How to Build an iPhone App in 6 Easy Steps

Last Updated Apr 5, 2011 11:35 AM EDT


This post has been updated. See the slideshow here.
Freddie Anne Hodges, 12, was "obsessed" with two things -- how tall she was getting and her iPhone. She decided to put the two together and, within a matter of a few months, she created an iPhone application called "Measure Me" that's already sold several hundred copies. (Unlike the book crooks, who hacked accounts to boost their iPhone app sales before they got booted from the iTunes store, Hodges sales are legitimate.)

The message: If a Dallas-based middle-schooler can create an iPhone app, so can you. Here's how.

Find your niche: You might imagine the vast riches you could earn by making the next "World of Warcraft" for mobile devices. But if you're not Activision or Hasbro, or even just someone creative enough to have designed an engaging game in the past, this probably is not your niche. Think of what you're passionate about and how your iPhone might help you track or share that passion.
Hodges, for example, was constantly measuring her height in the doorway, marking her progress from toddler to tall. She suddenly realized that her iPhone should be able to measure her progress just as accurately as a measuring tape. Her application allows you to feed in the height of your doorway, and snap a photo of the person you want to measure next to it. The iPhone app, Measure Me, does the math, shows how much you've grown and can email the photo and news about your growth spurt to Grandma.

Research the competition: Once you come up with a great idea, you need to figure out if you're the 57th person to come to the same conclusion. There are more than 200,000 iPhone apps already, and the number grows daily, so there's a good chance your topic has already spurred some app activity.

There's nothing stopping you from creating and selling an application that's similar to what's already out there, of course. But if you want to sell enough to make a profit, you should find a better approach, says Bear Cahill, president of the independent application development company BrainWash Inc. His advice is to be first or best -- or, better yet, both.

Lay it out: Not only does your application have to be serviceable, it needs to look good. To design a page that allows you to lay out your graphics and text in a way that's visually appealing, you can go to a free site called MockApp.com, which can let you cut and paste your application pages to perfection.

Hire a developer: If you're a computer programmer, or just somebody who doesn't mind tinkering with tech until you get it right, you can probably build your own application, following Apple's detailed developer guidelines. But you don't have to be technosavvy, if you're willing to hire someone who is.

How do you find a good and reasonably priced app developer? Ask your Facebook friends if they know someone they'd recommend. Cahill suggests you look for independent developers because they're cheaper, but there are big companies in the business, too. You also can Google conferences on app development and how-to app development books. The speakers and authors are likely developers for hire, he adds.

Once you find a few potential developers, interview them to find out how they work, what they charge, whether they can provide references, and go. For a point of reference, Cahill says he typically charges between $5,000 and $10,000 to program an app for a client, but has charged as little as $2,000 and considerably more than $10,000 too. (Hodges got her app developed for $3,000.) The price will vary based on complexity and how much work you've already done. If you've got the layout and graphics and have a simple design, your fee is likely to fall on the low end. But, if you application needs to be coordinated with a yet-to-be-completed web site, you could be taking about some real money.

Price your product: You're doing this for both fun and profit, right? If so, you need to figure out how much to charge per download. Apple keeps about one-third of the price, so you'll get about $2 per sale if your application sells for $2.99. If you paid $2,000 to your developer, your app won't break-even until after the 1000th sale. Cahill cautions that you shouldn't expect the laws of supply and demand to work perfectly here. One developer created a "pretty bad" game, which sold poorly when it was priced at $3. Instead of revamping it, the developers simply hiked the price. Guess what? The game started selling better. "People are not necessarily buying based on value," Cahill said. He suggests you set a price that allows you to recover your investment and potentially put your app on "sale" later.

Market like crazy: I say again, 200,000 apps are already out there. It's going to be a challenge to make yours stand out in that madding crowd. To be sure, making your application great will help, but you'll also need to talk it up with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Linkedin and every other social networking site you know. If you think the app has legs and is worth the investment, think about hiring a publicist to help, too.

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