Where Phones in Class Are OK

New courses about iPhone-application development teach students how to program and design -- and, if they're lucky, make money.
August 20, 2009

Tyler Auten was often spotted fiddling with his iPhone in class last semester. But the device wasn’t a distraction from homework -- it was his homework.

Auten was one of nine students learning to create iPhone applications, or apps, for a new course at New Jersey Institute of Technology last spring. More than halfway through the seminar, the information technology major dreamed up two apps of his own, developed them with the knowledge gained in class, and sold them on Apple’s online store for $0.99 each.

Auten’s programs have since been downloaded 11,000 times and netted him more than $1,000, with Apple keeping 30 percent of the revenue. “Kids Be Gone” aims to annoy children by emitting high-frequency tones only they can hear, while “Party Music Strobe” shines a strobe light to the beat of any song played on the iPhone. Of their success, the 22-year-old remarked, “The stupider the application is, the more sales you get.”

A growing number of universities are teaching students like Auten to program for the iPhone, Google's Android, and other smart phone systems, fueled by the belief that mobile development is the next technological gold mine. Over the past year, department-sponsored classes have sprouted at Stanford University, University of Southern California, New York University, Seneca College in Canada, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Mississippi State University, with other institutions following their lead. Others are extension or student-taught courses, such as at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon University.

They have reason to be enthusiastic. One billion apps have been downloaded from Apple's App Store, while sales for the iPhone and iPod Touch total more than 37 million. Many institutions are participating in Apple's free iPhone Developer University Program, which provides students with tools to develop, test, debug and share apps. A company spokesman would not disclose the number of institutions in the program.

Elliot Soloway, a professor in computer science and engineering at Michigan, said he decided to start his course in the winter to flex students’ technical and entrepreneurial muscles. A 48-hour programming contest and other activities yielded projects like a graphing calculator and an alarm that notifies users of bus stop arrivals. Soloway’s classes normally enroll 15 students; this one drew 50.

“The lure for them wasn’t just mobile programming. It was finding they could take an idea and make money from it, all in one semester,” he said

Three of his students -- Jason Bornhorst, Kunal Jham and Mayank Garg -- enjoyed their homework so much, they made it their full-time job. Inspired by the film Pay It Forward, their free iPhone app “DoGood” urges users to perform a daily act of kindness, such as “Leave a quarter inside a pay phone today.” It is downloaded about 500 times a day, its creators say.

Bornhorst, a senior and computer science engineering major, said he plans to take a light course load so he can spend 60 hours a week operating Mobil33t, their mobile-application company. He credits Soloway’s course with propelling him into the grueling but fulfilling start-up life. “As a computer science student, it took until senior year to make the connections on how the code I write actually translates into real-world products,” he said.

It’s not easy to stand out in the glutted App Store. Its thousands of useful (and not-so-useful) programs let users fill their screens with frothy "beer," pop virtual bubble wrap and even rate their abilities in bed. To turn a profit, professors say, developers need an interdisciplinary knowledge of computer code, design, business and marketing.

This fall, Mississippi State University will complement its existing programming course with a new class in iPhone entrepreneurship, which has drawn students in business and non-computing fields, said Rodney Pearson, a professor of information systems. “The scientists and engineers, they will invent something that you have to commercialize to make it a successful innovation,” he said.

Even English majors may have a stake in the market. At Vanderbilt University, students in the new smart phone-programming course will draw ideas from an English seminar that examines literature-based narratives in video games, said Doug Schmidt, a computer science professor.

The increase in iPhone-related courses raises the ever-present question of whether industry is dictating curriculum or practice in higher education. But Apple is usually not involved in teaching, except at Stanford, whose course is taught by two employees serving as lecturers.

In addition, all the professors interviewed said their campuses have Apple equipment, so students are not required to own iPhones -- though many already do -- and many of the classes are geared toward smart phones in general. “I tell all students that in five years, they won’t be doing iPhone programming, they’ll be doing something else,” Pearson said. “The concepts will be the same, they’ll just be learning a new language or platform to apply it to.”

Computer science professors, too, are continually learning. Schmidt recalled whipping out squirt guns as an undergraduate playing "Assassins"; now the game exists as a virtual app. Peter McIntyre of Seneca College said the iPhone he bought last year is the first cell phone he’s ever owned. And Enoch Hwang said he’s having trouble finding a textbook for his upcoming iPhone course at La Sierra University -- the course material, after all, is still being written.

Smart phone apps are a bright spot in the economic downturn, and it is possible for a student to code the next blockbuster, said Nathan Hull, a clinical professor of computer science at New York University. “Even if you don’t [write a blockbuster game], I think it’s a great skill to have.”

Auten, the New Jersey student, said that before his iPhone class, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduation. Now he is being paid to program applications for Blackberry and the iPhone, will start a master’s program in information technology in the fall, and plans to stay in mobile development for as long as possible. Above all, he values how the technology is leveling the playing field more and more every day.

“If you have a good idea, you can outsell Google, and there’s nowhere else you can say, ‘I can outsell Google with a good idea,’ ” he said. “And really, it can be one person.”


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