Mobile app dev trends: Making life easier for developers

Mobile application development is attracting Web developers as Mobile app dev's once high barrier to entry is lowered.

Mobile application developers have always trod on shifting ground, it's the nature of the terrain. Lately, though, the mobile app landscape has begun to shake with seismic intensity. Forrester analyst Neil Strother says we're in the midst of an "app frenzy," thanks largely to the proliferation of Apple's enormously popular iPhone device and its rapidly evolving App Store concept.

The bottom line is that mobile development is a mess
Jeffrey S. Hammond
Forrester Research

 In a recent industry report ("Is an iPhone App Right for You?"), Strother cited some stunning statistics: At the time of this writing (mid-May), total downloads from the App Store exceeded 800 million. That's only eight months after the store opened in July 2008. According to the report, the total will likely surpass one billion before the store is even a year old.

Of course, the App Store's success didn't go unnoticed by Apple's competitors. Mobile app developers will soon have access to similar market models from a range of mobile platforms, including Research in Motion's (RIM's) BlackBerry App World, Microsoft's Windows Marketplace for Mobile, Nokia's Ovi, Palm's App Catalog, and Google's Android.

The advent of these mobile-focused app marketplaces has sparked what Jeffrey S. Hammond, principal analyst in the application development group at Forrester, calls "a race to lower the barriers to entry for developers." which is likely to have a big impact on mobile app developers. The clearest evidence of this trend, he says, can be seen in the emergence of a new type of mobile app development tool aimed at developers looking to exploit the app stores and their new monetization models.

"These aren't so much specialized mobile development tools as tools that appeal to Web developers," Hammond explains. "I think the long term trend here is toward an extension of Web development in the mobile app space."

Hammond points to two examples of this trend that are worth watching: Nitobi's PhoneGap is an open source dev tool designed for building mobile apps with JavaScript and HTML. The tool is designed for the Web developer who wants to build mobile applications in HTML and JavaScript while still taking advantage of the core features in the iPhone, Android, and Blackberry SDKs."

Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Nitobi's hope for the PhoneGap project is anything but modest. "The Web is moving off the desktop and into the pockets of people all over the world," the company writes on the PhoneGap community Web site. "Phones are the new window to the internet and, currently, they are second class. PhoneGap aims to move your device to a nice first class window."

Another toolmaker that fits this trend, Hammond says, is Rhomobile, a Cupertino, CA-based startup offering a new open source mobile application framework. Called Rhodes, the framework is designed for quick builds of native mobile apps for smartphone OSes (the company lists iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and Android ). According to the company, the apps are not mobile Web apps but "true native device applications" that "work with synchronized local data and take advantage of device capabilities such as GPS, PIM contacts and camera."

Rhomobile's CEO, Adam Blum, says that 90 percent of the apps currently built with the Rhodes framework are being developed by ISVs. Ten percent, he says, are coming from enterprise coders.

Mobile developers are also likely to feel the fallout from what Hammond sees as a battle brewing among the afore mentioned smart phone operating systems, and what may well be the ultimate demise of the feature phone (essentially anything that isn't a smart phone). "As Moore's law has put increasingly capable devices in the hands of a majority of consumers," he says, "it cuts into feature phone market share."

Hammond hastens to add to that list of major smart phones Palm's new webOS, which was unveiled in April at the annual Web 2.0 conference. Palm's senior VP, Michael Abbott, made a direct pitch to developers during his conference keynote. "Developers are an incredibly important part of the webOS ecosystem," he said. "We're eager to get the [Mojo] SDK into their hands, and are very excited to work with developers to make this unique development environment even better."

"Unique development environments" is the problem, Hammond says. "The bottom line is that mobile development is a mess," he says. "With six different OS options, it will get more confusing before it gets simpler."

Bola Rotibi, principal analyst at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, also sees evidence of this "race" to lower entry barriers to the new mobile app markets in a recent move by some of the big mobile platform players. The Eclipse Foundation's Pulsar initiative might well be viewed as an attempt to clean up that mobile-dev mess for developers.

Launched in March, Pulsar is an industry initiative aimed at creating a standard mobile-app development tools platform based on the open-source Eclipse framework. The list of charter members includes Motorola, Nokia, Genuitec, IBM, RIM, and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. The initiative's goal is to define a common set of Eclipse-based tools in a packaged distribution that can interoperate with the SDKs provided by the handset makers. When the initiative was announced, Motorola's senior director of developer platforms and services Dino Brusco said that it would enable mobile application developers to work within a single, familiar development environment that allows them to target multiple device families.

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 "It remains to be seen where this goes, but I'd call that an attempt to lower barriers to entry," Rotibi says. "Eclipse is a great starting place for an initiative like this. The environment and skills are already there."

Rotibi also points to Adobe's Flash Catalyst, an interactive design tool for building interfaces and interactive content without coding. The tool is still in beta, but it's an example of a simple tool for dealing with increasing demands for sophisticated content on mobile devices, Rotibi says.

"It's about trying to have support for all the different types of media managed in one environment," she says. "Mobile application developers are being called upon to write applications that use all this rich content, but the tools are emerging to make it all much easier."

"The truth is, this trend isn't new," Rotibi adds. "We've seen it before among the major tool makers. The app stores have sparked what I'd call a resurgence."

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