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RMAD tools enhance app dev but come with tradeoffs

Organizations looking to create their own mobile apps may choose RMAD tools over building native apps from scratch. It seems like a quick fix, but RMAD has its downsides, too.

We're 10 years into the era of modern mobility, and many companies want to create their own employee-facing apps. Despite a decade of advancements, however, it's still too time-consuming, difficult or expensive for many organizations to create a full, native mobile app from scratch. Rapid mobile app development (RMAD) software strives to solve these problems.

RMAD tools generally share a few common traits:

  • provide a drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG integrated development environment (IDE) for creating mobile applications without having to write native code;
  • include various back-end services to support the apps; and
  • aim to provide a fast, simple and inexpensive way for average IT departments to build their own mobile apps.

There are dozens of vendors that either consider themselves RMAD providers or are categorized as such by analysts, and they provide a wide range of features. App transformation software, which builds mobile apps as new access layers on top of existing web and desktop applications, is often categorized as RMAD software as well.

Pros and cons of RMAD

Back-end services in RMAD tools include connectors for all types of on-premises and cloud-based databases, feeds and APIs. RMAD tools also take care of mobile app plumbing tasks, such as offline data syncing, push notifications, analytics, identity management and app signing and hosting.

Low-code mobile features

RMAD usually implies a code-free IDE, but some products also allow the inclusion of scripting, web content or even native code. Some RMAD IDEs allow free-form creation of any type of app user interface, and others focus on templates or are designed to combine common tasks into a workflow, with very little design left up to the app creator.

With any type of mobile app development platform, there are tradeoffs. Without writing an app from the ground up in native code, there's less flexibility in the design, and apps may not be able to use more recent or specialized device features. Performance can also lag behind that of native apps.

RMAD vendors

A variety of rapid mobile app development tools are available from a broad range of companies, including the following:

Alpha Software
PowWow Mobile

On the other hand, apps made with RMAD tools and other non-native approaches can still use key mobile features such as location detection, photos, video and push notifications, all in a modern user interface with good performance. For employee-facing apps that replace PC or paper-based processes, the features and performance are more than adequate.

RMAD, meet business expectations

Using RMAD tools to create apps quickly and inexpensively has many advantages. Companies can experiment with less risk and expand their mobile strategies to include apps that wouldn't provide an adequate return on investment if they were built from scratch. But the technology is only one part of the process, and the business uses, expectations and strategies are arguably more important for success. In other words, an RMAD can get an app out the door, but the business is still on the hook for making sure it's a good app.

In addition, RMAD doesn't necessarily absolve IT departments of responsibility for other mobile app tasks. IT will have to think through app security, make sure apps get to the right users (and that they actually use them), and keep the apps up to date as devices and business requirements change.

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Given the relative simplicity of creating an app with code-free RMAD software, some vendors and industry watchers are promoting the idea of citizen app development. Under this concept, nonspecialist IT staff, line-of-business owners and even end users could use RMAD tools to create apps on their own. This approach assumes that enough integration, automation and security is in place to provide guardrails for citizen developers. Some find this concept attractive, but many are skeptical that it will ever widely work in practice.

RMAD products span a wide range of features, business models and philosophies. As such, IT departments need to have a good idea of their requirements and do extensive research before they settle on a vendor.

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