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Build and deploy apps with a mobile app development platform

Mobile app dev platforms are comprehensive tools that let organizations build, test and manage mobile apps, which can help to streamline operations and control costs.

Most organizations recognize the importance of mobile apps, but developing and deploying them can be a complex and costly undertaking, especially when devices are running different OSes. To help simplify this process and bring down costs, many organizations are turning to a mobile app development platform.

An MADP provides an infrastructure for developing apps that users can deploy to more than one OS, such as iOS and Android. Organizations both large and small can get their apps out easier and faster, without having to develop separate versions for each OS, reducing resource requirements and leading to a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) per app.

What is a mobile app development platform?

The mobile app dev platform is a comprehensive tool that provides the components necessary to build, test and centrally manage a mobile app throughout its lifecycle. The MADP comes with a cross-platform development tool for building apps that can run on multiple OSes, based on a single code base. The tool typically includes code editors, forms and templates, integrated testing and previewing capabilities, and other features typical to an integrated development environment.

In addition, a mobile app development platform offers the middleware and back-end services necessary to support lifecycle management processes, such as deploying, hosting and securing apps and their data. Mobile app dev platforms also provide standards-based APIs, connectors and plug-ins to handle lifecycle tasks and integrate with cloud-based or on-premises enterprise systems and third-party services, including mobile device management and mobile application management platforms.

Many MADPs also support rapid mobile application development (RMAD), a module-based, drag-and-drop approach to development that requires no coding -- although many of these products still let developers modify the source code to varying degrees.

Benefits of a mobile app development platform

Mobile app dev platforms make it possible for development teams to release more apps to more OSes, which is faster, easier and cheaper than building the apps individually. This enables teams to spend less time implementing the middleware and back-end infrastructures and more on the client-side code and user experience.

Because of the cross-platform development model, developers can use a single code base to build an app that they can deploy to multiple OSes, working with familiar programming languages without having to learn multiple OS-specific languages. Cross-platform development can reduce the need for costly development resources. Plus, as RMAD features continue to mature, power users, such as business analysts, can create apps themselves, rather than developers.

With mobile app dev platforms, a small or medium-sized organization can build and deploy mobile apps in a way that was out of reach or very limited before and realize savings. For example, a department might use MADP tools to build internal line-of-business apps. Any size organization can take advantage of the available RMAD services, allowing internal stakeholders to participate in the app-building process.

That said, not all organizations will benefit from a mobile app development platform. Products might not include all the features an organization needs or provide the necessary back-end integration, especially with legacy systems that do not support industry standards. MADPs also lock customers into the vendor's update schedules and architectural decisions.

Despite these limitations, many organizations can still benefit from mobile app development platforms and their ability to streamline operations and reduce app TCO, even if only for short-term or proof-of-concept projects.

MADP app and device types

Most MADPs support iOS and Android devices. Some also include Windows and, to a lesser degree, BlackBerry, as well as support more obscure OSes, such as Symbian or MeeGo. In addition, most mobile app dev platforms focus primarily on building apps for smartphones and tablets -- although some have begun to incorporate other device types, such as smartwatches.

A mobile app development platform also supports three primary app types: native, web and hybrid, which each have advantages and disadvantages.

Native apps offer the best performance and can utilize a device's native features better than the other types. When building a native app, the developer starts with a common code base, such as C#, JavaScript or HTML5. The platform compiles the base code into separate versions for the targeted OSes, similar to native apps built from scratch. With MADP, however, the user is developing the app to the lowest common denominator across OSes, so the app might not be able to take full advantage of a device's features.

A web app is the simplest app type of the three because the user is building only a single version, which they can access from any mobile device running an HTML5 browser. However, web apps cannot take full advantage of a device's native features, nor perform as well as the other app types. But web apps are quick to deploy and easy to maintain -- an ideal platform under the right circumstances.

A hybrid app performs better than a web app and is simpler to deploy than a native app. It can take advantage of more device functionality but is still limited in terms of features and performance, when compared to a native app. Developers commonly build hybrid apps using JavaScript, CSS and HTML. The platform encloses the code in a wrapper or container or, in some other way, abstracts the app from the mobile OS, which makes it possible to take advantage of the native capabilities; however, this extra layer of abstraction can impact performance.

The mobile app dev platform market

Mobile app development platform vendors deliver their software as cloud-based services or on-premises products, some of which users can implement on cloud hosting services.

With a cloud service, companies can deploy apps very quickly with few upfront costs. However, long-term subscriptions fees can add up. On-premises platforms take more time and resources to implement but can result in a lower TCO, depending on the product. They also provide more control over the platform environment than cloud services.

MADP vendors also offer different levels of services. Some products, for example, target very specific use cases or are limited to only one app type. Other tools provide greater flexibility, such as supporting more app types, but still differ in terms of supported capabilities, such as customization, RMAD and systems integration.

For example, OutSystems is available as a cloud service that lets customers build web apps and hybrid apps for iOS and Android devices. On the other hand, Microsoft provides the Xamarin add-in for Visual Studio for developing native iOS, Android and Windows apps. Microsoft also offers the Visual Studio Mobile Center cloud service for building, testing, distributing and monitoring the apps.

With the right mobile app development platform, an organization can deploy apps faster and at a lower total cost of ownership.

According to Gartner's 2017 Magic Quadrant for mobile app dev platforms, the industry leaders in the MADP sector include Mendix, Kony, Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, OutSystems and Progress. Each provides extensive capabilities but can vary quite a bit from one tool to the next.

Gartner's Magic Quadrant also identifies a number of vendors that offer niche MADP tools, including Axway, MobileFrame, Red Hat, SAP, Adobe and I-exceed. The offerings are all diverse from one another. MobileFrame focuses specifically on building apps for the enterprise, with an emphasis on delivery, field service and direct-to-store software. SAP, on the other hand, is concerned primarily with building apps to augment existing SAP services.

Mobile app development

With the right mobile app development platform, an organization can deploy apps faster and at a lower TCO. Mobile app dev platforms can vary significantly from one to the next, in terms of supported mobile OSes, app types, RMAD and customization capabilities, back-end integration, platform implementation and a number of other factors. Before buyers decide on a product for their organization, they need to understand what the vendors offer and how their products differ. Only then can buyers choose the most suitable and effective product for their organization.

Editor's note

Using extensive research into MADP, TechTarget editors focused on vendors that develop native apps, provide a single integrated development environment and connect all major back-end data systems. Vendors should also provide full-featured apps and in-house development and be scalable with transparent pricing models. Our research included Gartner, Forrester and TechTarget surveys.

Next Steps

Learn both the benefits and challenges of an MADP

Choosing the right app development suite for your enterprise

Eight factors to consider when looking at an MADP

This was last published in August 2017

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