Ottawa’s growing app-etite

The second Thursday of every month the Cocoaheads meet. They trade tips and stories about their hobby: developing applications for mobile devices. They critique each other’s’ work, celebrate each other’s successes and share their ideas. Afterwards, they often go for a beer.

“It’s a support group for nerds basically,” says Jason Brenner, a student at Carleton University and a programmer at local start-up Shopify.

But the Cocoaheads may be something more.

The explosive growth of smart phones and tablet computers has created huge demand for the tiny programs that allow mobile devices to do everything from check the weather to check a bank balance. The Cocoaheads aren’t alone in their enthusiasm for the new type of software: app fever has swept Ottawa. Mobile Monday seminars are held most months and last year developers gathered for the Ottawa Mobile App Show.

Ottawa developers are hoping mobile applications will be the next big thing.

To hear Ottawa’s app evangelists tell it we’re at the dawn of a new epoch, like when the internet caught fire in the nineties, or the birth of Silicon Valley before that.

But more than just a new gold rush some see the app industry as a way for Ottawa to reclaim its place in the tech pantheon.

“This is the next stage in computing,” says Brenner. “ This is Silicon Valley North—two.”

Many of the Cocoaheads make apps for fun, but according to Brenner when it comes to apps it’s a short step from initiate to entrepreneur because once you have a product, distribution is free. Apple’s iPhone and iPad, Google’s Android and RIM’s BlackBerry accept apps from anyone into their virtual storefronts. That means even a lone developer can reach millions of customers directly. According to Brenner this lowers the barriers for entry, which makes the mobile field attractive for Ottawa’s many tech veterans

One of those veterans, Steve Rae, has spent the last 17 years developing supply chain software for industry. But after he got his iPad2 he decided he’d better get into apps or get left behind.

“Being a software engineer I figured I ignore this at my own peril,” he says.

Rae signed up for a course on developing for Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, joined the cocoaheads and is now looking for jobs.

The Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation says there are currently 75 companies in town who identify themselves as app developers, which means lots of demand for programmers.

“Right now as far as I understand it’s easier to get a date with Scarlett Johansson than it is to find an iOS developer in this town,” he says.

One of Ottawa’s oldest app developers is Bitheads. In their 16 year history Bitheads has made apps for the New York Times, ESPN and e-Trade, but the market really took off with the introduction of the iPhone, iPad, and devices running Android. According to Ted Burnett, the vice president of business development at Bitheads, now everyone wants in.

“I do believe that mobile right now is like a narcotic,” he says. “Everyone is going right now: ‘I got to get in on this.’”

But Burnett warns aspiring entrepreneurs that mobile isn’t as easy as it seems. He says there’s a big jump from getting an app on the App Store to building a sustainable business. He says Bitheads has survived by designing apps to client specifications, which means a stable of specialist programmers, market research, and experience dealing with “the back end:” the servers that will handle increased traffic if an app really takes off.

Ottawa isn’t the only town vying for the app crown, and although there is a history of high tech here, it was mainly in networks: that “back end.” Apps on the other hand are all about the user experience, the front end.

But according to Jonathan Simon, director of marketing for 10-year old app studio Magmic, a spirit of co-operation has grown up among Ottawa’s younger developers that lets them turn to each other for the skills and experiences they lack.

“There’s a collaboration going on in Ottawa now,” he says. “It’s not one company against the other company. We’re trying to work together with all the other developers in the mobile space and learn from each other and just basically bring Ottawa back on the map as what it used to be in terms of technology.”

Not unlike the atmosphere that saw two geeks named Steve demo a computer they built in a garage to their friends in 1970s California.