Choosing the Right Mobile App Development Platform

By CIOReview | Friday, September 9, 2016
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Being the CIO of a relatively young startup which is slowly but surely gaining traction, Miss Y has always welcomed the BYOD trend and encourages her employees to access the SaaS her company uses from their mobiles. Y acknowledges that fact that it is too early to implement an employee-oriented mobility initiative that addresses the company’s need for privileged access. Yet, she also knows that start up is looking for a way to engage customers better; to gather insights and hopefully use a means to bridge customers with employees. Her startup is a bit too young to build a dedicated mobile app in house. She would love to have outsourced it, but considers it as too big a leap for merely ‘testing’ an initiative; one for which she herself is uncertain about the outcome and possibilities. She begins with research on the technical and financial feasibility of wrapping up her startup’s existing website into mobile app. Y wears multiple hats in her startup and looks forward for a solution that places her in the ‘pilot’s seat’ as far as managing the app is concerned. She is therefore keen towards the ‘little/no coding’ approach for building mobile apps; offerings known as Mobile App Development Platforms (MAPDs).

An interesting insight brought in by the statistics portal, Statistica suggests that, by 2017 more than 63.4 percent of mobile phone users will access online content through their devices. In a scenario where there is intense mobile penetration, companies look to enhance their mobile initiative for both employees and outward facing software. Additionally Gartner revealed that more than 75 percent of enterprises will have adopted at least one mobile app development platform to accelerate their digital business transformation strategy, up from approximately 33 percent in 2015. The challenges that firms face while executing mobile app development strategy often arise from the diversity of the mobile ecosystem, security concerns, and cost of development.

Outsourcing mobile application development has its cons such as slow rate and cost of development as depicted in Y’s organization. On the other hand, developing apps in-house demands a knowledgeable workforce that is well versed in multiple programming languages (owing to the abundance mobile operating systems) with prior experience to foresee inevitable vulnerabilities as well as deal with issues such as bug fixes and compatibility issues. Although platforms like Xamarin (now acquired by Microsoft) helps build apps for multiple platforms using the same language, they are still a long shot for SMBs without a dedicated software development team. While Android and iOS ecosystem grab a lion’s share among mobile OS, Windows OS, and Firefox OS are also gaining popularity. Companies face the added pressure of making multi-OS versions of the same application.

This is where Mobile App Development Platforms (MADP) tries to bridge the gap. They provide readily deployable templates and low code tools to build and publish mobile apps faster. Although an MADP strategy cannot provide as much flexibility and freedom compared to developing mobile apps from scratch using the native Integrated Development Environment (IDE), their cost-effectiveness, speed and ease of uses is the collective bargain for which they are opted by firms. A plethora of MADP vendors are available today. Even popular Content Management Systems (CMS) like Wordpress boast several plug-ins that enable to encapsulate websites into a decently formatted mobile app with practically no coding at all. For the record, it is technically easy to convert an already mobile compatible website theme into a mobile app. However, coding would be required to impart enterprise specific functionality; which is precisely the competitive and evaluative factor that differentiates one MADP from the other.

MADPs can be evaluated on the basis of the extent of innovation incorporated in tune to changing technological trends such as IoT integration, wearable and omni-channel support, cloud and micro services architecture; pricing (long term cost of subscription or customization), customer experience and market understanding is other factors. “We are looking for a strong understanding of enterprise needs across the mobile software development life cycle and provision of a coherent solution to address UX requirements, high-productivity no-code development, use of open and standards-based technologies, security and compliance, and DevOps support through analytics, testing, and version and release management.” reads Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for MADP report. Tools that manage application build processes, real time monitoring, trouble shooting options and analytics gathering are other essentials that competitive vendors provide.

As a client, a firm should be granted common development cycle and access to third-party app script libraries which helps provide a consistent user experience. IT administrators should be able to manage the apps through their entire lifecycle such that they are accessible to users at various stages. From a security perspective, firms should identify management and policy services the provider support. The kinds of encryption employed, where the encryption keys are stored and how app security is integrated into existing systems are some questions for which need to be enquired from a vendor.

The MADP route is no easy way out either, as the saying goes; there is no shortcut to success (or a successful implementation in this context). Limited data sources, mismatch in API granularity, restriction in lifecycle management capabilities, lack of integration with Mobile Device Management (MDM) are some of challenges. It is also important to ensure that, apart from the established OS ecosystem, MADP also supports producing apps compatible with emerging mobile OSs. Coming back to Miss Y, although she could exploit the benefits of low upfront cost and time to market she should be cautious about vendor lock-in as no MADP vendor can deliver all round expectations of an organization. Thorough evaluation in line with her company’s requirement is necessary. The MAPD market as of now lacks much needed standardization and is fragmented. In the long run, Y’s startup may face a gradually diminishing ROI from their MAPD initiative; although by then it would have leveraged her business the way she wanted giving her a clearer picture of the future. And perhaps by then, the MAPD market would have matured (like any technology) itself to cater to the growing needs of organizations.