was 14. It’s my passion. … We love what we do.”

He loves it so much that he’s often up at 4 a.m. working on new apps while trying to balance college obligations. AppDar has a mailing address but not an office, per se. If anything, Dhillon said, “Starbucks is our office.”

As for a marketing budget, “We haven’t spent a single thing” on it, Singh said. Work comes in via leads through social networking and referrals.

That’s not to say cultivating business isn’t a challenge. As opposed to the tech-crazed coasts, some in the Midwest have been slow to see the need for smart phone apps. Some prospective clients say, “I don’t see how [an app] would benefit my restaurant,” Dhillon said. “It’s like 1999. Websites came out. Businesses didn’t think they needed websites.”

He moved here with his family in 2005, from San Francisco. Singh is from the East Coast.

Smart phone penetration is soaring, from 16 percent of all mobile subscribers in mid-2009 to 23 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to the Nielsen Co.

Many of the apps are showing up in the form of business enterprise tools. Indianapolis-based FormSpring, which develops online forms, came up with an app for a Brownsburg HVAC contractor. Its technicians use their iPhones to order parts for a customer’s furnace on-site rather than waiting until they go back to the office.

Indeed, the number of business-related apps on the average smart phone (we’re not talking about the “Angry Birds” game) has risen to about 6.2, from 2.8 in 2008, said Tim Colwell, a vice president of Indianapolis-based telecom consultancy AOTMP.

These range from time sheet apps for attorneys to specialized communications packages. Impeding growth is that some firms have not yet fully formulated their wireless strategies, or they wrestle with IT support challenges, Colwell said.•

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