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App development becomes a family business for IMAK Creations

'Who is the Smartest?' tests your vocabulary and word usage.

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

Austin has become a hotbed for locally developed apps for brainiacs. Specifically, trivia apps (like the popular "Qrank" from Ricochet Labs) and games that help with standardized-test prep (Aspyr Media's "FutureU," which it developed with Kaplan Inc.) are being rushed to mobile device app stores.

Straddling the line between trivia and test prep is "Who Is the Smartest? Vocabulary," which tests your word knowledge in a format similar to "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" It was developed by IMAK Creations, an Austin app development company made up of parents Mason and Karen Weems and their sons Ian, 11, and Anthony, 16. (The name "IMAK" comes from their first initials.) We spoke to Karen Weems about their app business:

American-Statesman: How did your family get into app development?

Karen Weems: Anthony wanted to get an original iPhone on launch day 2007, so we all waited in line at the Apple Domain store with the hundreds of other people who showed up that day. During the long wait, the excitement of the crowd led Mason to buy an iPhone as well. After spending a few days with our new phones, it was clear that the iPhone was going to be a game changer. We jailbroke our iPhones and started experimenting with making native apps. We spent the next three months developing our first app, a Tron-inspired game called "Serpents." Anthony made a simple button-holding game called "Hold On!" and Mason programmed a drawing app called "ColorTilt." We priced "Serpents" at $1.99, "ColorTilt" at 99 cents and "Hold On!" was free. Not surprisingly, "Hold On!" was our best-selling app and received a lot of interesting review comments. What surprised us, however, was that "ColorTilt" also sold well and was eventually featured by Apple. We sold over 30,000 copies of "ColorTilt" over the next couple of months. With this early success, we decided to continue developing iPhone apps. It's been a great learning experience for our family!

What's the distribution of work, and about how long does it take to develop an app for the four of you?

My primary task is developing all of the educational content for our applications. I also do most of the layout design. Anthony creates all of our graphics and sound effects. Mason does the programming for our apps (except for two coded by Anthony). Ian is the lead tester for our applications, especially our math flashcard apps. The average time it takes us to create a unique app is three months. We usually budget a month or two, but it always takes us longer than we think. Occasionally, we will hire an artist or musician, but the economics of the App Store make it difficult for us to spend much on outside help.

Is there a reason Austin seems to produce lots of quiz/study apps?

The short answer is the University of Texas and the fact that Austin is a great place to live. Austin is full of lots of creative and intelligent people, so it makes sense that local app developers would focus on educational apps. Many of the apps we have developed were created to help Anthony and Ian in school, such as our math and spelling flash cards and our SAT-prep apps.

The iPhone/iPad medium provides a way to deliver educational content in a more fun and engaging way than a print book or a set of paper flash cards.

Where do all the questions for "Who Is the Smartest" come from?

I wrote all of the questions, and the words were selected as the most commonly found words in SAT and GRE prep books. We considered purchasing questions from online sources but found we prefer to customize the questions ourselves. For "Who Is the Smartest?," we quiz users on word definitions, but we also include lots of sentences so that players learn to use the vocabulary words in context. Many questions on the SAT and GRE require test takers to read a paragraph and answer questions about it, so we believe our question format is most helpful for preparing for these kinds of tests. Our goal is to make learning fun so that it doesn't feel like a chore. We think that with "Who Is the Smartest?" we have made improving your verbal skills about as fun as possible. It does seem to draw more of the competitive crowd because of the global high scoreboards and achievements.

The App Store is obviously very crowded. What's the best way to stand out or make sure people find the apps you're producing?

We try to make apps that people will enjoy and recommend to their friends. Since most of our apps are priced under $4, paid advertising is not a profitable option; we rely on word of mouth. To keep our apps in use, we try to regularly update them with new features or content. We also put a lot of effort into the design and polish of our apps with the hope of gaining Apple's attention and being featured by Apple. We've been fortunate to have two of our apps featured on the App Store and one selected as a window display icon in Apple Stores nationwide.

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672