At Stanford University, Ge Wang teaches computer music: how to make sounds from digits and turn them into melodies and rhythm.
So when the iPhone came out — a portable computer with a built-in microphone (for voice calls), and a graphic screen — a doctoral student with entrepreneurial experience suggested they start a company to bring their research in digital audio to the masses.
Their Ocarina, a 99-cent application that turns the iPhone into a virtual flute, has become one of the iPhone's best-selling apps — to the tune of nearly $800,000. Now out is the sequel, the Leaf Trombone World Stage.
"We believe in the potential of interactive sound; we believe that everyone is inherently creative; and we want to unlock that creativity in everyone," says Wang, 31. "We want to find new types of ways to connect people, using the technology we have before us."
Apple aapl launched the iPhone in June 2007. Its popularity surged even further in July 2008, when Apple introduced a new, faster model and an online App Store, offering software applications.
The apps — an array of fun, handy or just plain practical little programs — range from games and simulated aquariums to subway maps and more. Many are free; others are priced from 99 cents to $10 and up. The App Store — stocked with 15,000 titles — is on tap to move its 1 billionth application any day now.
Most of the developers are small outfits such as Smule, the company that Wang and Jeff Smith started to launch the Ocarina and several other apps. Smith, 35, is CEO.
"One of the biggest hurdles for game developers is getting published. But with the iPhone, you develop it, and Apple starts sending you money," says Bill Trost, who created the No. 2 best-seller Koi Pond (900,000 apps sold) with four friends.
The challenge for developers such as Trost and Wang, says Gartner analyst Van Baker, is building upon the initial success. "It was easier when there wasn't as much competition," he says.
Anything's an instrument
It's not hard to get attention with Ocarina and Leaf Trombone. Using the same iPhone microphone that's intended for voice calls, you blow into it, and through Wang's computer programming, music is created. Twist and turn the phone to add vibrato.
The App Store is crowded with virtual instruments such as Band, Pocket Guitar and Finger Piano. But unlike Ocarina, they didn't crack the top 20 best-selling apps chart.
Wang's marketing strategy focused on working the social Web via YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. He shared many videos of Ocarina in use by students and other performers on YouTube.
"We're making use of technology in ways that people haven't seen, and video really helps people to understand that," says Wang. "If you see some person holding a phone like a sandwich and have sound coming out, you get it."
To plug the new Leaf Trombone, Wang reached out to a popular YouTube performing duo named Rhett and Link, who have attracted a wide audience for their amusing musical videos. He dangled an advance copy of the Leaf Trombone application, and they spun up a new version of Movin' On Up, the theme song from The Jeffersons TV show — complete with trombone solo.
The Leaf "takes me back to my school days, where you could turn anything into an instrument," says the duo's Link Neal.
He found the virtual trombone a little tougher to play than the Ocarina, but once he had it down, "It's cool to pull something out and be the Pied Piper."