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Local students become smartphone app developers

Ryan Cole, one of the developers of QuakeAware, a free iPhone app designed by SFU MBA students.

One result of the popularity of the iPhone, Android-powered phones and other smartphones is the opportunities that have opened up for small companies and individuals to make and market innovative software products.

The entry bar for creating what are called “apps” is low. Anyone can sign up as an app developer at Apple’s website or the Android site. That entitles you to download the software development kit and, for a low fee (U$25 for Android, U$99 for Apple) publish and sell your app on their respective sites.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people have taken advantage of this. There are more than 100,000 apps available for the iPhone, 10,000+ for Android smartphones and somewhat less than that for the Blackberry. And, while someday the market may consolidate with only a few big app developers, right now most of those apps have been developed by individuals or small groups of people, including some current and recent students at Simon Fraser University.


Six Management of Technology MBA students at the university have released an iPhone app designed to help in the event of an earthquake. QuakeAware was inspired in part by the tale of a man trapped in the Haitian earthquake who used his iPhone to help stay alive, the free app includes a survival-kit checklist, basic first-aid information and steps for shutting off gas lines and other actions to keep one’s home safe. The application’s “My City” section contains location-specific emergency information such as relief centres, emergency routes and contact numbers. The team has collected information for Richmond and is working on Vancouver, with plans to add other jurisdictions in the Lower Mainland and beyond.

The application was developed by Ryan Cole, Kelvin Chiu, Dylan Marks, Donal De Paor, Terrence Tam and Eliza Yiu. Says Cole, “The recent catastrophes in Haiti and Chile reminded us that an earthquake could strike anytime, anywhere. In our survey of Richmond residents, 89 per cent of respondents felt they were not adequately prepared for an earthquake.” It can be downloaded through iTunes. For more information, check out their website at


Sunny Tam, a recent SFU computing science grad, knows he’s facing a big challenge in trying to make a living creating games for the iPhone. There are more than 13,000 games available for Apple’s popular phone and its sister gadget, the iPod Touch, and new games are released daily. But Tam is determined to succeed. His first game, Aerikuma, was released on Apple’s App store on March 10, and Tam is already at work on his next game.


Aerikuma is a challenging arcade-like game, where you use the wind to help you navigate through a surreal forest “teeming with hostile wildlife”. Its name is derived from Latin (Aeri = air) and Greek (Kuma = wave), Tam says. Priced at 99 cents, it sold well during its first week, but has languished since then, he says.

“It hasn't been very successful as I did not do any online promotions such as posting trailers and generally letting people know that my game exists,” Tam says. “The majority of the sales was from the first week when the app was highlighted as a new release. Once it moved off the first page sales slowed significantly as there is no easy way on the app store to browse a particular game other than searching by name or scrolling through the list of apps page by page.”

Sunny Tam
Sunny Tam

For his next game, Tam says he needs to decide whether to make a more mainstream game or continue to develop novel, innovative games. “I want to make something unique that no one else has made before, but at the same time I don't want to be broke!”

Depending on how well his next game does, Tam says he’ll either start his own independent game company or look for a job in the videogame industry. He says it’s not easy designing games independently. “The most difficult part was designing the artwork and sound effects. I'm a programmer not an artist! Debugging the game was also a source of trouble as my budget only allows me to have one second-generation iPod Touch for development, which prevents me from testing the game on iPhones.”

iPhone App Course

SFU even offers a course for would-be iPhone developers. The brainchild of instructor Herbert Tsang, CMPT 275 Software Engineer I is one of Canada's only university courses devoted to developing applications for the wildly popular iPhone and iPod Touch. "Students get first-hand experience of the software engineering cycle from idea to design specification, implementation, testing, and finally putting the application product out in the market," he says. None of the apps created by the students have been put on the iTunes app store yet, Tsang says. However, Tsang, who is also a musician and conductor, hopes to submit an app himself soon through MusicCentric Technologies, a spin-off company he’s formed in partnership with SFU.

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