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How to choose the best mobile application development platform

When searching for a mobile application development platform it is important to keep several factors in mind, including whether you want a cloud or on-premises offering.

Choosing the best mobile application development platform is no small task. The product must address an organization's needs and allow developers to build applications that satisfy their users.

When selecting a mobile application development platform (MADP), developers should evaluate the type of applications they want to build, the mobile environments they plan to target and how much customization they need. Consider these six important factors when sorting through the available MADPs.

Platform features

The first order of business in finding the best mobile application development platform is identifying the key features a MADP should include.

Developers should be able to build, test, debug, deploy, host and maintain apps throughout their entire lifecycle. The best mobile application development platform is intuitive, easy to learn, and supports collaborative workflows and approval processing.

In addition, MADPs should include extensible middleware and back-end services that deliver features such as push notifications, authentication and data storage. Full-fledged MADPs provide standards-based application program interfaces for integrating with third-party services. Scalability, app store deployments, access control and data synchronization are also important to keep in mind.

Operating system support

MADPs should be intuitive, easy to learn and support collaborative workflows.

Developers must determine the mobile operating systems they plan to deploy their apps on. The majority of mobile devices run Google Android, but the enterprise generally favors Apple iOS, with a smattering of Windows devices; even BlackBerry survives in some corners.

Most major MADPs support both Android and iOS development and, to a lesser degree, Windows. If developers must build apps for Windows and BlackBerry devices, in addition to Android and iOS, the number of MADP options quickly decreases.

Cross-platform development

Cross-platform development is the process of building a hybrid or native app that runs on multiple OSes. The developer creates a single code-base from which the cross-platform tool automatically generates the code for the target operating systems.

The apps must be able to run efficiently on the target devices and take full advantage of their native features. Although cross-platform development sounds good on paper, automatic code generation is not foolproof, and the final output often misses the mark compared to authentic native apps. Be sure to test the MADP's cross-platform capabilities thoroughly.

App variety

Developers can build three types of apps: native, web or hybrid. By most measures, native apps provide the best mobile application performance. A native app takes full advantage of the features built into the device and operating system, without extra layers of abstraction or access limitations.

In this video interview, mobility expert Craig Mathias discusses the basics of deploying enterprise mobile applications -- why companies should consider mobile app deployment in the first place, which apps they should mobilize and more.

But native app development is costly in terms of time and resources because developers must implement a separate app for each target platform. As a result, some organizations take a web-based approach for certain applications, such as internal business apps that serve noncritical needs. Web apps rely on client-side technologies such as HTML, cascading style sheets and JavaScript to deliver the apps through the mobile device browsers. In this way, developers write the code once and create a single app users can access from any device.

Although web-based apps are relatively easy to implement, they generally do not perform as well as native apps, nor can they take full advantage of a device's unique features. As a result, some organizations take the hybrid route, which falls somewhere between the native and web approaches. Hybrid apps usually take better advantage of native capabilities, although they still pale in comparison to native apps.

Many organizations have different needs and consequently want an application development platform that supports more than one approach. In some cases, an organization might want to build all three types of apps, in addition to cross-platform apps. Most MADPs provide a combination of approaches, but not all three, in which case developers must prioritize which types of apps they want to build when selecting a vendor.

Deployment method

MADPs come as either on-premises products or cloud-based services; some vendors offer both.

With a cloud service, IT and developers get fast, convenient access to a wide range of tools and technologies, with low startup costs. On-premises MADPs take more time and resources to purchase and implement, but can end up with a lower total cost of ownership because of the long-term subscription fees associated with the cloud. They also provide more control over the platform, processes, data protection and security.

To decide between a cloud-based or on-premises offering, companies must do a thorough cost analysis and keep security, auditing and compliance in mind.

Coding skills required

More and more MADPs offer codeless or near-codeless options for building mobile applications. These services offer user-friendly interfaces that rely heavily on point-and-click and drag-and-drop operations to assemble applications. In many cases, the MADP also provides templates and forms to further simplify the development process.

This type of development -- often referred to as rapid mobile application development (RMAD) -- can be great for organizations that don't have the development resources to spare for their mobile apps. Some RMADs even allow customization -- which requires actual coding skills -- but for the most part, they're geared toward the power user who needs to get an app out as quickly and easily as possible.

The downside to RMADs is that developers have less control over app customization, which leaves users with generic apps. For more sophisticated apps that require a high degree of customization, developers want a MADP that gives them a bit more freedom.

When assessing MADPs, companies must determine the level of development expertise and resources available and the degree of control developers need over the final product.

MADPs come in all shapes and sizes. They offer different features, support different types of apps, take different approaches to development and vary in a number of other ways. As a result, organizations must know exactly what developers need and which MADPs can deliver it. Not selecting the best mobile application development tools can end up costing a company for a long time to come.

Next Steps

Complete guide to mobile app development

Explore codeless app development

MADP pros and cons

This was last published in June 2016

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