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App makers target phones’ lock screens

Paul McKellar (left) and Beamer Wilkins’s Wut app lets people communicate without unlocking their phones.

Peter DaSilva/The New York Times

Paul McKellar (left) and Beamer Wilkins’s Wut app lets people communicate without unlocking their phones.

NEW YORK — App makers have long vied for prime real estate on smartphones, coveting in particular a spot on the home screen, the front page where many people place their most frequently used apps.

But for a group of startups, the home screen is not enough. They focus on claiming space on the lock screen, the area in which you type in a passcode before gaining access to the rest of your menus. The goal is to make returning to a specific app again and again as easy as possible.

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That is the strategy that Wut uses in its deceptively simple smartphone app. After downloading Wut and linking it to your Facebook account, you can send and receive private, anonymous group messages to and from friends.

Most of the interaction lives on the lock screen. New messages pop up in their entirety as push notifications, meaning you do not have to unlock your phone to see what your friends are saying.

“Ultimately, it really boils down to speed,” said MG Siegler, a general partner at the investment firm Google Ventures, which has helped finance Wut. “The home screen is already filled with the must-have apps like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. In a lot of cases, apps like Wut make it so you almost never have to open it.”

Timeliness is also a factor. Instead of taking two or three taps to open an app and read an update, Wut messages are quickly viewed by turning on your phone.

“When you post to Twitter, you don’t really know when anyone is going to see it,” said Beamer Wilkins, a cofounder of Wut. “With Wut, you hit the button, and all of your friends’ phones light up right then.”

Another app, Yo, takes an even more stripped-down approach. The app hooks into your phone contacts to connect with other users, and with a push of a button, you send a message to a friend that simply says, “Yo.” No more, no less.

Although this type of app has had a burst in popularity in recent weeks, how it can make money remains unclear. The offerings, at least as they exist now, have little space for advertising, for example.

But with Silicon Valley feeling so flush these days, questions about revenue often become secondary.

“You can try to back into a business model; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Siegler of Google Ventures said. “The obvious hope is that one of the teams ends up creating something so vital that people have to use it.”

And if that happens, there is a good chance that a big tech company will start calling about an acquisition.

In January, Yahoo acquired Aviate, an Android-based mobile app that essentially takes over your home screen and offers app suggestions based on your location, the time of day, and your smartphone use. A few months later, Twitter bought Cover, a startup much in the same vein.

And though the effort was largely seen as a flop, Facebook tried to take over the lock screen in its own way with its Facebook Home software, which put the company’s photo and messaging apps front and center on Android phones.

Neither Twitter nor Yahoo wants to discuss its plans for the acquisitions. Some developers, however, see apps that take over the home and lock screens as the future of how we could rely on our smartphones. Instead of browsing through screen upon screen of apps, perhaps one day our phones will tell us what apps we want to use and when we want to use them.

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