Metro area poised to grow with mobile technology boom

Apps — those cheap or free smartphone tools that give you coupons, let you play games, and can help run your life — are everywhere, and their proliferation is fueling a mobile technology industry that business leaders say can be a major local job generator.

Contrary to a popular perception, the industry is made up of more than lone-wolf computer whizzes cranking out novelty apps in their basements. Big and getting-bigger companies in metro Atlanta are jumping on the mobile train.

A prime example is AirWatch, an Atlanta-based mobile software firm that anticipates adding 700 jobs this year according to company Chairman Alan Dabbiere. The company is holding a news conference Friday with Gov. Nathan Deal at which economic development is expected to be discussed.

A 2012 study ranked Georgia fifth in the nation in mobile app industry employment, with 24,000 jobs, and pegged the industry’s economic impact at just over $1 billion — seventh-best. Many of those workers are at larger companies whose primary business is not the creation of apps, but many small firms are generating jobs in the field.

“Atlanta and Georgia are uniquely positioned because we already have strengths in key areas where mobility is a big part of the change that is going on,” said Blake Patton, head of the Advanced Technology Development Center, a start-up company accelerator. “There’s an enormous opportunity for Georgia to be a leader in this space.”

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“There are currently more significant industries in Georgia, but it’s in the very early stages, so it should expand rapidly,” said Tino Mantella, president and CEO of the Technology Association of Georgia.

AirWatch, already one of the largest local companies in the field, has nearly 1,000 employees worldwide and about 650 here since its launch in 2003. Software developers at AirWatch create and maintain mobile apps for businesses, allowing companies to manage how the mobile devices they provide to their employees are used, and how their employees use their own devices to access company data.

“We’re following the rising tide of the popularity of mobility,” CEO John Marshall said. People “are absolutely blown away,” he said, when they hear how many employees the company has. “They think we’re maybe 50 people in a garage.”

The combining of connectivity and portability in mobile devices, coupled with the many possible uses offered by apps, is attracting businesses and consumers.

Late last year, 45 percent of adults in the U.S. owned a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center, and Apple’s App store had more than 700,000 active mobile apps.

While accounting for only a small percentage of all technology jobs right now, the industry is expected to expand as consumers and businesses step into an increasingly mobile world.

How many jobs that expansion will produce is anybody’s guess. But growth will require the hiring of people to design, build and manage mobile apps and to provide security and support for them. Indirect positions in sales, marketing, human resources and accounting also would be created. Many of those jobs can pay upwards of $60,000.

Growth in the Atlanta area’s mobile industry can be attributed in part to the presence of academic institutions where mobility is a focus, including Georgia Tech, and to corporations that are active in the mobile space. The financial, retail, educational and health care sectors — all well represented in metro Atlanta — are in the vanguard of the movement.

“At first, it surprised me that Georgia was that high (in the industry job rankings), but it makes sense,” app industry author Michael Mandel explained. “There’s a concentration of highly educated people and (the metro area is) headquarters for a fair number of companies.”

Michael Tavani, founder of Scoutmob, an Atlanta mobile couponing company, said business trends suggest mobile is where it’s at.

“There’s no denying it: These smartphones are small computers sitting in our pockets,” he said. “Over the next five years there’s going to be more smartphone penetration. You’re going to have more people spending more time (with them). That’s going to be their online connection.”

Other local companies — many of them still relatively small but growing — are entering the mobile field. They include:

— Pretty in My Pocket, which offers a mobile app that customers can use to get information about brands as well as coupons when they are making beauty product purchases. The Atlanta company employs five.

— Egos Ventures, whose Cycloramic app lets users take 360-degree panoramic videos without a tripod or swivel. The award-winning app causes the phone to vibrate, making it turn as it shoots. It’s been praised by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The Atlanta company employs three.

— RunMobile, which helps companies build, deploy and manage mobile software solutions. The seven-employee Alpharetta firm is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a mobile app that assessment teams can use to create damage reports in a disaster area.

— SolutionBuilt, an Atlanta digital marketing agency that develops websites and mobile apps. “Everyone, especially the younger generation, is tied to their mobile devices,” founder Matt Rogers said. “Users’ expectations are always growing with the advancements of social, mobile and gaming technology. I can’t wait to see what’s next.” Employment at the firm averages 7-10 workers.

Also, Elavon, a payment processor, said this month it plans to open a research hub here that would employ about 50. A subsidiary of U.S. Bank, Elavon will create a mobile technology think tank for cellphone-based applications and other mobile payment platforms.

President and CEO Mike Passilla likes mobile’s future, and Georgia’s role in it.

“From telecommunications companies and world class higher education institutes like Georgia Tech and Emory, to the support of the local community … this market continues to be ripe for innovation,” he said. “As mobile solutions evolve to meet demand, the need for mobile apps will correlate to what could become a near insatiable need for innovative, tech-savvy employees.”

The mobile industry, AirWatch’s Marshall said, will only get bigger.

“We’re only in the first inning,” he said.

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