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4 March 2010

Choosing intermediate mobile platforms

Filed under: applications, developer experience, fragmentation, runtimes, smartphones — David Wood @ 12:55 am

Over the last few months, one thing I’ve noticed is the increasing number of companies who are offering mobile intermediate platforms and tools, that are designed to hide differences between underlying mobile operating systems.  For example, I heard about several new ones (that is, new for me) during Mobile World Congress at Barcelona.

I’d like to mention some of these companies.  But first, here’s some context.

People who want to develop applications (or provide content or services) for mobile devices face two levels of decision about platform choice.

The first decision is: what should developers do about the fact that different mobile devices run many different mobile operating systems (such as Symbian, BlackBerry, iPhone, Android, Palm webOS, LiMo, Maemo, Series 40, Bada, Windows Mobile…)?

In other words, should developers:

  1. Prioritise one operating system platform above all others, and attempt to become an expert in that?
  2. Try to become experts in all the major operating system platforms (including different UI families and other platform sub-variants)?
  3. Rely on third party experts who can deliver “mobile applications as a service” across a wide range of relevant operating systems?
  4. Try to find an intermediate platform and/or tool, that will hide the differences in underlying mobile operating system?

The first of these approaches has the merit of simplicity, but cuts off large numbers of devices.  The second of these approaches is particularly hard to achieve: it requires wide-ranging knowledge.  The third is what I advocated in an earlier blog post, “A strategy for mobile app development“: it involves building a relationship with an external company which maintains up-to-date knowledge about changing mobile operating systems.  The fourth is a variation on the third.  Rather than rely on paying a third party to use their own systems to develop apps for each different platform, it relies on finding an intermediate platform and/or tool, to achieve the same end.

That takes me to the second decision about platform choice: what should developers do about the fact that there are so many different intermediate platforms available?

In one way, this second decision is harder than the first one.  That’s because the number of intermediate platforms available seems to be larger even than the number of different mobile operating systems.  Therefore the choice is larger.  (And it seems to be getting larger all the time, with the emergence of new intermediate plaforms.)

But, thankfully, in another way, this decision is easier.  That’s because there may well be more than one “right answer”.  Depending on the type of applications being developed, various different intermediate platforms are well-suited to distributing the application acrosss a wide range of mobile devices.

I’m not expecting a consolidation, any time soon, down to just a few intermediate mobile platforms.  Developers’ needs are too varied for that.  But I am expecting at least some of these platforms to become better and better, as their owners respond smartly to the evolving needs of the growing number of developers who want to bring applications to ever larger numbers of mobile devices.

Here are just four of these platforms which have caught my eye recently.  As I said, different platforms are appropriate for different kinds of developer needs.

1. JumpStart Wireless BusinessSuite

JumpStart Wireless has a solution for enterprises that want to improve how they interact with their mobile workforce.

A special feature of this solution is that no “programming” in a traditional sense is required: no C/C++, no Java, no HTML.  Instead, I heard the solution described as “you fill in a spreadsheet” giving details of an existing paper-based system that you’d like to replace by a version that runs on mobile devices – a paper-based system for work orders, time cards, daily reports, punch lists, inspections, sales orders, and so on.  The architect and founder of JumpStart Wireless, Dr. Jeffrey Bonar, observed many similarities between systems used by different companies, and captured the similarities in the engine that lies at the heart of the JumpStart Wireless BusinessSuite platform.  The platform generates versions of the application that can run on a wide variety of different mobile devices.

Their website states:

Problem: Mobile Employees Typically Waste Hours Per Day With Paperwork and Communicating to Headquarters

Time and money wasted:

  • Driving to pickup/drop-off paperwork, filling out paperwork and excessive phone calls.
  • Chasing down missing paperwork, correcting errors and dealing with illegible paperwork.
  • Dealing with backlogs of completed work waiting to be closed out and billed.
  • Manually entering field data

Solution: JumpStart Wireless™ – One Tenth the Cost of Conventional Wireless Approaches

  • Leveraging JumpStart Wireless’s patent pending artificial intelligence technology, your customized wireless applications are one tenth the price of conventional approaches to wireless software.
  • Your forms and mobile employee process is automatically transformed into a wireless device application

Works with Normal Cell Phones and PDAs

  • JumpStart Wireless applications work on normal, off-the-shelf cell phones and BlackBerrys.
  • You do not need an expensive ($700-$2000), complex, custom device

2. The MoSync Mobile Development SDK

The MoSync Mobile Development SDK takes a different approach. It provides access to a wide range of underlying device functionality, via a C/C++ SDK.  As such, it requires a greater degree of software skill from the developer, and in principle can enable a rich variety of different kinds of application.

MoSync were one of the finalists in the Mobile Premier Awards at Barcelona, where I had the chance to meet a couple of their founding team.

Their website states:

Mobile cross-platform done right

Today’s mobile device market is more fragmented than ever.  New platforms are introduced every year.  Dozens of new devices arrive from manufacturers every month.  Sometimes it can seem that writing your application is the easy part: the real headache is tailoring it for all those different platforms and devices, and trying to keep up with the ever-changing marketplace.

We think that mobile application development is hard enough without having to worry about porting issues. That’s why we’ve created MoSync — a truly open-source solution for today’s fragmented mobile market.

MoSync’s fully-featured software development kit helps you develop anything from simple programs for basic mobile phones to advanced applications that exploit the full potential of the latest intelligent smart phones and mobile devices.

And with MoSync you can adapt, build, and package your application for hundreds of different mobile devices in a few clicks – all from the same code base! That means huge savings in development costs, faster time-to-market, and wider distribution and revenue possibilities…

Most approaches to cross-platform software development involve

  • either manual brute-force porting (in essence rewriting the application for lots of mobile devices)
  • or the use of virtual machine runtimes that need to be installed on the target devices.

MoSync does neither — instead it gives you the best possible solution: Symbian, Windows Mobile, j2me, Moblin, and Android built from a single source…

3. The Airplay platform from Ideaworks Labs

The Airplay platform from Ideaworks Labs has particular strengths for high-performance rich-media mobile applications – including graphically-intense mobile games.

Their website states:

Airplay is a native mobile application development and deployment solution that overcomes many of the major problems faced by developers and publishers of mobile games today.

The Airplay SDK comprises a set of powerful and extensible tools and technologies within a framework of processes and workflow best practices. This combination of technology and know-how delivers massive cost savings during both development and deployment and enables a much faster time to market.

This solution is the unique result of a 7-year symbiotic relationship between Ideaworks Labs and Ideaworks Game Studio divisions, and it is through building many of the most innovative mobile games in the world that our solution has been fine-tuned and thoroughly battle-tested.

Key Features:

  • Single Binary: Airplay combines the platform-specific execution environment implementation with a single binary for each game or application. The key advantage of this is there is no need to embed software on the handset, no dependence on manufacturing supply chain, or individual manufacturer or operator deals.
  • Open Platforms: All applications built using Airplay run on all “open” platforms, such as Symbian, BREW, Windows Mobile, Linux, and can be embedded on “closed” platforms, such as RTOS.
  • Scalable Graphics: Fully scalable graphics pipeline optimized to support all leading semiconductor architectures…
  • OpenKODE compliant: Ideaworks Labs was co-spec lead in Khronos on OpenKODE Core API, committed to standards-based portability of native applications.

4. EZMobile from 509inc

509inc have a solution which may appeal to developers who already have a web service, which they want to connect to mobile devices in such a way that it takes advantage of mobile device features such as location.

Their website states:

5o9 EZMobile uses Web standards to simplify development and the support of mobile users. 5o9 EZMobile works with existing Web servers, most HTTP mobile browsers and any network. 5o9 EZMobile can reduce the time and cost to mobilize by 2 to 10 times that of cross-platform mobile application development and support…

5o9 EZMobile software enables enterprise-level Mobile SaaS by delivering contextual data to your Web Apps. It provides a cost-effective alternative to cross-platform mobile application development.

Now you can extend your existing Web services to mobile users by leveraging the power of the Web. Your Web apps can access real-time who, what and where data about your mobile users, letting you personalize services via customized menu-based navigation. Standardize delivery, via the browser, across multiple mobile platforms. You determine the data you need. You control your data security and privacy  policies. You choose the appropriate level of personalization for your mobile employees, customers and partners.

Experienced cross-platform mobile developer Simon Judge recently looked more closely at 509inc and wrote some of his findings in a blog post “509 Bridges the App Web Gap“:

Last year I mentioned how 5o9 had developed a solution that allowed BlackBerry and Windows Mobile device location to be made available to web sites. Since then, things have progressed and they now offer a range of multi-platform tools for mobile developers.

5o9 told me that their view of the future is that for mobile to really take off the web has to know the end-user better. This means that web browsers need better access to phone features.

If you go to the 5o9 web site you can learn more. However, what it doesn’t say is how this technology works and how it might be integrated into your mobile solution, so I dug deeper

The 5o9 solution is a simple mobile application that can share critical meta data (without the need to type it in) with any web app in the world. It works by extending the HTTP protocol with new customizable HTTP_X headers….

Some people think that the future of mobile is the web. Until such time, technologies such as those offered by 5o9 can be used to bridge the gap.

This is just to scratch the surface…

Above, I’ve provided brief details of four attractive intermediate mobile platforms, but there are probably at least five times as many more that could be added to this list (I apologise for the highly selective nature of my list).

And that’s without covering the better known intermediate platforms such as Qt, Java, HTML5, Adobe Flash/AIR, and Microsoft Silverlight.  It would take a long time to fairly compare and evaluate all serious players in this space.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this multiplicity of offerings is that there’s wide perception of the need for such solutions, driven by the combination of two observations:

  • The mobile opportunity is huge, and demands attention
  • Mobile development is still generally seen as unnecessarily difficult.
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5 Comments »

  1. “Show me the money!”

    An interesting angle/variation/extension to this post would be to make a perceptual map/matrix of such platform vs “where the money is”. I mean, some of the underlying technology that you refer to (such as MoSync’s toolchain and runtime) is really really impressive, but will it bring developers money in doing product development (see iTunes Store) or only from consulting?

    In other words do any of these platforms make economic sense for someone to build a product or service with, or are they only good for consultancy gigs and if they are, for which ones?

    This is the question that needs to be answered and it is an expensive one to tackle.

    Comment by John Pagonis — 4 March 2010 @ 10:14 am

  2. […] 2: David Wood wrote an overview of some other cross platform tools. This entry was posted in Software. Bookmark the permalink. […]

    Pingback by Mobile Development SDKs compared: MoSync, PhoneGap and AppWhirl — 4 March 2010 @ 3:35 pm

  3. David,

    Nice insights. I would be interested to know what you think of Rhomobile.

    Comment by Rob McMillen — 5 March 2010 @ 7:14 am

  4. John,

    Here is a ‘money saver’.

    JumpStart Wireless does saves money and time. Applications can be completed in a few hours to few days due to AI automatic programming platform, as David described it.
    One example is with the US Census office; they came up with a request for an application for H1V1 virus survey and JumpStart completed it in 48 Hours.

    Comment by Marios Gerogiokas — 5 March 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  5. For the accuracy of information, JumpStart Wireless’ customer was the ‘US Center for Disease Control’ not the US Census office.

    Comment by Marios Gerogiokas — 8 March 2010 @ 4:52 pm


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