Sitting on a perpendicular couch in a small, tidy Santa Monica apartment, a laptop screen staring them in the face, Charlie Viracola and Tyler Stromberg diligently craft what they hope will change their lives forever. The idea is a fun, accessible yet distinctly quirky piece of work that will set them apart from the competition and perhaps even go “No. 1 with a bullet.” These guys aren’t musicians, though, and they’re not creating a song. Viracola is a professional standup comedian, writer and creator of imaginative comedic props, while Stromberg is a UCLA film student and computer whiz; what they’re devising is an iPhone application, or “app,” one of those increasingly ubiquitous bits of digital gadgetry that your ‘early adopter’ friends shove in your face while cooing, “Look what I’ve got on my iPhone!”
iPhone apps, which also work on the iPod Touch, are sold only through the iTunes Store online. Apple has made the programming and selling of apps a wide-open, out-of-house endeavor, so any creative-minded, tech-savvy soul can join the fray and take his or her video game, entertaining diversion, practical utility or absurd digital-dada art project to market and see how it fares in the world of the iconic 3.5-inch diagonal screen. Creators can distribute their apps for free, or charge whatever they want, but with a minimum price of 99 cents. While most are between 99 cents and $4.99, some highly specialized or powerful apps sell for a lot more, and on all sales, Apple keeps 30 percent of the cash.
Some current big sellers are Camp Fire (audio/video of a hearty crackling fire), Koi Pond (randomly swimming fish), Star Wars Light Saber (which emits the trademark modulating buzz sound whenever the phone’s manipulated) and Shazam (an especially brilliant app that lists crucial facts on any song just by holding the phone up to the music). As with any creative pursuit promising potentially huge rewards, the playing field has crowded rapidly.
“Now there are so many thousands of these apps, I can’t keep track of them myself,” says Viracola, whose focused intensity contradicts his skater/army-surplus attire. “Half the time, when people hear that I make apps and see that I have some for sale, they immediately go, ‘Have you seen this one?’ And half the time I go, ‘No, I haven’t. What is that?’ And I go home and do just what I hope people will do with mine: I download theirs and put it on my phone and sit there and play with it.
When the app store opened in July 2008, and there were just 500 apps for sale, programmers must have felt the way aspiring rock & rollers did back in 1953. “It’s already almost too late for the ‘Wild Wild West,’” Viracola says. “That’s over. There are more than 10,000 apps. Now you almost have to advertise what you have for people to find it.”
Viracola and Stromberg’s apps reflect healthy doses of humor and endearing quirk. Einstein Quotes features a video head of everybody’s favorite genius scientist randomly dispensing actual quotes out of a purposefully crude South Park–ian moving mouth, in a slightly cartoony voice that Viracola did himself. Shakespeare Quotes is based on the same idea, but with Old English trumpet flourishes. Pet Translator shows you what your animal friend is really saying — and it turns out that your mammal companion is really saying stuff like: “I want to drive the car sometime,” “If you don’t want to pet me, get me a Swedish massage,” and “Protect yourself, I’m not into violence.”
“Somebody wrote a bad review online: ‘It’s not edgy enough,’” says Viracola, with a trace of indignation. “What they don’t realize when they do that is, sure, we could have an adult version that said, ‘If you could lick your balls, wouldn’t ya?’ And don’t think that I couldn’t write a million of those and they’d be hilarious. But Apple would never approve that. You can’t put that in.”
Two other Viracola/Stromberg apps are Peepers, a large pair of eyes that move around comically as you move the phone, and Pet Mogul, featuring a peculiar little creature that snoozes, responds audibly to “petting,” eats piles of money and poops skyscrapers. It bears a strong resemblance to the hair-type object seen atop the skull of an insanely famous real estate developer/pop-culture celebrity. “Even though it was not made with a certain mogul in mind,” states Viracola, with a keen sense of legal and business diplomacy, “if that certain mogul were to see this, I think he would be impressed with the entrepreneurship of myself and Tyler for immortalizing a particular … something that kind of resembles something unique on a mogul.”
The quieter Stromberg, a tall, slender, somewhat pointy-featured chap right out of Techie Central Casting, pipes in: “Right now, it’s just a saturated market. It’s flooded with quantity rather than quality. I think there are a lot of good ideas that have yet to come to fruition. Everyone’s just trying to get something out there, jump on the bandwagon. I think with time, as people finally settle down and [apps] really finds its place, there’ll be a lot of stuff yet to come.”
So, where do these guys ultimately see themselves in this increasingly populated, competitive field? “I’m a comedian,” says Viracola, with hopeful bravado. “I design interesting toys for a number of different prop people, I come up with unique little production ideas, and I do my act, and Tyler’s a film student. We’re an unusual creative packaging and we want to try to take it up a step, make it more like Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Let’s turn some of these apps — eventually, with the right amount of money and time — into something a little more artistic and cool.”