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iPhone Apps: A DIY Skill That's in Big Demand

iPhone developers are in demand across the United States and Canada, causing salaries to skyrocket for those with experience creating complex, mobile applications on Apple's iOS platform.

And there's good news for programmers without such skills: You can teach yourself how to develop iPhone apps, thanks to the extensive amount of free information that Apple provides to developers on its website.

"The type of talent that we are constantly looking to attract is the iOS developer," says Scott Michaels, vice president of Atimi Software, a 100-person mobile application developer based in Vancouver that counts among its clients HBO, ESPN and Bloomberg. "We need developers with experience in Android and Windows Mobile, but our primary demand is for iOS and Mac-capable developers."

Michaels says there aren't enough developers that have deep knowledge of and experience with Objective-C, a computer language used in Apple products that differs from the more common C and C++.

"We're 100 people, but we have work for 130 people. We just don't have those extra 30 bodies," Michaels says. He adds that salaries for experienced iPhone developers "just keep going up. Our year-over-year salaries are up almost 20%."

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Atimi isn't the only company looking to hire experienced iPhone developers. So are eBay, CapGemini, Oracle, Charles Schwab, General Electric and hundreds of other software, consulting and Internet-savvy corporations.

Indeed, IT job site Dice.com has 1,380 postings for iPhone developer positions, up 191% compared to last year. Similarly, Dice.com lists 1,617 available jobs for Android developers, up 129% from last year. Another 1,215 job postings ask for mobile developers in general, without specifying a platform.

"Mobile is one of the hottest [IT skills]," says Alice Hill, managing director of Dice.com. "All of these things are converging at the same time. You have this explosion in smartphones. You have this sudden interest in tablets and other devices. ... You have a shortage of experience and great demand. If you're a mobile app developer, that's the perfect, perfect storm for you."

While the demand for mobile app developers is strong across all smartphone platforms, the money is tied squarely to iPhone skills. Hill said tech professionals who develop on the iPhone platform report to Dice.com that they earn nine times more income from app development than those who work on Android.

Hill agrees that iPhone app development is so new that programmers can teach it to themselves and be credible applicants for the available jobs.

"The platforms are really new. You're not going to find this huge workforce of experienced developers," Hill said. "If you have actually developed an iPhone app and gotten it through the Apple approval process, you're going to have a lot of job opportunities. ... Even if you're fresh out of college but can show a really good mobile app, you can get hired. It's a nice growth area for what would traditionally be entry-level employees. They can now jump to the front of the line."

Dice.com surveyed its users and found that many consider themselves hobbyists in the area of iPhones, Android and other mobile platforms.

"It's definitely worthwhile for any programmer to get the SDK and start playing around with Android and iOS and teach themselves Objective-C," Hill said. "They need to figure this out because eventually it will be standard that you have to have a mobile version of whatever software you do. ... It's foolish not be playing around with this at home."

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The lack of available talent in iPhone development, iOS and Objective-C is global, experts say.

"This is not a skill that goes well with outsourcing because the typical shops in India and the Ukraine are focused on wider-breadth technologies such as Windows, and there aren't a lot of Mac developers there," Michaels explained. "Most of the Mac developers have always been around Cupertino and San Francisco, where Apple is located, and there are some in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver."

Michaels says one problem is that few colleges or technical training schools teach programming for the Apple Mac, iPhone or Objective-C. "There are very few options other than going to Apple's developer stream and learning it themselves by taking the online courses that are available there," he added. "It is often a self-taught skill."

Michaels estimates that it would take an experienced C or C++ developer about six months to learn Objective-C at the depth he needs.

Another option is taking an iPhone or mobile app development course through an organization such as Big Nerd Ranch, which offers weeklong training courses outside Atlanta. "They are excellent," Michaels says of Big Nerd Ranch classes in iPhone development.

The demand for iOS training "is incredible right now," said Jaye Liptak, vice president of operations for Big Nerd Ranch. "Last year, we were doing one class every other month. Now we are doing two classes per month. Just in Atlanta, we're teaching anywhere from 36 to 44 people a month here, and then we're teaching in corporations all over the world through our on-site classes."

Liptak said the number of Big Nerd Ranch alumni who have trained in iOS development since classes started three years ago is in the "thousands." She said about half of the students pay for the classes themselves, while half are sponsored by their employers. A beginning iOS development class held at a resort an hour outside Atlanta costs just under $5,000, including training, materials, lodging and food for a week.

Liptak said 70% of the students are interested in learning development for iOS and 30% for Android.

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"After you take our class, you get put on an iOS-specific forum that is constant chatter of people helping each other out," Liptak added. "You have access to our consultants forever. Once you're a Big Nerd Ranch alumni, there's a lot of hand-holding available."

Atimi's Michaels anticipates a shortage of iOS developers for at least another year.

"We are still 70% iOS development and 30% Android today. While Android is gaining quickly, the flagship applications are happening on iOS," Michaels said.

Michaels sees little demand for BlackBerry skills. "Our National Hockey League application was available on BlackBerry, but we're not renewing that effort in this calendar year," Michaels said. "We used to do work for BlackBerry, and we would love to do it again, but that seems unlikely given the way they are handling themselves. None of our Fortune 1000 customers wants to spend any effort on a BlackBerry app today because there's no clear pathway forward on that platform."

For now, Michaels recommends that developers focus on the iPhone. "The size of that ecosystem is growing so fast that the bodies aren't there to write the quality software that everyone is demanding," he said.

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