Making iPad apps a risky business

Ashland high-tech gurus Alan Oppenheimer and Jim Teece have had blockbuster hits with iPhone and iPad apps, but they also have had dismal failures — and once narrowly avoided making an app that could have crushed them financially.

Their Art Authority app, developed by the two with a team of local high-tech wizards, has been a top seller. It garnered rave reviews from the New York Times and Apple itself, the pioneering company that unveiled the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

"It's great when the mother ship likes your app," Oppenheimer said.

Art Authority features thousands of images of art from Western culture, elegantly displayed in museum-type settings on-screen. Viewers can also look at individual works of art and learn about artists and art history.

Apps that featured images of cars, motorcycles, space and haircuts did well, but app image collections of national parks, sunsets and teddy bears flopped, Oppenheimer said.

"Just because I think it's going to be a great app doesn't mean people will buy it. I'm wrong about half the time," he said.

He noted he didn't think the teddy bear image collection app, which was a pet project of an employee, would do that well, but he remains mystified over why the national parks app — which included photos, maps and information — wasn't a hit.

One app idea could have led to financial ruin for Oppenheimer and Teece. The two were pioneers in setting up the first wireless Internet hot spot in a public location in Ashland. Naturally they thought an app that would turn a cellphone into a wireless hot spot — allowing a computer to connect to the Internet via a cellphone network — would be a blockbuster.

But they abandoned the idea after predicting that Apple would block the app because of a tangle of issues with cellphone companies. Another man spent months developing the app, only to have Apple reject it, Oppenheimer said.

Cellphone companies are now selling the service commercially, he said.

For app makers, investing months developing an app that is rejected can be financially devastating, he said.

After initial success making iPhone apps, Oppenheimer and Teece thought they would become rich. But then a flood of iPhone apps hit the market.

"When there's money to be made, there's a gold rush, either literal or figurative. All the miners rush in and there's competition. Then we thought we might have to give up," Oppenheimer said.

Apple's 2010 release of the iPad reinvigorated their app creation business, especially since Art Authority and some of their other top sellers were so well-suited to the iPad's bigger screen, he said.

The two and their high-tech team worked to convert their iPhone apps for iPad use. They're also now converting apps for use on the Kindle Fire, a tablet computer that rivals Apple's iPad.

The app creation business remains highly competitive, with 500,000 apps available for iPhones and 100,000 apps for the relatively new iPad. Some makers give away apps for free, while many others sell their apps for just 99 cents.

Art Authority sells for $4.99 via Apple's online App Store.

Oppenheimer said people often ask him whether they should get into the business of making apps.

"I say, 'Do you want to make money?' If the answer is yes, I tell them they should make apps for someone else. There's a big demand for app programmers. Like in the past, everyone needed a website. It's the same now with apps," said Oppenheimer, pointing out how even businesses such as hardware stores now have apps.

He said an app programmer can make $100 an hour. A person with a technology background could learn to make an app in three to six months. People without tech skills can gain a technology foundation in about one to two years.

To break into the app writing business, Oppenheimer advised creating an app for free for a business or nonprofit group then putting that down on your resumé.

He said many graphic artists and website developers will have to branch out into app writing or have already done so.

As for people who want to go it alone, app development is a risky business, he said.

"If you think you're going to make the next 'Angry Birds,' you might as well play the lottery," Oppenheimer said, referring to the international app sensation in which players shoot birds into precariously stacked pig towers. "You'll have spent six months of your life and so many dollars creating an app with no return."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

Share This Story