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Apps from the ranks: From battlefield tools and training aids to barracks humor, troops design their own

Oct. 30, 2011 - 12:50PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 30, 2011 - 12:50PM  |  
This app helps with Arabic translation.
This app helps with Arabic translation. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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Build Your Own

Ready to build your own app? Sure, you could pay a developer lots of money to do it for you, but free is good, too.
AppMakr.com, for example, makes it easy to publish your own very basic iPhone, Android or Windows Mobile 7 apps with nothing more than you own digital elbow grease. Buzztouch.com is another option.
Of course, you’ll still have to give up some cash to get apps published for others to purchase, but if you just want to play around with ideas or build something for your own use, they’re both good places start.
If you already have some basic coding chops, Corona SDK may be a better tool. It’s free to use, but again, publishing will cost you, with fees starting at $200.
"Be careful when using development services that distribute apps for you," cautions computer whiz Kim Komando, who writes a tech column for Gannett, parent company of Military Times. "This makes it easier to get your app out there. However, it also means you don’t control your app."
Jon R. Anderson

Here’s some hot apps

Tactical
Practical
Entertainment
Fitness

Even with the Pentagon's own mobile app store stalled like a digital delivery truck mired in cyber mud, a barracks-born legion of military Pep Boys has risen up to get the job done.

They form an eclectic collection of keyboard commandos — enlisted hackers and officer uber-geeks, along with veterans and spouses.

Their creations range from complex navigation tools and Web 2.0-tapping social media efforts to basic training aids and raunchy humor gags. A Marine makes a guide for Army troops while a soldier creates an app for Marine Corps cadence callers. And a Navy spouse crafts one of the best-rated apps to help sailors put their uniforms on properly.

Not all do it to earn extra cash, but today's military app builders are at the very least investing plenty of their own sweat, time and money to see what they can deliver.

Just ask Army Capt. Jonathon Springer.

Muddy-boot beginnings

In the midst of his deployment to Afghanistan last year, Springer was a fed-up cannon cocker who figured there had to be a better way to plot and share basic data on the battlefield.

"It was frustrating because you see all this money being spent by the military on all these great systems, but they don't talk to each other," says Springer, who served as a fire direction officer for the 101st Airborne Division during his third tour downrange.

But even in a war zone, he couldn't help noticing that his iPhone sure was good at linking people up. So he got to work.

Around the same time, the military was eyeballing the computing and connecting power already in the hands of troops like Springer.

With a certain amount of envy, top leaders couldn't help noticing the expeditionary zeal of the legions of new developers — from part-time coders to established software companies — who were cranking out an ever-growing catalog of useful apps.

Hoping to harness it all, the Pentagon heralded the opening of its own app store, the "DoD Application Storefront," that would provide just the quick-turning vehicle to "drive the changes needed to radically speed the delivery of relevant apps," as an August 2010 announcement promised.

Dead links

But more than a year later, Storefront.mil is a dead link, and plans to deliver military-grade apps with the ease of an iTunes download have stalled.

Springer, on the other hand, has garnered some 6,000 downloads after releasing his "Tactical Nav" app for the iPhone in February to rave reviews.

To do that, he to had max out his credit cards to the tune of more than $30,000. And that was while enjoying the kind field-testing that you can get only when people are shooting at you.

Still, Springer says he's glad to have confirmed what he and a growing number of troops have suspected for a while: The best tool in your kitbag just might be the one you build yourself.

His program allows users to share waypoints, plot grid coordinates and swap geotagged photos via email, all on the fly.

"It basically does everything all my issued gear does — plus a lot more — all condensed down into my iPhone," says Springer, now back in the U.S. and in training to become a public affairs officer.

Army apps - for display only

The Army launched its own official app marketplace inside the firewalled Army Knowledge Online portal in April, but for now troops can only window-shop because the Pentagon hasn't approved any phones for troops to use the apps displayed there.

Insiders say it will likely be well into next year before that happens.

"We are closer," says Lt. Col. Gregory Motes, chief of the Army's newly created Mobile Applications Branch at Fort Gordon, Ga., citing security concerns and the difficulty of changing cultural norms.

While he can't say when the doors will open, he and his small crew of coders have found a workaround. They've been quietly cranking out a slew of free, quasi-official apps for both Android-powered devices and Apple's iOS, released under Motes' unofficial banner at FA53.com and available for troops to download to their own phones.

"We have done around 75 apps — 25 or so on iPhone, 25 or so on Android and another 25 or so that have either been developed for individual units or programs or are demonstration apps," he says.

Breaking the code

Army Staff Sgt. William Ernest taught himself how to code a few years ago.

"The first applications were for my own use, basically stuff I wanted on my phone when I was a team leader and squad leader," says Ernest, a military policeman now deployed to Iraq.

But two years after releasing the first of 16 apps, with more than 400,000 downloads to his credit, he's made about $10,000. Among his moneymakers are a series of six Army study guides for which he charges a buck apiece.

But two of his most popular are a pair of free Jody-calling apps — one for the Army, one for the Marine Corps — that he says he just didn't feel right charging for.

Marine Staff Sgt. Andrew Dunn is earning about $2,000 a month from his popular iCorps app, but after taxes, server upkeep and other operating costs, he keeps only about half that.

A self-taught coder and active-duty logistics chief assigned to a Reserve unit in Oregon, Dunn says he plans to launch a blog to help the next generation of app-making newbies.

"I believe in sharing knowledge. It's what makes innovation and entrepreneurship great."

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