Regular TechRepublic writer and HR recruiter Tim Heard recently looked into the job market for mobile apps and here’s what he found out.

The game Subway Shuffle, is a fun and somewhat addictive diversion that you can download for your iPhone or iPad.  Gameplay is pretty straightforward.  You’re on a subway and you want to get to the end of the red line.  Along the way, you have to work your way around other cars on other lines.  Each level gets more complex, requiring quite a bit of thought to successfully complete the puzzle as you advance.

For Bob Hearn, Subway Shuffle is a source of revenue.  Bob is a software developer, and the game is one of his creations.  Bob began his career way back in the day co-authoring ClarisWorks with partner Scott Holdaway.  More recently, Bob has also worked with Cloudburst Research to create a really neat app for the iPhone called Autostitch that weaves together multiple photos into one larger or panoramic view.  He is also the CEO of a newly formed company, H3 Labs.

I asked Bob about the challenges and possible benefits of being a mobile app developer.  He confirmed that it’s possible for an individual or small team to make a living doing mobile app development, but cautioned that it’s a bit of a crapshoot.  Using the App Store for the iPhone as an example, there are currently over a quarter of a million various applications available there, most of them games.  For a new developer with a great idea, it can be hard to get noticed enough to really create a buzz resulting in a lot of purchases.  On the other hand, if you hit on the right combination of product, timing, and publicity, you can really do well.

Subway Shuffle and Autostitch represent what the iPhone are best known for: Apps for personal use.  Whether you want to compose an email aloud, play music, play movies, share pictures, blog, connect with old friends on Facebook, or set off a “Weirdo Alert” alarm every time your pre-teen daughter enters the room with her friends, you can find a plethora of suitable apps for the various renditions of Apple and Android devices, and to a lesser extent the various other smartphone operating systems.

However, a growing market is the business application.  While there are some good apps that have been developed for smartphones, this is clearly a market with lots of growth potential, especially as smartphone functionality continues to evolve.

One company stepping into this niche is CrowdCompass, a company that offers branded event management which can be accessed through both their applications for smartphones and via the Web.  Tom Kingsley, the CEO of CrowdCompass, explains the app this way:

“Before the event, app users can set their schedule and select which exhibitors to see by accessing detailed session and exhibitor information including papers, brochures, and photographs, and creating their own custom schedule and list of exhibitors.  They can tweet or email others to create more interest in the event.  During the event, maps of the area, transportation maps, and venue floor plans make it easy to navigate to a booth, meeting room, or nearby restaurant.  Users can also exchange contact information.  After a presentation, users can employ Twitter to post questions that are then directed to the presenter in real time, and are also sent out to others not present at the session to extend it’s reach and participation.”

He also added that CrowdCompass allows users to rate sessions and event organizers to track and aggregate usage metrics.

All that from an app running on a device that fits easily in your pocket. … The lines between phones, UMPCs, tablets and laptops have definitely started to blur, and there’s no turning back.

Huge market potential

I think that the mobile device and mobile app markets will be the “next big thing” for IT professionals in the US.  It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the cumulative impact of these two industries will be the life line that IT professionals have been needing in light of the flight of jobs overseas.  Here’s why:

First, there isn’t going to be one dominant operating system.  What we have already is a fragmented market, which is great for developers.  Current viable operating systems (and who’s to say there won’t be more?) are  iOS (Apple), Android (Google), Blackberry OS 6 (RIM), Symbian (Nokia), Palm OS (HP), and Windows 7  Mobile (Microsoft).

All of these systems need apps, which by definition are not interchangeable from one OS to another.  Furthermore, they aren’t even necessarily interchangeable from one phone to another.  As phones come out with different functionality and/or technical specifications, it requires that, at a minimum, applications must be tested to see if they will work on the new phones.  If they don’t, then additional development is required.

The obvious question is where the developers will come from.  The obvious answer is that they will come from the existing pool of developers, whether they be new grads entering the workforce, people already doing mobile app development, or existing developers in other industries who decide to make a transition into mobile application development.

Whether you make that leap or not, it is great news for you, because it means that there are fewer developers to go around for all industries.

Not only do these industries create an increased demand for developers, but they also create opportunities for a wide range of other skills.  Just off the top of my head, I clicked off a range of other possibilities, which I shared with Hearn and Kingsley as we spoke.  If applications are being created, then they also need to be tested in some fashion.  This could involve in-house QA departments, but also could involve third- party resources that test applications on devices, or test new mobile devices themselves.  As mobile networks continue to expand, they require the folks who build the towers and climb up them when they go haywire, to the individuals who drive around to check network signal strength to the folks who actually configure and maintain the networks, and keep them secure.

While very few IT professionals may have hands on experience with GSM logging tools, some are going to make that leap, and when they do, it diminishes the supply of competent IT professionals that are available for other jobs. What has for the past few years been a buyer’s market, with employers being able to pick and choose, has already begun to shift, and many employers don’t yet know it.

Unlike the current job market in which the demand for labor is somewhat steady and predictable, the mobile markets, at least for the foreseeable future, will probably be just the opposite.  In the business world, for example, you have some pretty well-established market sizes with respect to organizations that use .Net developers, those who use Java developers, and then smaller groups that for the sake of this discussion we’ll call “everyone else.”

In the mobile universe, developers on the client side will be creating apps using, Objective C, C, C++, C#, Java variations, Ruby on Rails, HB++, Silverlight,  XNA and ActionScript.  (Please chime in if I have missed anything.)  The demand for the respective skills over time is probably anyone’s guess, but a recent Bloomberg  Businessweek article  indicated that there is already a shortage of mobile app developers.

Kingsley agreed with my assessment of the potential and shared some interesting facts with me.  Currently, about 42% of Americans use smartphones.  He predicts that figure will increase as mobile device capabilities continue to develop.  Kingsley feels that the real prospects are in the global market, where in many areas lack of infrastructure makes luxuries like having laptops connected to the Internet by cable impractical.  Specifically, he mentioned that the total global population is around 7 or 8 billion, and that more than half the world’s population has mobile phones.  (See here for a supporting article.)  He then went on to talk about the huge positive impact that mobile devices could have on the standard of living and even GDPs of developing countries.  He mentioned specifically a recent study published by the Economist titled Mobile marvels, which is a long, but good read.  (Even worth just skimming initially if you’re a bit ADD like me.)

Certainly there’s going to be some bleed of jobs as outsourcing companies in India, Russia and elsewhere vie for a piece of the pie.  That’s to be expected, and is probably a good thing overall in the long run.  We all want to see economies develop around the world because, aside from the fact that it raises the standard of living, promotes peace, and so on, it also creates additional markets for goods and services.  However, with a market that numbers in the billions rather than just the millions, I think it likely that overseas markets will actually improve job markets here in the US.