The App Economy is still going strong, and it's tempting our best and brightest minds with low barriers of entry and large rewards that traditional, grant-funded laboratory research might not deliver.

Auckland biomedical scientist and Apple iOS developer Axton Pitt attended Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco earlier this month, having been awarded one of 350 scholarships by the US IT giant to cover the cost of the trip.

He was in fact one of the older students at the WWDC at 22. Like the others, Pitt was in awe at the size of the event and the huge wealth of experience shared by independent developers and Apple techies.

We sit in the combined work and lunch room at the hotel near the WWDC held at the Moscone events centre, and it becomes immediately clear that I'm talking to a very focused and bright 22-year old who has carefully mapped out his future.


Pitt's claim to fame is the Analyser health app. He worked with four student friends, Elina Ashimbayeva, Michael Hambammer, and Quentin Burrell, from the course at the University of Auckland to derive baselines for medical metrics, from a range of studies.

"We wanted to do the app when Apple Watch came out, to compare the data that came out of it with the sort of levels people should be aiming for," Pitt said.

The four worked out baselines for people adjusted for their height, weight, and sex, by studying publicly available papers, so that the Analyser app can provide individually tailored heart rate and calorie burning targets based on the data it collects from a user's Apple Watch.

"It helps you see if you're doing OK," Pitt said.

The app has been out for just a month, and has so far under a 100 users. It's free, but offers in-app purchases which Pitt says is to recoup the cost of developing the app and the time and resources he's expended on it.

"Also, the in-app purchases make it a serious app, and not a toy for me," he added.
It is serious business too for Pitt and friends who are planning on taking the app further by approaching local health authorities, medical clinics and gyms "down the track."

The four have also thought through the fact Apple's iOS app world is for rich people. The Apple Watch is not cheap, nor is an iPhone or an iPad that are required to run Analyser.

Low income people who would benefit the most from using the Analyser app to monitor their health statistics are unlikely to be able to fork out almost two thousand dollars for the hardware it requires, and Pitt acknowledged it.

"This is true, we're definitely looking at making the app available in the future for different platforms like Android," Pitt said.

Pricey hardware notwithstanding, Apple's App Store has grown into a monster-sized marketplace. There are now over two million apps in it, and Apple said at its most recent Worldwide Developers Conference that it has so far paid out US$50 billion (NZ$71.5 billion) to coders so far.

With that kind of popularity, how do you prevent your idea from drowning in the sea of other apps?

"Be a niche player, find your own space be highly differentiated. It's a good starting point too, if you do get to that, you can always move to another place.

"Also, keep up with the new stuff - like handwriting on Apple Watch as revealed in the latest version of the operating system," he added.

Although the "hypergrowth" of the last few years for apps probably won't continue, Pitt believes that smaller players who are flexible and can act fast have an advantage over larger developers, and therefore should have good opportunities for the future.

For me personally, it's been really interesting to see what an individual can achieve with software, compared to being in a lab.


WWDC and university means Pitt is having a busy time of it. He's also starting a job after graduation, which is at the end of June.

For Pitt, it's software all the way from now on.

Is there a danger then that app development could tempt scientists away from research given the low barrier of entry - all you need is a computer and an Apple developer account to kick off your idea and start earning money - compared to chasing grants and spending years in a laboratory.

"I think there could be, I think I've been lucky to be involved with other students who have been further down the path with research and field work beyond undergraduate level, and that's enabled me to make a decision as to the future," he said.

"For me personally, it's been really interesting to see what an individual can achieve with software, compared to being in a lab," Pitt added.

There will be many others going down the same path as Pitt, and only the future can tell what it'll mean for science. Apple might want to start thinking about the phenomenon though, and help fund some of the research that its app developers will be relying on in the future, out of the enormous profits it makes.