Tom Hanks is not the threat app developers may think he is

Shane Schick

He's played everyone from Forrest Gump to Walt Disney, but Tom Hanks as app developer? There are some things so crazy even Central Casting couldn't come up with them. 

The success of Hanx Writer, the simple iOS app that brings back the sounds and feel of tapping on a manual typewriter to an iPad, has raised nearly as many questions about the future of development as it has eyebrows among the mobile crowd. Is this another example of the Kim Kardashian effect? Will regular developers be buried by their more famous rivals? Will the involvement of Hollywood talent in apps come at the expense of a good consumer experience? Not since You've Got Mail has Hanks been so deeply connected to the digital pulse of our times. 

From all outside appearances, Hanks actually shares a lot of the qualities we associate with indie developers. He already has a day job. His work on an app was clearly born of a personal passion (nostalgia for Smith-Coronas and their brethren). He doesn't have much of a monetization strategy. Perhaps as a result, the rise of Hanx Writer to the top of the Apple App Store seems less like a calculated campaign than the result of a genuine interest in sharing something fun with the world. 

As others have already pointed out, there are plenty of celebrity apps that could be classified as brand extensions for fans, or get-richer-quick schemes that have ultimately fizzled out. Celebrity can clearly boost initial discoverability--it's an approach much like what you now see in book publishing, where authors are increasingly expected to have a built-in following via social media or other "platform" to get a contract.

Engagement is another matter. Does a famous person's name on an app help turn using it into a consumer habit? That probably requires more than publicity. As for making money off apps, even the Wall Street mastermind Hanks played in The Bonfire of the Vanities would have had a hard time with that one. 

What's encouraging about Hanx Writer is that the celebrity in question is decidedly not a teen idol. No one buys clothes, energy drinks or other items associated with Tom Hanks' name. You can believe he put himself into the app because he hasn't put himself into other products and services (with two Oscars under his belt, you can argue he doesn't really have to, but still). The geeky, old school nature of the app itself, which has gotten surprisingly good reviews, doesn't seem designed for mass appeal, which may be why it is actually generating mass appeal. 

Instead of rolling their eyes or feeling at all threatened by Tom Hanks, developers should be encouraged by his app, which if nothing else will help keep consumers coming to the App Store to look for interesting things to do with their smartphones. A rising tide like Hanx Writer could lift other boats. And if the star of Sleepless in Seattle can create something worthwhile, maybe some of the sleepless nights other developers spend making apps will one day be worth it too.--Shane