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'Mobile Disruption' Leading to More Strategic Development

Enterprise developers struggling with the challenges associated with mobile application development may not be settling on a single, one-size-fits-all tool or platform just yet, but they are approaching those challenges more strategically. That, according to IDC analyst Al Hilwa, writing in a recently published report: "Negotiating the Mobile Disruption: Approaches for Multiplatform Application Development."

Hilwa, who is a research director in IDC's Application Development Software group, told me that he's trying to be the voice of reason in this report, offering "concrete, realistic advice to enterprises."

He first states the obvious, that "the central problem in mobile application development is addressing the variety of platforms and devices that employees can bring into the enterprise in a productive and agile manner…" What's not so obvious, he reminds us, is that until recently, enterprises have been side-stepping the so-called mobile revolution "engaging the consumers of their products with B2C apps, often developed by outside agencies or contractors." But the no-end-in-sight proliferation of mobile devices in the hands of employees -- and the promise of a more productive and mobile workforce -- has forced enterprises to address mobile more strategically and in-house.

"Since 2012," Hilwa writes, "enterprises have begun to tackle mobility more strategically by tagging their internal custom application development teams to skill up on mobile application development and take a more systematic approach to developing suites of applications that overhaul how certain internal business divisions, especially mobile sales and field forces, operate."

And there's another problem: The big three platforms—iOS, Android, and Windows—have focused on consumers, and haven't paid much attention to enterprise software licensing requirements. "For enterprises, tightly controlled application platforms with vendor-anointed tools and programming languages mean limitations in choice, an inability to leverage existing developer skills and, most importantly, an inability to easily develop code for multiple platforms," Hilwa writes.

In the midst of this "mobile disruption," four general approaches have emerged or enterprise mobile app developers: native, Web, hybrid, and third-party. Developing native apps for particular platforms requires platform owner–supplied/approved programming languages, runtimes, frameworks, and tool chains. Developing Web apps that use the browser as a runtime and app platform are typically sandboxed, so they can't access native platform features. Hybrid apps use Web apps with a thin wrapper that allows them to be distributed via app stores, which means they can access to some native platform features. And third-party-supplied runtimes or app platforms, which can come with their own programming languages, frameworks, and developer tool chains, produce full "native" apps that can be delivered through device platform owner–supplied app stores.

In the end, most enterprises will follow more than one mobile app development approach, Hilwa predicts, though he expects most to deliver as hybrids or as third-party cross-platform apps.

Now for some of that concrete advice: Because app dev tools, frameworks, and middleware aimed at enterprises are increasingly integrating HTML5 support, it will be in the best interest of enterprise developers to "embrace the Web ecosystem of skills and set up Web developer teams along with existing Java and Microsoft ecosystem developer teams."

Here's another one: Enterprises moving from a tactical to a strategic approach to mobile app development will want to "embrace an API architecture for back-end systems." In fact, "such enterprises should begin re-architecting their back-end systems and data assets into API services before embarking on extensive mobile application building."

There's a lot more in this report, and it's well worth reading in its entirety. Also, in case you missed it, my colleague David Ramel's most recent Dev Watch column ("Doubts About Cross-Platform Mobile Development") cites a number of studies on or related to this topic.

Posted by John K. Waters on August 7, 2014