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‘Appy’ Indo-Canadians

Developing popular games and applications for smartphones, a few Indo-Canadians are carving a niche in the Silicon Valley of the Great White North.

business Updated: Dec 25, 2011 01:50 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Amar-Varma-of-Xtreme-Labs-Makers-of-cross-platform-apps-among-the-largest-internationally-for-BlackBerry
Amar-Varma-of-Xtreme-Labs-Makers-of-cross-platform-apps-among-the-largest-internationally-for-BlackBerry

Xtreme Labs, formed in November 2007 by a couple of young Indo-Canadians, is a leading edge mobile applications or apps company. Based in downtown Toronto, it’s among the largest developers of apps for RIM’s BlackBerry, if not the largest. It also has a strong presence across other platforms such as Android and Apple.

It’s also a leading example of the phenomenon of Indo-Canadians, mostly based in Toronto, having an outsized influence on the mobile apps sector. The community’s prominence in what is described as the Silicon Valley of the Great White North is sometimes startling.

Xtreme Labs was formed soon after one of its co-founders Amar Varma got his personal smartphone and realised the potential the device presented. “I got it about 60 days before we started the company. We thought this is neat, let’s do this,” Varma said. So he, and another Indo-Canadian Sundeep Madra, launched the enterprise.

“Our first app was an app for Disney. It was very basic, it’s gotten a lot more complex since,” Varma said. That was, expectedly, a BlackBerry app. Since then Xtreme Labs has worked on more than 200 published applications and its client list has had more than a quarter billion installations.

Xtreme’s most popular self-branded app globally is SpeedTest, which has been run more than 100 million times worldwide. It’s a simple app that tests the speed of the Internet connection on your smartphone.

The Indo-Canadian tech community is well networked. Xtreme Labs’ chairman is Ray Sharma, who founded his own company XMG Studio in 2009.

XMG is among the largest independent developers of games apps in North America. “I wanted to start it for personal reasons. I loved games,” Sharma said. Now, he said, it is the largest mobile games studio in Canada, with a sizeable footprint throughout North America. Some of its games like Marine Sharpshooter and Little Metal Ball hit number one among downloaded free apps in Apple’s App Store. Other popular games include Powder Monkeys and Cows Vs Aliens.

“The US is our biggest market by far. We have hundreds of thousands of daily players in the US alone,” Sharma said. Now, XMG wants to go global, including establishing an India presence.

Given the connected nature of these entrepreneurs, it isn’t surprising that others have also emerged from this incubator of sorts in Toronto. For instance, another successful apps maker Polar Mobile shared Xtreme Studio’s office space at one time, as did the creator of BumpTop.

Polar Mobile, also based in Toronto, is focused on news apps. “Our vision is to help transform the media industry with software,” its CEO Kunal Gupta said. Polar Mobile works with 320 media brands including Bloomberg, CBS and Condé Nast.

The thought process behind the formation of Polar Mobile was grounded in the reality that “mobile devices are also media consumption devices,” Gupta said. Since it was formed in 2007, Polar Mobile has built a publishing platform that media organisations can customise to their needs, for developing their mobile presences on smartphones or tablets. “We focus on getting media companies to get their content on to all these devices and then also monetise it,” Gupta said.

“Nobody knew what an app store meant, there were no tablets, Android didn’t exist,” he recalled, of the time when Polar Mobile was founded. In fact, most app entrepreneurs are not only revelling in the expansion of the market but the potential it promises in the future, as smartphones and tablets become ubiquitous.

While 80% of Polar Mobile’s market is in North America, it is also expanding globally, as evidenced by an office in Dubai. It is also exploring other regions where the potential for growth is huge such as Brazil, and, obviously, India.

BumpTop, meanwhile, was founded by Anand Agarawala and acquired by Google in spring 2010. Basically an app that creates a 3D environment on the two-dimensional screen, and originally for desktops, BumpTop could jazz up screens of Android-powered tablets.

Interestingly, of the five major acquisitions in this sector out of Toronto over the last couple of years, four, including BumpTop, are Indo-Canadian ventures.

In spring 2011, Google bought PushLife, created by Ray Reddy. In simple terms, PushLife is like iTunes for the Android platform.

Google also purchased SocialDeck, founded by Jasen Patel and Anish Acharya. SocialDeck was part of the fast growing field of games apps that help create networks of gamers.

Of course, the behemoth in the social gaming apps space is Zynga, which made Farmville a Facebook phenomenon, and recently acquired mobile apps company FiveMobile, making its founder Ameet Shah head of its Toronto studio.

The phenomenon is remarkable. There are just half a million Indo-Canadians but they’ve already made a substantial statement in the mobile apps sector.

There are no easy explanations for this trend, but XMG’s Sharma said, “When you look at app development, it’s at the intersection of mathematical intelligence and artistry. That’s part of the reason you are seeing so many Indian entrepreneurs. We fit the profile perfectly.”

Add to that a cluster of quality universities in the area, the headquarters of RIM, Government tax incentives and a low financial barrier to entry.

Xtreme Labs’ Amar Varma has another take: “I joke, because a lot of the partners we deal with are usually folks of Indian descent, that it’s like the new doctor. Being in the mobile business is like being a doctor 30 years ago. ‘Go be in the mobile industry,’ your parents tell you.”

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