As the smart device landscape continues to evolve, with Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10 set to challenge the dominance of iOS and Android, and tablet devices gaining a foothold alongside the more established smartphones, the challenge for developers is in how to address the broadest possible user base.
While HTML5 is regularly touted as the tool to do this, the technology is still somewhat immature. As a result, a thriving market has grown up around cross-platform tools, which take a variety of approaches to enable developers to target a broad portfolio of mobile devices.
According to research from Vision Mobile earlier this year, “cross platform tools have passed the ‘early adopter’ phase, and are now moving into the mainstream”, driven by the ability to reach masses of users. But the market is far from established – the research house noted that “the cross-platform tools market is in a state of abundant volatility and we see continual flux, as developers try a tool, and then churn to a different one”.
Simon Berman, senior director of product marketing for vendor Appcelerator, told Mobile Apps Briefing that on average, customers of its Titanium platform are able to reuse 70 percent to 90 percent of their code when moving from one device OS to another. There will always be a need to tweak apps for different platforms, he said, because “in order to achieve the best native experience for each platform, specific platform-dependent features are being used that are not available in another”.
Beyond the lowest common denominator
While offering apps for the largest possible user base has obvious advantages for developers, it has been suggested that there is the danger that could limit innovation, as developers look to avoid supporting too many platform or device-specific features. This has an obvious downside, as Berman notes: “The risk here is that the app ultimately fails on one or all platforms”.
“Yes, some organisations will opt for the lowest common denominator (think HTML5 apps) and strive for 100 percent code re-use. However care must be taken not to forfeit the rich, immersive user experience demanded by end users on each platform in exchange for internal portability costs,” he warned.
Berman cited a recent Appcelerator developer survey which found that “developers ranked their satisfaction with nearly every feature of HTML5 as neutral to dissatisfied, including user experience (62% neutral to dissatisfied), performance (72.4%), monetisation (83.4%), fragmentation (75.4%), distribution control (60.3%), timeliness of new updates (67.9%), and security (81.8%)”.
The type of app being developed also has a significant influence on the amount of porting between platforms a developer will support, due to the impact it has on the bottom line. “That really depends on the economics of the mobile project,” he continued.
Evolving developer needs
According to Appcelerator’s research, developers believe that by 2015 it is “likely to very likely” that they will be building mobile apps for more than smartphones and tablets.
Topping the list of new form factors in developers’ minds at the moment are televisions (83.5% “likely to very likely” to support), connected cars (74%), game consoles (71.2%), Google Glass (67.1%), and foldable screens (69.1%). In addition, the existing smart device market is likely to continue its dynamic evolution, with most developers still anticipating these will be core to their activities.
Berman noted: “This further emphasises developers’ need for a single development environment in which to create apps for as many form factors as possible.”
As device capabilities increase, developers are also keen on exploiting the potential of features including improved device processors, bigger and higher-resolution screens, and LTE connectivity to create more compelling apps. The need to serve this demand also provides a potential downside to HTML5 as a platform for cross-platform apps.
“The trend towards fast, high-performance applications is noted, with developers citing performance issues and requirements for native capabilities as the primary reasons for not using HTML5 and instead building native apps,” he said.
Berman said that Appcelerator will develop its Titanium cross-platform development platform “by staying in alignment with [developers’] approaches and processes for development”.
“This includes getting productive quicker, helping advanced users better manage and reuse components, giving access to more target platforms, greater development flexibility, debugging and editing tools; visual environments, access to additional features, etc,” he continued.
In the immediate future, the company has already announced support for RIM’s BlackBerry 10 platform in line with its commercial debut. Support for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 is planned for early in 2013.
And as new device types grow in popularity, these will also appear on the roadmap. Berman said: “Given the earlier mention about future platforms, we will be supporting additional device platforms, including smart TVs, connected cars, game consoles, Google Glass and more in the future. Appcelerator’s value proposition only increases as more platforms become prevalent.”
The executive also noted the continued build-out of its partner ecosystems – “technology partners, implementation, partners, strategic partners, etc” – as an area of focus. The company has in the recent past announced a raft of new partnerships, including an API alliance with US operator giant AT&T, and partnership with the China Software Developer Network.