Mobile apps are a unique species

Updated: Dec 17 2012, 06:02am hrs
Keith Budge

Theres no denying that smartphones and tablets have changed the way we find and install the applications we use, and what we expect from them. Added to this is the increasing desire to use these devices for work purposes, driving a need for enterprise applications.

Previously we have only relied on our phones for calls, texts and maybe emailsbut with the rapid adoption of smartphones, apps have taken over and developers are looking to provide the richest experience possible. This is also being driven by the fact that mobility provides a good entry point to cloud and SaaS delivered applications.

Mobility is still very nascent, but the space is evolving rapidly. This is having a tremendous impact on how we run our lives and our businesses. According to a recent InformationWeek study, only a quarter (26%) of business technology decision makers dont have custom applications or have plans on developing them, and the vast majority are evaluating at least one mobile operating system for use within the business and/or for developing custom mobile applications. As a result of these factors, the majority of modern application development is taking a mobile first approach. This is bringing a new interface paradigmdriven by these smaller devices and touch screens.

Mobile devices and the ubiquitous connectivity they enable, brings a whole new level of remote working for employees and a range of self-service opportunities for customers and users. This includes activities like checking the status of an order, buying tickets or updating detailsall of which traditionally needed a phone call or visit to a branch officethereby saving operational costs, while boosting customer service.

Compared to desktops and laptops, smartphones are limited in terms of processing power and screen size, but are also packed with a lot more sensors such as touchscreens, GPS, accelerometers, cameras, Bluetooth and NFC all of which can be leveraged by smart applications. This can help offset some of the limitations of mobile by offering a range of smart interface possibilities as well as adding levels of context and capability that desktop applications cant match.

From a developer perspective, this explosion of smart devices has created some incredibly complex challenges, mainly due to the number of different platforms and devices around. Not only do developers considering native mobile applications have to consider developing for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone, they also have to consider the variety of different form factors of todays smartphones and tablets. Furthermore, this has to extend to quality and testing as well as making sure the application meets the requirements for the various app stores that will be the delivery mechanism.

As a result, some developers have turned to developing Web-based apps in HTML5. Because these usually run in the devices browser, they do not have the same complexity challenges that native app development brings. But these apps also dont offer the same local app experience and cant tap into the added features that these devices contain.

While some apps are best suited as specifically native or browser based, in many cases, the answer lies in the hybrid app. A hybrid app is one that is developed on HTML5 and Javascript libraries, such as JQuery, but delivered in a wrapper that makes it look and feel like a native app. This gives developers the advantage of the browser-based write once, and run anywhere while allowing them to tap into the functionality, security and performance of a native app, as well as the delivery model, such as being downloaded from the app store.

Organisations want to modernise their existing applications, resulting in a much more mobile-first approach. This includes moving the back end from on-premise servers to a more cloud-based architecture and updating the front end to be intuitive and mobile-capable.

This is augmented by a move away from old development practices and a shift towards a more process-centric approach, which lends itself to creating an externalised rule system, meaning logic is no longer hardwired into the application. This allows for greater collaboration between developers and other stakeholders such as business project managers and the creation of simplified, easy-to-navigate interfaces, within an intuitive drag-and-drop development environment, which binds to the existing back-end.

Mobility is changing the shape of application development. Demand for cross platform support is growing, development cycles are shortening and users expectations are evolving. Exploiting these devices to their full potential means empowering employees to use them to be more productive and enabling customers to be more self-reliant.

Whether its developing a native app, a browser based one, or taking a hybrid approach, mobile apps are a unique species and its not possible to just attempt to transfer techniques that worked well for desktop application development. The key is to embrace these new methodologies and seek out best practice from partners and providers to find the right applications to empower users, both within and outside the business.

The writer is VP & MDAsia Pacific and Japan, Progress Software