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Talking character app trend inexplicably blowing up

by Phil Hornshaw

Here’s a brain teaser for you: what’s selling better than Angry Birds and other mobile game right now?

It’s the fledgling genre of “talking character” apps, and you might have seen them before. Talking Carl from awyse is a good example, as was Talking Santa over the holidays. Basically, these are apps that portray a virtual character on your device’s screen, which will react if you touch the screen and mimic your voice if you speak into your phone’s microphone.

Talking character apps are odd little novelties, but apparently they sell like crazy. A press release from a big player in the market, Outfit7, says the company’s eight apps in its “Talking Friends” line have moved more than 60 million downloads on Android and iPhone in the six months since the company has been in the market.

Angry Birds has surpassed 60 million downloads for its games on both platforms, too -- but it took about twice as much time. That’s how fast people are snapping up these Talking Friends apps, which come in both free, ad-supported versions and paid versions.

And for the iPhone’s part, two of Outfit7’s apps -- Talking Harry the Hedgehog and Talking Santa -- are still ranked 56 and 58, respectively, in the iPhone Top Paid Apps list. The company is doing so well, in fact, that it recently set up a headquarters in Palo Alto, California, moving from its founding location in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The company has 15 employees and plans to release another 18 apps in 2011.

It’s tough to say exactly what the draw is for these kinds of apps. I’ve polled friends about their favorite apps, and full-grown people with careers and responsibilities have pegged Talking Carl (which is 106 on the iTunes App Store paid apps list) as their favorites -- so the draw of talking character apps might be squarely aimed at children, but they’re by no means limited to that market.

Although, when you start to think about it, talking characters and their success kind of make sense. Games do remarkably well on the mobile platform, so people are in the market for engaging tech toys to carry around with them. Talking characters, as a genre, are toys that play back. This is speculation on my part, but I can see a draw in mixing a little bit of childhood nostalgia in with the calendar apps and email checking that dominates a lot of smartphone use.

Regardless of the causes, Outfit7 seems to think there’s a big future in Talking Friends, which makes sense, seeing as they pulled down $200,000 in revenue on Christmas Day alone. The company seems to have hit on a big idea and is running to keep up with it; hence the 18 additional apps coming out this year.

As for talking characters and their impact on the Android as a whole market -- and whether they’ll eventually eclipse Angry Birds or burn out as a fad -- it’s a little too early to tell. But like many other mobile apps, these seem to have found their market and their moment, and seeing more than just Outfit7’s goofy new virtual characters popping up on Android phones near you would hardly be surprising.