Vast riches await (a lucky few) iPhone apps developers

Most, however, can expect hard work and failure. But who wants to read about that?

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With more than 10 billion downloads (and counting) since opening its virtual doors in July 2008, Apple's App Store has become a source of potential riches for developers fortunate enough to create an application that catches on with the public.

(Also see: Teen's iPhone app gives Angry Birds something to be angry about)

Of course, the overwhelming majority of independent developers don't strike gold, and most lose money. While hard data is, um, hard to come by, one analysis from last June estimated annual median revenue for a mobile paid application downloaded through the App Store to be less than $700, with total development costs ranging $15,000 to $50,000.

But this is about the lucky few, the developers whose apps became iPhone sensations and earned them hundreds of thousands of dollars and more. Brad Spirrison over at Yahoo Games recently profiled about a dozen of these iPhone apps creators.

Not surprisingly, most of the financially successful iPhone apps are paid-download games that go viral, though some initially are offered for free and then require players to pay for upgrades. Here's a quick rundown of some iPhone apps winners (Spirrison has details on his post):

Cut the Rope (developed by Zeptolab) -- A puzzle-solving game that sells for 99 cents and has been downloaded more than 5 million times. As of Tuesday, Cut the Rope was the No. 5 paid app.

Tap Farm (Pocket Gems) -- Similar to Zynga's FarmVille iPhone app, this game qualifies savvy users for millions of dollars in federal farm subsidies. Oh wait, maybe not. But it did help Pocket Gems recently close a $5 million funding round from Silicon Valley's Sequoia Capital.

iShoot (Ethan Nicholas) -- Here's a moment we'd all like to experience: "Former Sun Microsystems engineer (Ethan Nicholas) literally quit his day job shortly after reportedly making more than $600,000 in only one month (including $37,000 in a single day) in late 2008" with this shooting game, Spirrison writes. Sales reportedly were sluggish at $4.99 per download. Then Nicholas tried offering a barebones version of iShoot for free, with the premium version selling for $3. Result: 2.5 million free downloads in the first few weeks, with 300,000 upgrades to premium.

Doodle Jump (Lima Sky) -- "Insanely addictive," warns developer Lima Sky. More like insanely lucrative. From its release in April 2009 through last June, Doodle Jump (99 cents) had been downloaded more than 5 million times, so it's probably at twice that by now. The game reportedly was downloaded 200,000 times on Christmas Day alone. Because, you know, Christmas is kind of boring and there's not much else to do. Currently No. 7 on the App Store paid list.

Angry Birds (Clickgamer.com) -- No list of successful iPhone apps is complete without Angry Birds, the gaming sensation that spawned an Internet meme and some fairly ridiculous-looking Halloween costumes. With more than 12 million downloads (at 99 cents each) since debuting in late 2009, these birds should let go of their anger and embrace life. Currently atop the App Store paid-app list.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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