Avengers Initiative, a mobile game sold by Marvel, lets players control the Incredible Hulk as he smashes his way through multiple levels and vanquishes villains. But a tiny smartphone screen doesn’t fully capture the grandeur of the game’s high-definition graphics.
BlueStacks, a Campbell (Calif.)-based startup, aims to solve that problem. The company’s App Player software can run Android apps designed for a mobile phone on most computers, allowing players to experience the game on a larger display. Once installed on a PC or Mac, the software lets users operate games and other apps with their mouse, touchpad, or microphone.
BlueStacks released App Player in 2011 as a free download for PCs. Last year, computer manufacturers ASUSTeK and ViewSonic began to pre-install it on some of their machines, and in January, Lenovo said it will preload App Player on its Idea-branded devices starting in a few months. BlueStacks is also in talks with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Dell (DELL), and could announce a deal with one of them soon, says Chief Executive Officer Rosen Sharma. More than 100 million PCs will have App Player on them by yearend, BlueStacks estimates.
Sharma says that later this year BlueStacks will release a version of the software so that iPhone and iPad apps can run on desktops. That will “level the playing field,” says Tim Bajarin, the president of technology consulting firm Creative Strategies. With Apple and Google (GOOG) apps both running on Windows, the best platform will win, he says. Apple, Google, and Microsoft (MSFT) declined to comment.
Many more apps are available for mobile devices than for desktops and laptops. Apple’s App Store contains more than 800,000 mobile apps, and Google Play offers more than 700,000. As of last month, the Apple Mac App Store had about 14,000 apps, while Microsoft had about 43,000 for Windows PCs, according to app tracker Distimo. “For PC makers, increasingly, the latest, greatest, and most desirable experiences aren’t available on their platforms,” says John Jackson, an analyst at IDC.
Retailers and other companies pay BlueStacks for including their apps on App Player software pre-installed by PC manufacturers. BlueStacks, which expects to become profitable this year, has deals with about 250 companies. It charges them from 70¢ to $18 per computer and shares the fees with the PC makers, says Sharma. He declined to name any of the retailers BlueStacks has deals with, citing non-disclosure agreements, and wouldn’t say how the fees are split.
BlueStacks also charges PC makers for licensing its App Player, Sharma says. His company has raised about $14 million from venture capital firms, including Radar Partners and Andreessen Horowitz (Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek, is an investor in Andreessen Horowitz), as well as chipmakers Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Qualcomm (QCOM).
Sharma has sold tech startups to McAfee and Microsoft. He started BlueStacks in 2009 with three other co-founders because their young children kept asking to play their favorite mobile games on the families’ home PCs. The team spent two years developing a way to create a virtual operating system that could run mobile apps on a computer’s full screen and give users access to the PC’s drivers so they could use accessories, including the mouse, to play games. BlueStacks has filed 20 patent applications for its technology.
App Player doesn’t require developers to tweak their code to make their apps compatible with other devices. “The advantage of BlueStacks is, we don’t have to do anything,” says Markus Kassulke, CEO of HandyGames, maker of Clouds & Sheep and other mobile games. “It’s an easy way to get to the PC.” Developers can put the ads within their apps in front of millions more users and entice them to buy paid versions of free apps, says Shainiel Deo, CEO of Halfbrick Studios, which makes the popular Fruit Ninja game. “It’s good for the visibility of our games,” he says.
Eventually, the App Player software may also run on TVs, game consoles, and set-top boxes—allowing a consumer to use a mobile app on any device, regardless of its operating system, Sharma says. In the future, the software might even let an Android-based tablet or phone run an iPad app, he says. “Any computer—a tablet, a phablet, a desktop—could use BlueStacks,” says Manju Hegde, a corporate vice president at AMD. “People like to have continuity in their experience. There’s a lot of value in having cross-platform compatibility for an app.”
Other startups, including YouWave, have begun selling similar software. But BlueStacks “has a technology lead,” says Kevin Compton, a partner at Radar Partners. “Now it’s a matter of continuing to refine the value proposition and reaching scale.” The company has already proved its value in the eyes of Sharma’s oldest daughter, who likes to play Clouds & Sheep on her computer. “This is my eighth startup, and my 10-year-old says, ‘Finally, you are doing something useful,’ ” he says.