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Independent developers hope to create next big app

Eric Bandholz, founder of the mobile app company Tarrango, left, and designer Alex Tebbs work on their wine lovers’ app. (Colin Mulvany)
Eric Bandholz, founder of the mobile app company Tarrango, left, and designer Alex Tebbs work on their wine lovers’ app. (Colin Mulvany)

Three years ago, Spokane Community College student Randall Schleufer developed an iPhone game called Flickitty in his spare time.

Within a month after uploading Flickitty to the iTunes Store, the game drew thousands of downloads at 99 cents apiece. Schleufer, 42, and a project partner each pocketed $2,800 from the first month’s downloads, while Apple collected the remainder.

Now working as an animator and developer at Spokane’s Seven2, an interactive agency that designs websites, games and online marketing campaigns, Schleufer is developing an updated version of Flickitty for the iPad.

But Schleufer is pretty sure his new app isn’t going to generate that kind of sales again.

Over the past three years the app universe has become much more crowded.

As of June, more than 600,000 apps were available for the iPhone or iPad. Most are free. Most of the rest sell for less than a dollar.

In addition, there are marketplaces for apps beyond iTunes, including those run by Google, Amazon and Microsoft. The result, according to Schleufer, is a business where word of mouth no longer generates many sales.

“Even if you get Facebook likes, that doesn’t affect sales on a large scale,” he said.

Despite those obstacles, app development is still booming. There are hundreds of thousands of apps available for Apple and Android systems and developers who are hoping to create the next Angry Birds. Others, like Schleufer, tackle app development in their spare time as a way to test their skills and simply hope that people like the result.

Here are three independent app developers in the region:

Pandora for wine

Chad Skidmore, Eric Bandholz and Alex Tebbs decided the world needs a mobile app to help people keep track of their wine preferences. Since April they’ve worked on the project, called Tarrango, named after a wine growing area of Australia.

They plan to release it gradually over the next several months. Bandholz, who runs a Spokane Web design business called Sovrnty, said the goal is making Tarrango the wine-lover’s version of Pandora.

The way Pandora helps identify music people like, the team wants Tarrango to help users establish a personal wine profile. Tarrango’s recommendation engine will keep track of preferences, plus help find similar wines the user might enjoy.

Making money is the idea, of course, and the team says Tarrango can create revenue by providing marketing services to wineries. Without giving away the customers’ emails, Tarrango will help wineries find customers who like their types of wine, or who want to be notified of special offers.

Over time Tarrango would generate collective information on which wines are popular as well as what individual users tend to like most.

By gathering those preferences, the Tarrango team plans to help wineries find new customers, Skidmore said.

 “We think the (mid- to smaller-size) wineries are the right target,” Skidmore added. “Large companies, like the Gallos, already have multimillion-dollar marketing strategies that we could never compete with.”

The Tarrango team operates on a shared-work system: Skidmore does the back-end development, Bandholz focuses on sales and planning, while Tebbs concentrates on developing the Web and app interface.

“Over time we could expand this and target the microbrew world,” Bandholz said.

Brooke Griffith, sales director for Walla Walla-based Patit Creek Cellars, said her company wants to be part of the first group of area wineries testing Tarrango.

“We see a lot of people using their phones in the tasting room to ‘check in’ via Facebook, take pictures or even decide where they are going after they finish tasting with us,” she said.

“I think Tarrango will help the tasters be slightly more engaged with the wines and help them remember what it was they liked and what they didn’t like and find other wineries with similar wine characteristics.”

Mapping ‘cool stuff’

Eric Anderson’s full-time job is developing software for a Silicon Valley company, which lets him work remotely from his Spokane home. In his spare time Anderson is taking on a “hobby” project that produces U.S. maps with interesting features and landmarks not found on the usual search-engine maps.

“This project started out as a way for me to learn how to implement Web-based mapping software without using proprietary maps like Google or Bing.  Most maps that you see on the Web use these proprietary maps that sometimes cost money for businesses and websites to use,” he said.

Anderson calls the app EZGeo.

Some of the most popular online map providers have errors or omissions; Anderson’s project is a way for him to identify and fix some of those omissions. Spokane County bridges, for example, used to be missing in the U.S. Geological Survey online maps.

After he reported the missing bridges, the USGS fixed their maps, Anderson said.

“So far I’ve been unable to convince the USGS to add the Monroe Street Bridge in downtown Spokane,” he said. “I’ll keep trying.”

He has no immediate plans to develop a money-making version of the app.

If he wanted to test whether the app would sell, Anderson said he’d likely find someone to improve the user interface.

“I might open-source (share the application code openly for others to improve or change) to attract developers to work on it. In particular, the user interface needs some love to make it world-class,” Anderson said.

Where’s the money?

Most apps developers would rather see some financial rewards for their work. Nate Chatellier, 30, a developer at Seven2, is one of those.

He’s working with a friend in Portland, finishing the first version of an action role-play game called NullSector. Chatellier is doing the game development, while the friend, Justin Baldwin, is the animator.

Chatellier, who made his first video game at age 13, said the current explosion in apps makes life both easier and more difficult for the indie developer.

“You used to have to work at a large company to develop decent games and sell them to the public,” he said. That’s not the case anymore, in an age when one-person successes serve as an inspiration for the developer working in his or her basement.

But anyone who is not part of a multimillion-dollar company with a big marketing budget has to compete with the flood of new apps for market share, Chatellier said.

He contacted a developer who devised a similar role-play game app and asked for advice on how to make money with NullSector.

The answer: Give the first game away free. Hope to be found by game enthusiasts, then start charging for later games.

“It’s scary, thinking we would put that much time into the project and put it out there for free,” he said.

For now the partners plan to release a free version of NullSector. But it will have five game chapters. Players will then be asked to pay extra for continuing the game.

Why does he do it? In part it’s because he has the creative need, said Chatellier. In his day job he develops games. But many, like a recent Nickelodeon-site game called Winx, are designed for girls from 8 to 12.

“I’d love to make something I want to play. I enjoy playing video games and enjoy making games as much as playing video games,” he said.

“It’s almost like I’m paid to have fun.”

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