What Is The Deal With This Stupid Lighter iPhone App?

Everyone keeps talking about Smule’s virtual lighter iPhone application called Sonic Lighter (iTunes link).

I wasn’t impressed: there are no less than ten different virtual lighter apps in iTunes, which is what I’d call a saturated market. And it gets better, because Sonic Lighter costs $.99. The official Zippo iphone app is free. The basic functionality of all of these is similar – you have a virtual lighter, you light it and when you move the iPhone the flame moves around.

The number of downloads for Zippo isn’t available; Sonic Lighter says they’ve had 70,000 downloads already. But here’s one way to compare them: that the free Zippo app has been available since September 18 and has just 27 reviews. Sonic Lighter, which has only been available since Wednesday, already has 44.

Here’s why people are going crazy for Sonic Lighter, and are willing to pay $.99. Smule has built in social and viral features that are helping this spread like mad, and they also give this ridiculous but effective incentive to use the app all the time.

You can optionally share your location information with the application, and when you light it you show up on a virtual earth-like globe. France and Japan are going absolutely crazy with users, which you can see quite clearly from the virtual globe and the screenshot to the right. The longer a person keeps the lighter going (I have mine sitting here burning while I write this), the more”KiloJoules” you burn. And that helps contribute to the geographical teams that are sprouting up and trying to be the brightest on the globe. Oh, and you can blow on the microphone and extinguish the flame.

I’m not kidding about this. You can actually view a version of it here, along with a listing of the brightest cities. I’m determined to move San Francisco and San Jose up the list (they should really be combined for fairness in my opinion).

Sonic Lighters can also ignite other lighters on other iPhones, which is a fun party trick if you’ve had enough to drink. Pretty soon iPhone users in the room who don’t have the app will be happily paying $.99 based solely on the geek peer pressure. This video shows that feature in action.

So why is this working? I told you loyal readers back in August. Unlike its competitors, it’s effectively leveraging location awareness and social networking/human team building instincts to create a bit of a phenomenon. The result is a viral spread.

Some facts about the first few days after the app became available:

  • First phone-to-phone ignition somewhere in the Muir Woods National Monument on Monday, September 15th at approximately 5:00 pm PT
  • Since then, the flames have spread across six continents, eighty countries, and 3,204 geographically unique locations
  • There have been 68,514 unique ignitions representing 3,977 unique locations across the globe
  • Smule can rank the cities of the world by Kilojoules burned day, reflecting real-time data accumulated from usage of the Sonic Lighter

There are some smart people behind Smule, which has raised capital from Bessemer Venture Partners. CEO Jeff Smith previously co-founded and ran Tumbleweed, an email security software company which he took public on the Nasdaq and grew to $50M in sales before stepping down as CEO. Along with Jeff, Smule was founded by a group of Stanford and Princeton music PhD’s, including Dr. Ge Wang. He’s also a Stanford professor at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and director of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra. It also turns out that Sonic Lighter is not Smule’s end goal. Rather, its a demonstration app for a new audio programming language called ChucK.