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The app store just opened

As the IT revolution moves from the PC to the smartphone, and apps, the foot soldiers of this revolution, take centre stage, software firms in India are playing an important role. Lhendup G Bhutia reports

As is often the case with constructions in the western suburb of Andheri, the fa ade of Kapadia Industrial Estate that stands on Andheri-Kurla Road is far prettier than the rest of it. Facing the road are two air-conditioned joints -- Domino's Pizza and Subway, where pretty girls and boys hang out without a care in the world. Behind it, men with greasy hands work endlessly on tires and pipes on a street outside a garage-cum-hardware store.


Shreekant Pawar (seated on left) and Hemanshu Jain (standing in corner)
at the Farasbee office at Andheri-Kurla Road. As much as 95 per cent
of their business comes from foreign clients who outsource development
of mobile apps. PICs/ SAYED SAMEER ABEDI


Up a staircase located in a nook next to the garage, you get to the office of a modest software company where a new form of outsourcing is unfolding -- that of mobile applications.

The one-room office of Farasbee forms the shape of the letter L. Shreekant Pawar, the 29 year-old co-founder of the company, who plays the guitar for a local fusion band in his spare time, walks in wearing a pair of Converse sneakers and a tee that carries the image of a green lantern. Accompanying him is Hemanshu Jain, the 24 year-old co-founder.

Pawar and Jain's company is as technical as it gets. It designs and develops websites, mobile applications, and is into online and hardware marketing. But like the founders, the office, scattered with posters of Judas Priest and Guns and Roses, displays no such mood except for one corner of the office.

Here, on a wall hang five clocks displaying the time in New York, San Francisco, Melbourne and Italy. The clock displaying Indian Standard Time has gathered dust, and stands farthest away.

As the clocks suggest, much of this two year-old firm's work arrives from abroad. And while the entrepreneurs offer a range of services, it is the mobile application development division that attracts the juiciest chunk of the business. As much as 95 per cent, say the founders.

And therein lies a new story.

India may be considered the IT capital of the world, and much of software development work is outsourced here, but as the revolution moves from the personal computer (PC) to the cellphone, what's outsourced weans away from PC software to mobile apps. All across the country, software companies are springing up, offering mobile app development.

And the money is so good, Pawar and Jain, who otherwise dream of turning entrepreneurs in the Indian mobile app domain, now cram their days building mobile apps for companies and individuals abroad.

Over the last few years, using money they have earned, the two have designed the prototype of an unnamed app.

Here, using the app on an iPad tablet, the user can stream messages on his Twitter feed onto a projection board. They believe they can replicate this on to larger hardware pieces like hoardings and store displays, and modernise, if not revolutionise, digital marketing in India.

"This app holds promise, but so far, no one has agreed to invest in it. So, it made sense to get busy with app development work for other companies. We are hoping to fund our project with the money we make," says Pawar.

According to experts, app development is outsourced to India because labour is cheap, and the presence of a strong IT infrastructure helps. Romit Mitra, Head -- VP, Marketing and Alliances of 2ergo, an international mobile business and marketing solutions company headquartered in London, says, "Developing and maintaining an app is expensive. And you can only reach out to that many individuals (those who own smartphones)." He offers, the example of the US, where about 55 per cent users are believed to own smartphones. Within this segment, between 30 to 35 per cent own Android-based phones, and another 20 per cent use the iPhone. The remaining owners use other operating system-based phones. "So, if you build an app for an Android phone, you reach only a select few. Besides, these mobile operating systems have frequent upgrades, and a developer has to ensure that his app is accordingly upgraded. All of this makes the business of app development an expensive affair."

2ergo, for instance, which has offices across the world, internally outsources much of its development work to its operations in India.

According to most projections, outsourcing of app development is only going to get bigger, with more users opting for smartphones and learning the benefits of mobile apps. According to a 2010 study by Lithuanian-based GetJar, an app store, the global market of mobile apps is expected to reach US $17.5 billion (Rs 859 billion approximately) by 2012. This means there is going to be 92 per cent per a year growth in the downloading of mobile apps, from 7 billion in 2009 to 50 billion in 2012.

It's not strange then to find software companies in India trying to grab a share of the pie, offering attractive schemes. Karmick Solutions, a Kolkata-based firm that designs and develops websites and mobile apps, claims to charge 1/6th the price that a US app developer would. It charges anywhere between US $10 to $12 (Rs 490 to Rs 588 approximately) per hour for developing mobile apps. In fact, so severe is the hard sell, this 11 year-old company, which got into the mobile app space only two years ago, has even opened a new website called Hire iPhone Developer (http://hire-iphone-developer.net) where seven days of free trial is offered, and projects are taken on either on an hourly, weekly, or monthly basis.

Sourav Roy, founder, says, "We have been in the business of software development since 1999. But we began receiving far too many enquiries about app development. We had to shift focus." As many as seven employers from its 11 member-strong staff are now involved in app development.

Many of Karmick Solutions' projects reportedly come from app development companies in the US and Australia. These include one for an Australian firm (which displays weather conditions in major international cities) and a US company (to send a distress signal to another phone that receives feeds through GPS).

Farasbee charges on a project-basis depending on the complexity of the task involved; every hour costs the other party anywhere between $15 to $20 (Rs 736 to Rs 981 approximately). Jain claims his clientele involves lay people, who have an idea of an app but lack have the technical know-how. For instance, last year, they designed an app for a speech therapist to measure the level of stuttering a patient struggled with. The therapist uses the app in her practice, apart from selling it on Apple's App Store.

Another Apple app for a US pharmaceutical company displays the latest medicines that the company has developed. A representative from the company has to visit a doctor, and using the app on either an iPhone or iPad, explain the latest medicines before placing an order directly from the device.

In Dahisar, Pegasus InfoCorp, a 2003-founded software company, forayed into mobile app development two years ago. Already, almost 1/4th of its staff now works on app development. The firm works with both, large-scale corporate houses and smaller establishments. For a large German automobile company, the firm developed an iPad app for their sales offices. This app showcases the latest car models and news/updates about each model. For an Indian coaching class firm, the company developed a mobile app to allow teachers to jot down updates about their class activities, apart from registering what time the teacher entered and exited from the classroom.

Ashish Pipalia, the director of the firm, says, "Mobile app development is a field that is only going to get bigger. Smartphones are getting cheaper, and people, not just in the US, but also in India, are opting for them."
While most software firms rue the fact that not many Indian companies take mobile apps seriously, they believe change is imminent.

According to a Frost and Sullivan report that was released earlier this year, the smartphone market in India, considered to be the second largest cellphone market in the world after China, is expected to grow tenfold from 2.9 million units that were shipped to the country in 2010 to 30 million units by 2016. According to the report, instead of 68 mobile handset players in 2010, India will see a threefold increase, with more than 200 companies launching phones by the end of this year.

Waiting for the leap is Apoorva Ajmera, founder of Intellect Software Solutions in Ghatkopar. With a team of 10 excluding Ajmera, seven of who work from Nagpur (where costs are even lower), the company has been focussing on the development of business apps for firms abroad. So far, they have built apps like the Benjamin Franklyn for a fitness firm. Here, an individual punches in his BMI count, apart from his objectives (to lose a certain amount of weight, build certain muscles, etc) and accordingly, the app suggests an exercise pattern. It also keeps a record of how faithfully he has followed the routine. (The app was named after the writer-political theorist because he is said to have had the habit of taking down daily notes on the day's mundane goings on.)
But now, Ajmera wishes to intensify his company's operations for Indian firms. He has already built apps for jewellery manufacturers and media houses, among others. Individual jewellery store owners use the app to check with the manufacturing firm about the prices of specified products, and place orders accordingly. At the media house, those employed to deliver couriers to employers in the building, use the app to locate the division and desk at which the person who is meant to receive the courier, is seated.

Ajmera says, "You never know when the Indian market will boom. People change phones every year. One 'killer' smartphone gets launched, and everyone might start clambering for it."

Pawar is travelling to Frankfurt in the second week of October to pitch for app development projects, and simultaneously seek investment for the app Farasbee has created. "Some venture capitalists there have shown interest in our app. If they agree, our project might just roll off in a big way."

Pawar believes his app can take Indian companies out from their woodwork and into the global world of apps. Till then, the clock in his office showing the time in India is likely to remain farthest away from his desk.

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