Within days of buying his iPhone, John Furrier discovered that his 13-year-old son, Alec, was sneaking off with the device and downloading games. To reclaim his phone, Furrier had to buy his son an iPod Touch, which Alec quickly filled up with Pac-Man, Magic 8 Ball and dozens of other games.
"When he's not playing on his Xbox 360, he's playing on the iPod," said Furrier, a 43-year-old entrepreneur and blogger in Palo Alto.
Apple Inc.'s iPhone is a cellphone, Web-surfing gadget and digital media player rolled into one. The iPod Touch is the same, minus the cellphone. But to many people's surprise, one of the devices' most popular uses is as a hand-held video game system.
Games have become the fastest-growing and most popular type of application for iPhone and iPod Touch owners, outpacing all other categories available on Apple's App Store. As of Friday evening, 7 of the top 10 selling applications for the devices were games.
"This was an amazing surprise to us to see how much games have taken off," said Stan Ng, Apple's senior director of product marketing.
Game developers have taken to the platform, creating nearly 1,700 games since the online App Store launched in June. That's more than twice the number available in the store's second-largest category, entertainment, which includes music and video.
Neil Young liked his iPhone so much that, in June, the 43-year-old gave up a lucrative job as a senior executive of Electronic Arts Inc. to start a small company that develops games for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
"I found that my iPhone was never very far away from me," Young said. "I was constantly checking e-mail, downloading apps, playing games, browsing the Internet. My personal usage was measurably different from any phone or game machine I've ever had before. It led me to think that there was a dramatically new market opportunity for gaming on a unique mobile device."
With funding from Maples Investments and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Young founded Ngmoco:) Inc. in San Francisco. The strangely named start-up recently launched two games and is developing a dozen others. Its two titles, MazeFinger and Topple, are among the App Store's 10 most-downloaded applications.
It's not just independent developers drawn to the iPhone. Companies such as Electronic Arts, the world's largest game publisher, are also jumping on the bandwagon. EA's Spore Origins game, which sells at the App Store for $9.99, uses the iPhone's accelerometer -- a built-in mechanism for detecting motion -- and its touch screen to let players navigate a virtual primordial soup. They tilt the phone and tap on the screen to guide their creatures in search of food.
Spore Origins' graphics are lush and realistic, making other cellphone games look primitive by comparison.
"The iPhone is essentially a computer in your pocket," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a technology consulting firm in Campbell, Calif.
"Developers like it because it has the same operating system as a Mac, which makes it easy to program."
They also like the business model. For a 30% cut of each sale, Apple distributes games and other third-party applications through the App Store, which consumers can browse and download on a computer or directly on their device via Wi-Fi.
About 1 in 4 iPhone owners has downloaded games, compared with about 6% of all cellphone users, according to a study in July by Nielsen Mobile.
"The biggest impact is the App Store," said Barry Cottle, general manager of EA Mobile. "That was a real breakthrough in people's eyes. The store has beautiful screen shots, lots of room for descriptions and demos. That's making an impact for the industry, and it's creating renewed interest in gaming among mobile users."