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Posted on Sun, Oct 18, 2009 : 5:56 a.m.

Smart phone software movement generates Ann Arbor jobs

By Nathan Bomey

It’s the new get-rich-quick scheme for software developers.

For Michigan, it’s already becoming an avenue for quick job creation.

Rapid growth in the mobile software sector is enticing a rush of developers in the Ann Arbor region to pursue their own ideas for smart phone applications.

The trend, still in the early stages, is reflective of the economic growth prospects of Ann Arbor’s grassroots software community.

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Competition in the mobile phone applications industry has intensified since Apple in 2007 allowed private programmers to develop applications for the iPhone and market them through the iTunes Store.

Experienced designers can create an iPhone application within weeks, which can lead to near-instant revenue.

But Raven Zachary, a West Coast software executive who helped develop the iPhone app for then-candidate Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in fall 2008, said that rushed applications often don’t survive.

“What makes a hit for the iPhone is something unique, something that’s beautiful,” he said. “Spending a good deal of time on design and interaction, something that’s really well thought-out, something that’s a natural fit for a device that can fit into your pocket.”

The mobile application software market is so new that it’s difficult to know how many jobs it represents in the Ann Arbor region. It’s complicated by the fact that some software developers pursue mobile apps as a side project.

Ben Kazez, founder and CEO of travel applications firm Mobiata, recently moved his mobile applications company from Minnesota to Ann Arbor to capitalize on the community’s software synergy. The viral popularity of Mobiata’s signature FlightTrack application led Apple to occasionally highlight the app in its ubiquitious iPhone advertisements.

FlightTrack, which costs $5 to $10 depending on the specific version, offers frequent travelers the ability to receive immediate itinerary updates. Kazez said his firm is nearing $1 million in revenue.

“One of the reasions I was interested in moving to Ann Arbor is the amount of talent,” Kazez said. “We’ve definitely been very fortunate to work in the area.”

The role of college student entrepreneurs in driving the mobile software growth is impossible to miss. One firm led by U-M students, Mobil33t, quickly developed a free application called DoGood, which suggests a daily good deed to iPhone users. The app has drawn a swarm of national attention.

The iPhone dominates the mobile software market for now. But applications for other devices also offer opportunity.

Ann Arbor-based Mobatech’s mobile checking application is among the top financial applications for the BlackBerry. The firm, which has five employees, is expecting 300 percent revenue growth this year.

Mobatech President Greg Schwartz said intense competition defines the mobile application market.

“The barriers to jump in are low. The barriers to stay around for a long time and grow a revenue generating sustainable business are high,” Schwartz said.

Stay mobile and those barriers will look small.

Contact’s Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter.


Dug Song

Sun, Oct 18, 2009 : 11:25 p.m.

The story around mobile (iPhone in particular), just as around Facebook apps, is distribution. Ex-Ann Arbor company Occipital is another example of this, with two paid iPhone apps in the top 10 (they're now quite profitable and growing, but in Boulder). We've covered some of this ground in previous events centered around social gaming and Facebook (, and in upcoming events like the Mobile Monday meetup. The mechanisms by which companies on these platforms achieve such traction aren't magic, but require careful engineering of a repeatable sales model and marketing skill to leverage successfully, just like any other sales channel - although one where you count your immediately-addressable customers in the millions, to start.