With both consumer-facing and internal mobile applications becoming ubiquitous, mobile application development has become a hot topic for enterprises. Entering that conversation is a slew of vendors with products that are designed to make mobile development easier. These offerings range from the basic Backend as a Service (BaaS), to the more complex mobile development application platforms (MDAPs), and each offers features that can speed development or constrain developers, depending on who's asking.
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According to experts, the consumerization of IT segmented the mobility market, which started off as mobile enterprise application platforms (MEAPs), according to Fernando Alvarez, senior vice president and global mobile solutions leader at consultancyCapgemini.
"We're at a crossroads with many players trying to come out," Alvarez said. MCAPs are disappearing with the emergence of MDAPs, which evolved from MEAPs and mobile consumer application platforms (MCAPs) geared directly toward companies focused on consumer-facing applications development, he added.
With the choices available to developers, some may head straight for simplicity in the form of mobile BaaS. "They don't provide you with tools for making your user interface better or tools for storing data locally on your device," said Ian Finley, research vice president at Boston-based analyst firm Gartner. However, these do provide the essential connection to the back end and connectivity to cloud services like Amazon's or Facebook, which for some developers may be all that is needed.
The MDAPs, on the other hand, provide mechanisms for faster UI development, prebuilt components or specialized language for developing a UI and the logic to execute the program on the device, according to Finley. They also provide connectivity to the backend system and sometimes include prebuilt connectors to common enterprise apps, as well as the ability to store data locally on the device, synchronize data between the device and the server, and provide extra data security, he added.
MDAP platforms have three uses: for the consumer-facing applications; traditional mobile applications like the ones on the UPS driver's signature pad; and connectors to the back end of enterprise applications for mobile employees, Finley said. "When you think about those three buckets, it pushes your technology choices in a different way," he added.
"Those [MDAP] platforms say, 'Developing a full mobile application is hard. We're going to find all the parts that make it easier, and we're going to make it easier,'" Finley said. This allows developers to focus on design and logic and not worry about technology implementations, he said.
For consumer-facing applications, some developers appreciate the features that MEAPs and MDAPs offer because they speeds the time to market for their applications. Jimmy Newson, CEO of New York-based mobile application development company Mobile Market Apps.com, uses a MEAP to design and deploy applications and HTML5 websites for clients.
"It helps me manage a larger number of clients, decrease turnaround time and customize key features based on the client vertical, all with a small team," Newson said. "If I had to build an application with all the features that come bundled in the MEAP system, it would cost my clients more than they could afford."
Some of the features Newson adds to applications include food-ordering carts for restaurants and reservations and payment tabs for spas, salons and fitness centers. With a MEAP, he said, "we can literally, if the client is on their A-game and can get stuff to us quickly, turn an application around in under five days." This contrasts sharply to creating custom mobile applications from scratch, which can require months in preproduction and wireframing phases, Newson added.
However, the simplicity offered by MEAPs can have limitations, leading some mobile application developers to prefer doing the extra work on their own. The user interface was a sticking point for Phillip Avelar, managing principal of Chicago-based consultancy Advanced Solutions Inc. "A lot of the MEAPs expect you to use their components to develop the user interface. If you go outside that box, you start having to develop into the MEAP to modify the user interface," he said. "You're basically fighting it."
The other limitation that Avelar ran up against was building an application that interfaced with ERP applications from large vendors. "The big ERP vendors, as they're opening up their solutions, are providing MEAPs of their own," he said. While the vendors' MEAPs provided the necessary backend components, they also required the latest version of the ERP software to run. A lot of companies don't have the luxury of upgrading to the most recent version, according to Avelar.
However, for developers looking to reuse their applications across devices, MEAPs can provide benefits, Avelar said. "What MEAPs bring to the table is, if developing code is not your forte, you can use their tools to quickly port it over" to another mobile operating system, he said.