ILLUSTRATION BY THE DESIGN SURGERYIt’s a Wednesday night in late June at Café Bax, one of Amsterdam West’s least gentrified brown cafes.
Amid the terrace chatter about football and whether intermittent sunshine will erupt into full-blown summer, two tables of drinkers are rapt in full-blown, techie absorption.
These men – mostly in their twenties and thirties, many sporting designer stubble – are the self-styled citizens of ‘Appsterdam’. They hail, originally, from all corners of the globe, via all ten boroughs of Amsterdam, and they’ve gathered at this weekly ‘meet and drink’ event to swap stories, make connections and toast their shared vision of the city as the app-developing capital of the new media world.
Tonight, though, there is lots of enthusiastic brandishing of smartphones. Héctor Júdez, a 33-year-old app developer who moved to Amsterdam from his native Barcelona to work for a start-up called Repudo ("there just aren’t any jobs in Android development there. Ironically I now find myself servicing clients who are based there"), is showing his fellow drinkers a work-in-progress app that enables users to locate their vehicle in a sprawling airport car park.
Sitting opposite him, Diederik Meijer, Dutch tax accountant turned app entrepreneur, has relieved his former colleagues of the need to lug dusty volumes of tax legislation around Europe, thanks to his self-built iPhone app, which makes all of the necessary tomes accessible at the touch of a button. "I work alone, so this is a nice substitute for the coffee corner I used to have in an office," he says of the Appsterdam meet-ups.
Now in its third year, Appsterdam was established by its ‘Mayor’ Mike Lee, a Hawaiian-born former Apple employee with a penchant for zany headwear, who found early app success with Tap Tap Revenge, the most downloaded free game in the App Store for 2008.
Taking time out from California’s Silicon Valley, Lee embarked upon a year-long world tour that morphed from a holiday into an elaborate location-scouting exercise. "Wherever I went, I talked to other app developers and one thing became clear very quickly: that we all need a place we could come together," he says.
Rejecting the notion of app building as a diverse and remote network of geeks in their bedrooms, Lee insists that his vision, "to create the world’s most advanced infrastructure for app makers", needed a physical destination for the meeting of minds.
"If you think there’s nothing to be said for all being together in the same place then you’ve obviously never been to Silicon Valley, because that’s exactly how it works," he says. "When you’re in the Valley it just feels like you’re a hundred times smarter, because that idea that just came out of your head bounced off three other people and came back to you, but better."
Lee says the reason he didn’t just return to ‘The Valley’ – that 80km stretch of San Francisco’s Bay Area that accounts for one third of all the venture capital investment in the United States – to create his app utopia, was that he got the sense there was something better.
"As an app builder, it’s true that you can theoretically do what you do from anywhere. So why stay in the place that your parents, or your last boss, decided you should live? I wanted to know which place on the planet had the best quality of life versus cost of living," he says.
That place turned out to be Amsterdam: "I just knew within hours of arriving," he says, "that these were the happiest people on earth. Amsterdam has all the advantages of a city like New York or London – the cultural diversity, the lack of a dominant ethnic group – and none of the disadvantages."
Those who followed Lee to Amsterdam (and he estimates that there are about 200) are similarly evangelical about their adopted home. Kyrgyzstan-born Android and iOS developer Bolot Kerimbaev moved from Atlanta to Amsterdam to establish the first European chapter of Big Nerd Ranch, an organisation that runs intensive residential training ‘boot camps’ for wannabe programmers.
"Amsterdam is like the Renaissance Florence of mobile apps," he says, completely without irony, "and I think that has everything to do with the city’s history as a world-embracing centre of industry. Other places have allowed commerce to stifle creativity, whereas Amsterdam has always fostered it. You only have to take a look at the architecture on the Canal Belt to see."
Victor Knaap, founder of MediaMonks, the biggest digital production agency in Europe and creator of apps such as KLM’s ‘Tile Yourself’, concurs: "Art and design and trading seem to be hard-wired into Amsterdam’s DNA. Maybe that’s why there is such a distinct blend of Dutch and other nationalities working harmoniously within stellar companies here."
Of course, Appsterdam has its challengers. One study has estimated that the combined global revenue from app downloads and app advertising will be worth $17.5 billion by the end of this year; understandably other world cities from Mumbai to Belfast are lining up for their bite of the cherry.
But Lee is dismissive of these threats from abroad: "Northern Ireland is investing millions and millions of dollars trying to attract app people, London is trying so hard to build a tech industry, New York is telling everybody that it’s the new Silicon Valley. But not one of them is succeeding."
Lee believes that these players fail by putting the cart before the horse: "They’re all trying to attract people using money. The problem is, the only people you’ll attract that way are people who are motivated by money. What you really need are people who are driven by passion – an organic, grass roots movement building a community that supports itself and isn’t just there to collect tax credits from the government."
For Amsterdam success stories, Lee points to Sofa, the software design team that was acquired by Facebook (and transplanted to Silicon Valley) early last year; eBuddy, the ‘Expat Employer of the Year’ 2012 that invented one of the world’s most popular chat apps (100 million downloads to date), and IceMobile, the creative agency that provides loyalty apps for clients ranging from KLM to Gucci to War Child.
The latter posted a profit of €13.6 million in 2010 and has recently merged with Den Bosch’s BrandLoyalty, threatening to become ‘a prominent face on the international retail market’ according to Dutch financial newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad.
Appsterdammers believe, of course, that the best is yet to come. "We’re on the crest of a hill right now," boasts Lee of the ‘creative ecosystem’ he’s fostering: "We’re about to see momentum like never before."
Interestingly, despite the city-centric name, Lee sees Appsterdam as an initiative for all of The Netherlands: "Our first ever ‘embassy’ was in Delft because the university there has one of the best tech departments in the world.
"Of course, we want to share in that kind of expertise. Like Silicon Valley, Appsterdam is more than one city."
René Paré, founder of Eindhoven’s Emergent Art Centre – a research body for art, science and technology – agrees that Amsterdam will need its neighbours. "Most of the app developers have moved there, which is great because the human chemistry results in an agile system; products can be designed today and tested tomorrow, in Amsterdam. But it’s worth remembering that mobile apps are merely the current interface between data and the end consumer. In the future, we’ll start to see this technology incorporated into our physical world via all sorts of new devices. Eindhoven is home to hi-tech organisations like Philips and TomTom, so it’s actually far better equipped to take apps to the next level."
One man who’ll be watching all of this very closely is Dr Jan Simons from University of Amsterdam’s department of Media Studies. Simons is conducting a city-funded study into the growth of Amsterdam’s app industry, using data from the Chamber of Commerce. "We want to provide a full inventory of the industry; to map the number of start-ups and the connections between companies elsewhere, so that we can determine the best conditions for collaboration and expansion. We are aiming to publish our results, via a prototype app of course, by the end of the year," he says.
So if you want to know exactly what’s going on with ‘Appsterdam’, you’re going to have to wait for the app.
Spice app your life
Five steps to building the next Angry Birds
"I tell designers to build apps to make the world a better place, not just to serve their local business environment," says Mayor of Appsterdam Mike Lee. …BUT NOT TOO BIG "People are always asking ‘what’s the next Facebook, what’s the next Google?’ Those massive success stories are so infrequent, so exceptional, as to be almost irrelevant," says Lee.
Some background reading followed by a residential course like Big Nerd Ranch will equip you for genuine tech wizardry. Alternatively, do some background reading and check out DIY app-building software like Buzztouch. You build an app in the same way you’d build a blog, using one of the online templates.
"Beta [offline] testing is vital," says Big Nerd Ranch’s Bolot Kerimbaev, "as it can bring to light all sorts of unexpected rumples in your product."
Uploading an app to the App Store is easy, but the vast majority of apps there languish forever in obscurity. Persuade one of the influential review sites (e.g. iLounge) to take it for a ride. Warns Kerimbaev: "Be prepared for brutal honesty. And I mean brutal."