10 Trends Shaping Mobile Development in 2017

The mobile app development landscape in 2017 promises to see the continuing emergence of new, cutting-edge techniques and tools, along with growth in traditional technologies and approaches.

New developments will take shape in both the "mobile first" enterprise space and the consumer arena, with the continuing hype around enterprise mobility and increasingly cumbersome app stores promising significant changes. Here's a look at 10 trends that will affect mobile app developers in the coming year.

1. Altered Reality
One only has to remember the Pokémon GO phenomenon of this summer and those jealousy-inducing "ooh, aah" TV commercials for VR headsets to understand the impact of augmented and virtual reality.

On the Android side, Google is furthering the effort in various ways. In August, for example, it updated its Tango mobile vision technology platform SDK with new environmental lighting functionality, announced in a blog post titled "Adding a bit more reality to your augmented reality apps with Tango."

And, of course, some of those TV ads are hyping the company's Daydream View headset, just in time for the holidays. To help devs along, Google in September graduated its Google VR SDK out of beta. "Our updated SDK simplifies common VR development tasks so you can focus on building immersive, interactive mobile VR applications for Daydream-ready phones and headsets, and supports integrated asynchronous reprojection, high fidelity spatialized audio, and interactions using the Daydream controller," the company said.

Apple, naturally, has been quieter on the subject, continuing its policy of keeping dev news under wraps until unveiled at splashy invitation-only showcase conferences covered by the media elite. In July, though, an article declared "Tim Cook finally confirms Apple has augmented reality plans." That answered the question posed earlier in an article titled "How long will Apple sit on the VR sidelines?" Another article details the "secret" Apple VR Project, with "rumored" products including a VR headset, augmented reality smart glasses and augmented reality Maps information.

Coincidentally, I just now received an e-mail from ArcTouch outlining its own mobile predictions, one of which is the notion that "VR and AR will finally be (appropriately) segregated." Here's ArcTouch's take on the subject: "The technology industry has historically lumped VR and AR into the same bucket in discussions about future experiences. It's probably because they share the word 'reality' and both have a two-letter acronym. But from an experience and product development point-of-view, they are very different, and as they become more mainstream in 2017, the industry will finally realize this."

OK, guilty. I guess I'm part of that "technology industry" that lumps the terms together, but I don't feel like revising my post right now, so there it is. Next year I'll make the company's prediction come true and appropriately separate the two.

2. Artificial Intelligence
AI will make a mark in both the construction techniques of mobile apps and in boosting their capabilities. Much of the recent AI news comes from industry pundits stirring up angst about AI bots taking over developer jobs.

According to Forrester Research analyst Diego Lo Giudice, however, that's a long way off to be too much of a concern in 2017.

"Don't panic!" he said in a blog post last week. "This is still science fiction, but it won't be too long before we can use AI to improve development, thanks to smarter tools that learn based on the individual developer's style and application and help write better, higher-quality code. We can see early signs of this: Microsoft's Intellisense is integrated into Visual Studio and other IDEs to improve the developer experience; HPE is working on some interesting tech previews that leverage AI and machine learning to enable systems to predict key actions for participants in the application development and testing life cycle, such as managing/refining test coverage, the propensity of a code change to disrupt/break a build, or the optimal order of user story engagement."

Of much more immediate concern is the application of AI and associated technologies such as machine learning, cognitive computing and so on in development process to augment the capabilities of mobile apps.

Companies such as Microsoft and Facebook have taken the lead in new-age bot programming, and IBM is at the forefront of things, too. Emerging cloud development powerhouse Amazon Web Services (AWS) just recently announced Amazon Lex integration -- helping coders create chatbot-like conversational interfaces into their apps -- in an effort to woo mobile developers to its Mobile Hub.

More on chatbot development can be found in a report from Visionmobile, which said ""While many challenges remain, chatbots promise to create a new channel for reaching mobile users alongside mobile apps."

Chatbots and digital assistants are just one application of AI in mobile apps, of course. Mobile dev company Outsystems last month predicted AI will provide even more context-aware intelligent apps in the coming year.

"What's different about these 'smart apps' from those in the past is that they separate sensors and content delivery and include a 'thinking' component," the company said. "Machine learning and artificial intelligence process the context and location of the person or sensor (often in a wearable) and make recommendations. This 'contextual awareness' enables an app like Netflix to suggest programming tailored to the person logged in and not the whole household. It's also what's behind a smartphone health app that recommends the food a diabetics should eat after a specific exercise to normalize their blood sugar levels. So, get ready to integrate AI and machine learning into simpler apps in 2017."

Research firm Gartner also predicts great things for intelligent apps in the new year. "Intelligent apps, which include technologies like virtual personal assistants (VPAs), have the potential to transform the workplace by making everyday tasks easier (prioritizing emails) and its users more effective (highlighting important content and interactions)," the company said. "However, intelligent apps are not limited to new digital assistants -- every existing software category from security tooling to enterprise applications such as marketing or ERP will be infused with AI enabled capabilities. Using AI, technology providers will focus on three areas -- advanced analytics, AI-powered and increasingly autonomous business processes and AI-powered immersive, conversational and continuous interfaces.

3. Outsourcing
Speaking of taking jobs away, U.S. programmers probably have a lot more to fear from outsourcing rather than AI in that department. With the enduring skills shortage affecting the mobile dev industry -- leading mobile devs to command the highest salaries in the coming year, along with data pros -- outsourcing may well become a growing trend in 2017.

That, of course, may well depend on the, uh, interesting political environment we may see emerge next year, which could bring back the H-1B visa wars -- or not.

However it shakes out politically, an article published just last week points out the advantages of outsourcing mobile development. The five factors favoring this approach include its ability to provide extensive expertise, in-depth research, economical budgets, an allowance for focusing on core competencies and end-to-end service.

"With app development being a key strategy for success, outsourcing mobile app development is the best way for companies to effectively be ‘mobile-first'," the post states. "This can enable them to derive the most prominent benefits of an app-focused strategy without compromising on their resources and by diverting their energies towards their core competencies and doing what they do best. A win-win situation such as this can also set the stage for more innovative products to hit the space and for existing service providers to scale up their operations more efficiently."

However, outsourcing may not be that much cheaper than hiring notoriously hard-to-find domestic talent. A recent report from IEEE Spectrum, about a graphical online tool called H1BPay, shines more light on the salaries commanded by foreigners.

"Salaries for H-1B software engineers at Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif., according to H1BPay, range between $85,000 and $247,200, with a median of $138,294," the report said. "The top 25 percent of earners make at least $150,000. The average salary for H-1B software engineers at the social network increased by an average of 6 percent a year between 2012 and 2016.

"H-1B software engineering salaries at Google in Mountain View vary between $92,000 and $318,240; the median salary is $126,232. The top 25 percent make a salary of at least $137,600, and the pay increased by an average of 2 percent annually between 2011 and 2016."

4. App Streaming
This emerging approach seeks to obviate the cumbersome process of app stores and downloads. 1APP is one of the pioneering companies in this space, having just announced a new cloud-based OS that allows instant access to mobile apps without any downloading required. It published a "manifesto" on the approach that states:

While hardware has dramatically increased, and the app store economy had led to an initial Cambrian explosion of new types of software in the form of apps, the transmission of apps has been stuck in the dark ages.

Being tied to stores and downloaded software creates a situation where only the biggest app developers and platforms can succeed, and even then only with enormous amounts of marketing dollars. We started 1APP because we believe instant access of apps, delivered wherever and however users want it, is the next necessary phase of mobile, and will transform the ecosystem for app developers, platforms, device makers and carriers alike.

Google is also involved, having introduced a preview of its Android Instant Apps in May. And archrival Apple -- another company with skin in the app store game -- last year introduced its new project called On Demand Resources as a tentative toe in the streaming waters.

Just yesterday, finance-oriented The Motley Fool published an article titled "App Streaming: Better for Google Than for Apple."

"In any given month, half of smartphone users won't download a single app," the article said. "With our phones full of photos and text message archives, there's simply not enough storage to go about downloading apps at will.

"Some app developers realize this and have worked with a variety of companies to stream apps from a server. Google, for example, allows developers to stream portions of Android apps that show up in its mobile search results. While only about 100 apps are available for streaming today, that number will climb to 100,000 by 2020, according to Raul Castanon-Martinez, an analyst at 451 Research, as reported by Bloomberg."

5. Composed, Not Coded
Rather than the hand-coding of mobile apps, or using one of the many low-code tools emerging in the mobile dev space, Forrester Research predicts apps will be composed by mixing and matching reusable APIs.

"Next year is the year functional programming evolves from academia to the enterprise," Forrester analyst Julie Ask said in a recent blog post. "Application infrastructure powers this change. Instead of building objects that interact with each other, developers will use Lambda architectures to code reactions to environmental changes."

The actual (for-pay) report provides further insights into Forrester's thinking.

"Consumer app fatigue is forcing digital business professionals to offer a portfolio of mobile experiences that go beyond apps and depend on ecosystem partners, pull mobile in-house, operate as a collection of synced Agile teams building better customer experiences -- not just digital ones -- and collaborate closely with technology counterparts," the report said. "They'll compose (not code) them using APIs like Lego bricks -- breaking from the monolithic models of today."

6. Serverless Apps
Serverless computing is another development approach that will affect mobile app development, as it's a natural fit for cloud computing.

Of course AWS, as the cloud computing giant, is in on this action. AWS last month announced serverless enhancements to its Mobile Hub -- used to provide mobile back-end functionality such as user authentication, data storage, business logic, push notifications, content delivery and analytics.

AWS has published guidance about creating a serverless stack to power mobile app back-ends, leveraging its Cloud Logic service for working with business logic in AWS Lambda and exposing the relevant APIs via the Amazon API Gateway.

"This pattern enables you to create and test mobile cloud APIs backed by business logic functions you develop, all without managing servers or paying for unused capacity," AWS said in a recent blog post. "Further, you can share your business logic across your iOS and Android apps.

"Today, AWS Mobile Hub is announcing a new Cloud Logic feature that makes it much easier for mobile app developers to implement this pattern, integrate their mobile apps with the resulting cloud APIs, and connect the business logic functions to a range of AWS services or on-premises enterprise resources."

On GitHub developers can find the Serverless Framework leveraging AWS Lambda and its Google CloudFunctions counterpart to help developers build Web, mobile and IoT applications.

Forbes last month published an article outlining "Three Ways That "Serverless" Computing Will Transform App Development In 2017."

"Serverless platforms, including IBM's OpenWhisk, can be used to build a wide range of apps that can easily integrate with many advanced technologies, such as cognitive intelligence and data analytics," the article said. "Internet of Things apps and devices, mobile apps and cognitive chat bots are among the most popular apps on serverless platforms. While a number of companies are offering serverless platforms, OpenWhisk is the only one that offers an open source, non-proprietary engine, enabling developers to pull in the tools and data they need."

7. Less Hybrid Development
Mobile app development has long comprised three alternative approaches, mobile Web apps, pure native apps or hybrid apps that contain elements of both, typically wrapping HTML/JavaScript/CSS code to be displayed via WebViews on mobile devices, providing functionality specific to those device OSes.

Dev firm Progress Software, however, has predicted there will be less hybrid development in the coming year, as advances in other development options are a better fit for some common hybrid use cases.

Those other options include Progressive Web Apps and new-age techniques for JavaScript-based mobile app coding.

"Progressive Web Apps (PWA) is a Google-led initiative that brings a series of new features to traditional Web apps," Progress developer advocate VanToll said in a recent blog post. "PWAs were designed as an enhancement to a normal Web app, meaning, making your Web app 'progressive' is as simple as adding a service worker and a Web app manifest. For the purposes of this article, PWAs are especially relevant as their features address the biggest reason developers choose to build hybrid apps -- namely, that the Web doesn't offer features that these developers need."

On the other end, those modern JavaScript techniques are encroaching upon hybrid use cases typically handled by technology such as Apache Cordova. They are exemplified by projects such as React Native, open sourced by Facebook, and NativeScript (from Progress).

"What's so compelling about these frameworks is that you can use JavaScript, as well as other Web-dev-friendly tools like CSS and npm, to build apps that go above and beyond what you can accomplish in a hybrid app," VanToll said. "You can build endless scrolls, pull-to-refresh lists, and more without having to mess with error-prone virtual DOM techniques; you can integrate existing iOS and Android libraries like CocoaPods and Android Arsenal; and you can leverage the vast array of built-in user interface components that iOS and Android provide out of the box."

8-10. 3 More Trends That Will Continue
Progressive Web Apps and new-age JavaScript were also among the three trends we forecasted would shape mobile app development in 2016, in the article "3 Trends Shaping Mobile Development in 2016."

As VanToll noted, you can expect to see more advances on those two fronts in the coming year, as they certainly aren't specific to 2016.

You can also expect the third trend we covered, the "citizen developer" movement, to continue in 2017.

The primary mechanisms for powering the citizen developer movement -- in which "ordinary business users" create their own enterprise apps -- are low-code development tools, and that space is exploding, with dozens of vendors getting in on the act.

You can tell that from our coverage alone. Just look at the various developments in the low-code arena that we've reported on:

Needless to say, the active interest from dev tool vendors and related emerging technologies such as AI will keep low-code tools a hot topic in 2017 and grow the burgeoning class of citizen developers.

What trends do you see affecting mobile app development in 2017. Please share your ideas in the comments section or drop me a line.