I can turn my phone into a shotgun

The most popular apps in iPhone’s App Store are mindless, silly and increasingly tasteless

I can turn my phone into a shotgunEddie Marks and James Anthony were students at Stanford University when, working out of a dorm room earlier this year, they wrote an application for the Apple iPhone called Shotgun. It’s a mindless little program that lets you jerk your iPhone down and up to replicate the motion and sound of a shotgun being pumped and fired. Silly as it might seem, it has been wildly popular. Over three million people and counting have downloaded it from Apple’s iPhone App Store over the past three months.

With Shotgun, the duo hit the Apple app jackpot. They made two versions of the app: one that’s free and one with a few extra features that costs 99 cents. They’re reluctant to say exactly how much they’ve made, but admit it’s enough to support them and their new company, Inedible Software, for some time. “We’re both comfortable working for a year and if we don’t make any more money we’ll still be doing just fine,” says Anthony, on the phone from Palo Alto, Calif., a hotbed for app developers where the pair are now looking for an apartment. Since graduating last week they’ve been crashing on friends’ couches.

Their story underscores just how popular, and strange, the Apple app craze has become. There are now 50,000 apps on the App Store, which together account for one billion downloads. Very few will ever find an audience like Shotgun. In fact, when Marks and Anthony launched their game, four other people had the same idea—theirs just happened to get reviewed on a popular video-game site, and landed on the App Store’s top 100 list. “We got lucky,” says Anthony. Still, thousands of developers are churning out programs, hoping for their shot at iPhone fame and fortune.

The App Store was born last year when Apple opened the door to third party developers, letting them write any kind of program for the iPhone they could dream up. Some, like the app Shazam, are brilliant. It uses the iPhone’s microphone to listen to a song being played in a room and moments later tells you the name and artist. Some apps use the iPhone’s built-in GPS to provide mapping and tracking services, like Find My Car. Countless others do simple things, like organize shopping or to-do lists. Or provide the latest sports scores or news. (Yes, Maclean’s has one.) But most apps, like Shotgun, which uses the iPhone’s motion sensors, are simply meant to entertain—the sillier the better.

If anything, the App Store has emerged as a kind of repository of frat boy humour. Alex Miro is the founder of the popular website, which reviews some of the more tasteless apps, or crapps, as they’ve become known. He says there’s been a steady progression toward designing increasingly crass apps. First came the fart Apps, like iFart Mobile (it makes fart noises), then the burping and vomit apps. The latest fad is “spicy apps,” often featuring women in various stages of undress. One standout “crapp” is Sexy Alphabet, says Miro. The creators sum it up best: “We hired a professional voice model to speak all the letters of alphabet [sic] in a sexual and sophisticated way.”

This shadier side of the App Store is not without its risks for Apple and its reputation. It sparked controversy earlier this year after highlighted Baby Shaker, an app with which users shook their iPhone to stop a crying baby. Apple apologized for approving the app and removed it. Still, the App Store, warts and all, has been a stroke of marketing genius. Other smartphone companies, like Research In Motion, have tried to replicate the App Store, but none have come anywhere close to matching its size. Analysts predict that Apple’s dominant lead in apps will drive more and more iPhone sales. Meanwhile, for developers, the App Store is the place to be. And the silly apps are where the real money is. Miro estimates that iFart Mobile made upward of $500,000. (Apple takes a 30 per cent cut of app sales.)

Marks and Anthony have invested time and energy in more thoughtful apps, like one called Air Guitar. But those haven’t matched Shotgun’s success. Last week, the pair cranked out yet another mindless app, called Pow. (Jab your iPhone in front of you like a boxer and it makes punching sounds.) It was quick and easy, and left them feeling a certain sense of self-loathing. But the chance of making money from it was irresistible, they say. Still, they’re philosophical about their success. “We have mixed feelings about being known as the Shotgun guys,” says Anthony. “But we’re happy. We’ve brought joy to the world in whatever kind of quasi-destructive form it was.”