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On the outer edge of apps
Busy people carve out spare time to design applications for smart phones as they pursue the next big idea

Kathryn Lahrs is a computer programmer and analyst for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the mother of 11-month-old twin girls and in training to run her first marathon in May.

On top of all this, in her spare time she develops applications for BlackBerry smart phones.

She has produced five so far, including one, "Santa Tracker," that BlackBerry named a featured holiday app last month.

"I have a lot of ideas. I just don't have time to get them all out," the 28-year-old said over bratwurst and potato pancakes in Ulrich's Tavern on Ellicott Street.

Her apps have sold a few thousand copies, and Lahrs is one of a growing number of amateur developers competing against design companies to come up with the next "killer app."

These dabbling developers include one of Lahrs' former co-workers at M&T Bank, John Sherman, and her mother, Ruth Kartalis, who saw her first app go live on BlackBerry App World last week.

"To me, programming is fun. It looked like fun, and I decided I would try it, too," said Kartalis, who is assistant director of technology for the Orchard Park Central School District.

Apps -- the term was the American Dialect Society's 2010 "Word of the Year" -- are used on computers and smart phones. They help people keep track of calories burned, provide up-to-the-second sports scores, stream music, cull news stories and perform other tasks.

Apple's App Store has more than 300,000 apps, but BlackBerry and designers of other smart phones have jumped in with their own app marketplaces.

Many apps are produced by the major tech companies or professional design studios. But anyone who can come up with a good idea, and win approval for it, can get the chance to put an app out in front of the public.

"Right now, I'm trying to think of my next idea. There's so many apps out there, it's hard to think of something that hasn't been done 100 times over," said Sherman, an M&T software developer.

Lahrs talked with Sherman, who created an app for Apple's App Store. Sherman's app lets golfers and hunters use the GPS unit in their iPhone to determine how far they are from their target.

He named it "DistanceMap" and has seen the app sell about 1,100 copies at $1.99 for the iPhone and 500 copies of the $3.99 version for the iPad.

"You always want to sell more," Sherman said.

Around the same time, Lahrs got her first smart phone, a BlackBerry Tour. She started playing around with the available apps and decided to try to produce her own.

She began her first app last August, and it took her about three weeks to finish. Lahrs was familiar with the coding language, but she had to get used to programming for a smart phone instead of a computer. The app is based on the game "MASH," which stands for "Mansion, Apartment, Shack and House" and will be familiar to any pre-teenage girls.

"It's pretty silly, and I honestly thought it would do nothing, but I thought, what did I have to lose?" she said. "It averages about 10 sales per day. It's not great, but it's not terrible."

The app sells for 99 cents on App World, where it has won praise from buyers who channeled childhood memories.

She works on MASH and her other apps for about three hours a night after she and her husband, Ed, put daughters Mikayla and Nicole to bed. Her husband doesn't mind her devotion to app-making because, she said with a laugh, "he enjoys playing his video games at night. We are nerdy."

Her second app, "Santa Tracker," allowed a child to write a letter to Santa Claus and to receive a response that appeared to come from Santa but really came from Mom or Dad. Also, parents could enter a child's Christmas Eve bedtime into the app, which used the phone's GPS capability to provide regular updates as Santa got closer that evening.

BlackBerry named it a featured holiday app, and it received publicity from bloggers who write about apps. "Santa Tracker" sold about 3,200 copies at $1.99.

"Everything snowballs, and it became much bigger than I expected," Lahrs said. "Unfortunately, it's seasonal, so I'm not selling any now."

Her latest app, released Wednesday, is "Streaking."

People trying to quit smoking, for example, mark cigarette-free days in the app, which tracks current and longest-ever streaks and tries to motivate people to keep to their goals. The app's three reviews so far include one from Lahrs' mother, who not surprisingly gives the app five stars out of five.

Lahrs has one more app awaiting approval for the company's new PlayBook tablet and is working on more for the PlayBook and smart phones.

"Now that people around me know that this is what I do, they'll say, 'Hey, I have an idea for you,' " Lahrs said.

She gets the standard rate of 70 percent of the revenue from each sale, and she's putting her modest profits into a fund for the new home that she and her husband hope to buy.

Lahrs even got her mother into the app-design business. Her app was inspired by a former co-worker who enthusiastically kept track of how many days of work she had left in the months before her retirement.

Kartalis' "Retirement Countdown" eliminates the need for people to figure out the math.

It has sold about 15 per day in its short time on App World, Kartalis said, and her daughter returned the favor by giving "Retirement Countdown" five stars.

"To me, it's not about the money," she said. "I do love programming, and I love having something out there and getting e-mails from people saying they're using it and enjoying it."