Sometime in next day or so, Tapulous will announce that it has accumulated 1 million users for its free iPhone game, Tap Tap Revenge. That's an accomplishment, but what's really interesting about the company is its overall strategy, since Tapulous is not, ultimately, a games company. I met recently with Tapulous CEO Bart Decrem and COO Andrew Lacy and to learn more.
The company is a social networking play. As Decrem said with glee as he demo'd the two-player version of Tap Tap Revenge with me (when you play, you and your opponent take up position on either end of an iPhone), the game is highly social. "Look how close we are," he said. If I were a 14-year-old boy playing with a girl I liked, this game would be, "the best chance to kiss her."
The social underpinnings of the company go much deeper than that, fortunately. Tapulous is building a suite of different apps that connect to each other at a social level. Tap Tap Revenge, for example, will eventually link in to Twinkle, Tapulous' nanoblog service and Twitter client. You'll be able to send your high scores out as Twitter posts, or within Tap Tap, see the high scores of your Twitter pals.
The goal underpinning all the Tapulous apps (these two, plus new ones I'll talk about in a minute) is to provide immediate value to the first users, while at the same time offering network effect benefits as people pile on.
Tapulous has managed that with its current apps: Tap Tap Revenge is a fun music game for one or two players, and Twinkle didn't launch until the Twitter network was already live. In fact, the early version of Twinkle, for Jailbroken first-gen iPhones, was simply a Twitter client. However, the apps are both designed to ultimately support Tapulous' own network; what's especially clever is that Tapulous has, with Twinkle, figured out a way to get Twitter users to establish yet another new network login so they can use the app's unique features: location reporting and easy picture uploading.
In addition to building out its own network, Tapulous is trying to leverage the network that users have already in their phones. Currently, while Apple's apps can send data to each other, cross-app communication between third-party apps on the iPhone is very limited. Tapulous' apps talk to each other by sending all their info through the Tapulous central servers. It looks like each one of Tapulous' apps will have some clever way to leverage your phone's contacts. For example, in FriendBook--the upcoming FriendBook app that lets you easily send your contact info to another iPhone user by shaking your phone--it might tell you which of your contacts are also Tapulous members and iPhone users, or it might show you which of your contacts are nearby.
Other upcoming apps include a restaurant reviews site (this will compete with Yelp) and a photo sharing service. Of course, both will leverage the Tapulous network of users as well as other Tapulous apps users have on their phones.
The company is flexible about monetization strategies. For Twinkle it will be layering in advertising at some point. For Tap Tap Revenge, there will be a premium version. The company is also looking at deals with musicians who might want distribution to the large Tap Tap audience, and it may sell those tracks to users. Decrem pointed out to me that, unlike on the Web (and on Facebook), on mobile platforms users are accustomed to paying for content--for SMS messages, ringtones, games, etc.
Tapulous is not strictly an iPhone shop, although for now that's its platform. The company is learning about this new market but expects to develop apps on other platforms as they get traction.
I like the way Tapulous is steadily building a collection of standalone apps that integrate at the user base level. It's smart. It's also an investible proposition; I was a bit surprised to hear David Hornick of August Capital say on a recent TechCrunch panel that iPhone development shops aren't good venture capital candidates since the iPhone market is so small. He's right that the iPhone market is small, but the overall mobile market is huge, and the proportion of phones in the world that can run apps is going up, and rapidly.