A phone is a lifeline, a solution to a problem. The power these handheld devices possess is remarkable and often taken for granted. Students silently tap their coveted Droids or iPhones — strategically placed behind a notebook or calculator — using touch-screen technology to text, check Facebook or just to stay awake during lecture. But some students at the University don’t take them for granted, because they know what it’s like to make an app — from start to finish.

In the College of Engineering, students enrolled in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science 441: Mobile App Development for Entrepreneurs learn about the importance of software engineering by developing mobile applications and the many opportunities glowing beneath their fingertips. The course educates students on how the mobile landscape is formed, and expects students to have designed, tested and released a functional mobile app by the end of class.

The types of programs in the class run the gamut from an app called ASKMessaging, which helps people struggling with fine motor control type e-mails, to an app called Boolinkr that finds and sells used books, videogames or any product with a barcode.

Roki Soeharyo, an LSA senior, is taking EECS 441 this semester and is one of three students working on Boolinkr. According to Soeharyo, users who have Boolinkr will automatically detect other devices that have the app and are selling the product the user is looking for.

“I think that there’s a big market for used books, videogames, movies and whatnot,” Soeharyo said. “People have tried exchange programs before, and this is just one way to trade things locally.”

ASKMessaging is a continuation of a EECS 481 Winter 2011 semester project. EECS 481 is another software engineering class led by Engineering senior Chris McMeeking and five other Engineering students.

According to McMeeking, the group developed the iPhone version of the app after speaking with therapists at Mott Children’s Hospital who work with patients struggling with fine motor control. The patients couldn’t target the small buttons on handheld devices, which made typing e-mails and similar activities impossible.

ASKMessaging addresses the problem by highlighting each row of the keyboard for a few seconds at a time. If the user wants a letter in a specific row, he or she waits until it’s highlighted and then taps anywhere on the screen. Each letter in the selected row is then highlighted one at a time, and the user selects individual letters in the same way.

McMeeking is now a founder of ASKApplications, a mobile application company created as a product of his group project. The company is now working on the Android version of ASKMessaging. As the app is tested and becomes fully functional, McMeeking hopes to focus more on the its aesthetic appeal.

“We’re trying to add a creative aspect to it,” McMeeking said. “We don’t want it to look amateur, and the ones that are successful are the ones that look pretty. Flashy apps are the ones that are downloaded.”

But classy or not, mobile phone apps aren’t developed solely through classes at the ‘U.’

Founded in 2009, student organization MSuite solves problems through mobile solutions for the University and has been steadily growing to its current size of about 30 members. Apoorva Bansal, a Masters student in Engineering and a leading member of MSuite, also acknowledged the relevance of creativity and visual appeal when designing and programming mobile apps.

“Inherently pretty applications are more appealing and popular,” Bansal said. “We actively look for graphic designers, but they’re hard to come by for some reason. Programmers can only do so much — you really need some level of beautification.”

So far, MSuite has developed a CTools mobile app and is currently working on several others including one for the men’s basketball team. It will serve as an electronic nameplate in the locker room on which players can check stats and access their schedule for classes and upcoming games.

According to Bansal, MSuite’s steady growth and the increasing relevance of the mobile application market have led to the discussion of a new Engineering course specifically designed to train students how to program and create mobile apps.

“(EECS) 441 teaches students about the mobile landscape, but there isn’t a good intro course to help develop the mobile space,” Bansal said. “We need a course that focuses on learning skills.”

With the possible addition of faculty who are experts in the mobile landscape, the University can keep up with technology, Bansal said.

“I’ve met with a lot of talented freshmen who may not have the programming ability for mobile development right now, but they definitely have the ability to learn,” Bansal said. “Michigan will have a much stronger presence (in the mobile application market) if we get these students up and running.”

But, according to Bansal, what is most important about learning how to make an app is how to creatively design a solution to a problem — and at the University in this day and age, many of these solutions can be found in the palm of your hand.

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