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A Playland for Apps in a Tablet World

Apple’s move to open up the iPhone to outside programmers in 2008 started a software-writing frenzy. Giant companies and bedroom tinkerers alike rushed to get their applications into the App Store and onto the phone’s 3.5-inch touch screen.

Now those developers are about to get a bigger stage — or at least a bigger screen.

The tablet computer that Apple is widely expected to introduce on Wednesday will run applications designed for the iPhone, judging from data that an app-tracking company is picking up from devices in use around Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

Apple's iPhone 3Gs
Jack Guez | AFP | Getty Images
Apple's iPhone 3Gs

But the larger screen — most likely 10 inches diagonally — and other features of the tablet could inspire developers to create new twists on apps, like games that two or more people can easily play at once on the same device.

“Given the success of the iPhone, developers are going to start devoting resources to developing for the bigger format,” said Gene Munster, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray. “The larger screen really plays to the imagination and clearly gives app developers a new kind of canvas.”

Ge Wang, co-founder of Smule, the company behind applications like Ocarina and I Am T-Pain that turn the iPhone into a music machine, said he expected the tablet to be better than the iPhone at detecting the touch of many fingers.

“On the iPhone, there are five touch points max,” Mr. Wang said. “You don’t need much more than that because that’s about all you can fit on that screen.”

A tablet with a bigger and better multitouch screen, he said, “could mean entirely new user interfaces, screen layouts, instruments, contraptions and games.” Mr. Wang said his company was not working on anything specific for an Apple tablet but was eager to begin experimenting.

Other developers of iPhone applications see the tablet as a way to grab a bigger share of the wider software market. Some analysts estimate that the App Store generates as much as $1 billion a year in revenue for Apple and its developers, and a larger device is likely to expand that pie.

“We are always competing with the television in the living room,” said Bart Decrem, chief executive of Tapulous, a start-up in Silicon Valley that makes games and other applications for the iPhone and its phoneless cousin, the iPod Touch. “We spend a lot of time battling with Rock Band, Guitar Hero and even YouTube for our users’ time.”

Tapulous says it is profitable, with rapid revenue growth from sales of its popular tap-to-the-music games. Its series of Tap Tap Revenge games have been downloaded more than 25 million times. “A new form factor like a tablet that gets closer to a PC or a television screen could help get us more market share and mind share,” Mr. Decrem said.

Tapulous will adapt its current lineup of applications for a tabletlike device, but will wait to see how well the tablet sells before pouring resources into developing new applications for it, Mr. Decrem added. The tablet is expected to go on sale in the spring, and it is not known what price Apple will set.

A few clues about what kinds of applications Apple employees are trying out on the tablet come from Flurry, a mobile analytics company that offers developers a free tool which gathers data about the use of their applications. With the data, Flurry can generate reports about the location of an application’s users, for example, or how long it took a user to complete a game level.

Applications with the Flurry software built in also send a unique code identifying what kind of device they are running on. Flurry said its systems began detecting a new class of device last October. About 50 of the devices have been detected so far, most of them being used near Cupertino, said Peter Farago, vice president for marketing at Flurry.

“We saw a lot of testing of applications that deal with daily media consumption, like news, books, streaming music and radio,” Mr. Farago said. “But we are also seeing so many social apps, like multiplayer games you can play with your friends.”

While he said contractual obligations prevented him from naming specific applications, Mr. Farago said the data also showed “a heavy emphasis on what people can do during those in-between moments and while in transit” — using apps for finding restaurants or keeping shopping lists, for example.

Laura DiDio, an independent wireless analyst who keeps a close eye on Apple, said she expected the tablet to demonstrate some innovation in navigation and weather forecasts. She said she also expected to see apps that used the tablet as a teaching tool and allowed people to hold a videoconference while sharing media.

There are indications that Apple may want the tablet to run some business-oriented applications that require complex interactions with the screen. A former Apple designer has said programmers at the company were developing a multitouch version of iWork, Apple’s equivalent to Microsoft’s Office software suite. Apple has declined to discuss any plans for a tablet.

It is not known how many of the more than 100,000 applications available for the iPhone will run on the tablet. But Flurry’s data indicates that the tablet will run an upgraded version of the iPhone’s operating system, possibly running older applications in a small window on the screen.

“Apple has just spent a year and a half training developers to program their devices,” said Carl Howe, director for consumer research at the Yankee Group, a technology consulting company. “I don’t think they’re going to break that model.”

Mr. Howe added that while he believed most of the current App Store offerings would work, they might look a little unusual.

“Taking a 3.5-inch experience and scaling it up to 10 inches or so would distort things,” Mr. Howe said. “But the guidelines for the original iPhone apps mention planning for more device sizes, so developers have thought about how their apps translate to larger screens.”

A tablet may also bring changes to the economy of the App Store, where developers who choose to charge for their applications face market pressure to keep prices low, said Marc Strohlein, an analyst at the market research company Outsell. Many of the most popular paid apps sell for 99 cents.

“More memory and new features will encourage the development of more sophisticated apps of higher quality, which will push up the price tag,” he said.

Developers’ excitement over the tablet could quickly fade if the device does not catch on with the public. “Historically, tablet computers have not been big sellers,” Mr. Strohlein said. “No one has quite gotten it right before.”

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