In September, Ralph DiSibio had never heard of an app.
Then one day last fall, a friend introduced the former Washington Group executive to Shazam, a popular application for mobile phones that can identify what song is playing in the background.
"Within a week I thought, 'This is a whole new genre of commercial enterprise,' " DiSibio said.
By November, his company -- The Paladin Group LLC -- was selling its "I Need a Doctor" program on Apple's app store. For $4.99, users can view top doctors around the country, sorting them by location, specialty and patient ratings.
Mobile applications, or "apps," are becoming increasingly popular as smart phones such as the iPhone, BlackBerry and Google's Android become must-haves for consumers.
The iPhone is the most popular format for apps, with more than 185,000 available and more than 4 billion downloads, according to Apple. Representatives from the company will meet with Augusta State officials today to discuss the creation of apps and their educational benefits.
Some apps are distributed for free, while others, such as DiSibio's, charge a fee. They can range from informative to fun -- part of what gives them market potential, said Robert Jarman, a computer science professor at Augusta State University.
"It's something that is going to do nothing but grow as the networks and technologies develop," he said.
This semester, three of Jarman's students are working with ESi, which specializes in crisis information management technology, to develop an iPhone app.
The app would allow emergency workers such as firefighters to share information from the scene using their phones instead of having to lug around a laptop, said Charles Ryan, the director of customer support and quality assurance at ESi who has served as a mentor to the students.
"By using mobile apps and harnessing the power of BlackBerry and iPhones, we can make it easier for people out in the field to still be part of the information flow," he said.
The company hasn't decided how to distribute the product once it is completed, Ryan said, adding that it will be showcased at ESi's annual user conference in May.
"I definitely think this market is going to continue to grow and apps are going to continue to grow as far as what they can do and what we can accomplish with them," Ryan said.
During Apple's visit today, the company also will discuss ways the technology can be used in education with Augusta State officials.
That's a step the Medical College of Georgia began taking in June with the introduction of MCG Mobile, which allows students, faculty and staff to access campus maps, directories, events and course listings on their iPhones, BlackBerrys or other Web-enabled devices for free.
Since its introduction in June until early March, MCG Mobile had been downloaded nearly 1,400 times, said Michael Casdorph, the director of instructional support and educational design for Information Technology Support and Services at MCG.
The school also is experimenting with other uses with the development of a medical suite of apps. The programs will allow students to take interactive quizzes and review surgery and dentistry procedures by video or text.
The apps should be available in the fall and will let students bring the information with them into a clinical setting, Casdorph said.
"It's no different really than having a textbook or notes," he said. "The difference is it's portable, you have it with you and can use it quickly."
With so many apps, one of the big questions for businesses going forward is how to make a program stand out in the crowd and generate revenue, DiSibio said.
One key is to make sure an app's interface is easy to use, said Steve Muller, the vice president for creative design for The Paladin Group.
"I think it has to be extremely simple and you have to be able to intuitively figure it out," he said.
The I Need a Doctor app was created through several partnerships, including one with Castle Connolly, which provided the rating criteria for doctors. The app targets frequent travelers, medical professionals, students and people relocating.
Its development cost less than $10,000, DiSibio said, but he added the app has been purchased less than he anticipated.
He declined to say how many times the app has been downloaded but said it is still making money.
In May, the company will drop the app's price to 99 cents in an effort to lure more users.
The company also has plans to design an app for BlackBerry users and the new iPad.
"There is an app for everything," DiSibio said. "It's really fascinating."