Making Sense of the Mobile App Development Landscape

As mobile devices and solutions have gained in popularity in the data collection world, application developers have been quick to cash in. New technologies, increasingly powerful and effective wireless communication methods, and the emergence — and acceptance — of the cloud, have altered the field and given developers new opportunities. To take a closer look at these opportunities and discuss some of the more significant trends, I recently spoke with James Pemberton, Global ISV & developer strategy director at Zebra Technologies and Duane Roebuck, IoT and retail business development manager for BlueStar.

Addressing cloud, efficiency-enhancements
According to Pemberton, one of the biggest trends in mobile app development is the move to the cloud. “Warehousing is one of the slower sectors to adopt new app-development paradigms,” he says. “Here, most apps are still using decades-old green-screen terminal emulation. With the advent of cloud and Android devices emerging to replace the legacy Windows CE devices that are fast-approaching end of support from Microsoft, there is now a need for native Android apps in the warehouse that can connect to the cloud.”

The advantages of the cloud are well-documented, he continues, but for enterprise apps, especially mission-critical apps, cloud-based architectures need to be well-planned and executed to ensure continuous operation for mobile workers. “Typically, this means a native app on the device that can maintain offline operations for a significant period of time in the event cloud connectivity is interrupted,” explains Pemberton. There must also be consideration for how a cloud app behaves in an “always on” environment such as a warehouse where a device’s radios can struggle for any number of reasons, including roaming between access points.

Another trend in enterprise mobile apps is the use of efficiency-enhancing tools and utilities running on enterprise-class devices, says Pemberton. “A developer has to plan for the multitude of devices that may be used, especially if BYOD is an option,” he says. “This means planning for the lowest common denominator of technology. However, this does not prevent a developer from adding in ‘options’ to take advantage of enterprise-class devices if the app is deployed on one.” Some examples would be swipe-in keyboard access at convenient points in the workflow, or a multi-bar code/OCR capability for speedy scanning of labels with multiple bar codes and text fields.

Addressing the OS Landscape
While developers have their personal preferences of OSs to work with, Pemberton says that preference has little to do with the trends we’re seeing today. He explains that most app developers have to be able to sell their apps to support the devices that their customers demand. So, it is not really that they are drawn to one OS over another, but they are simply responding to end-user demand. “Today, most end-users opt for either iOS or Android devices in the enterprise, based on a large number of factors and the use-case,” he says. “’Carpeted-space’ enterprise apps can lean toward iOS due to the popularity of Apple devices in the consumer market, though they are not in any significant way optimized for use in the enterprise.”

Pemberton goes on to explain that Android offers more flexibility for developers and end-users both in the variety of rugged, durable, and consumer-grade devices, as well as the OS-enabled features. As a side note, Pemberton and Zebra believe Android is a clear winner for the mobile enterprise, which is why the company has developed a wide Android-based enterprise-class product portfolio.

One might wonder how Windows fits into the mobile app world. At one time, Microsoft OS-based mobile devices ruled the industry. Pemberton says Windows 10 Mobile currently has a low share of the consumer phone market and the OS is less flexible and open compared to Android. “These factors probably contribute to why end-users do not specify Windows 10 for use in the mobile enterprise to their app developers,” he continues. “The one exception is tablets where Windows 10 is proving popular with end-users for ‘big-screen’ apps. This may be due in part to the familiarity and associate use on desktop PCs.”

Struggles of an mobile app developer
With so much opportunity and excitement in the industry, there are also plenty of challenges. Competition has never been more intense and customers are always looking for improved returns on their tech investments.

Pemberton says that the most common challenge echoed by Zebra’s ISV partners is the difficulty in hiring and retaining quality developers. “There seems to be an ongoing shortage in all regions,” he says. “Outsourcing is one strategy to overcome this, but that comes with its own set of challenges as well.”

Roebuck says that another challenge many developers face is making their product channel-friendly. Consider how a developer might have the perfect solution for a market, but lacks the ability to promote and sell it to that market. Many developers have difficulty creating a sales force and marketing plan capable of getting the product in front of the right people, especially if target customers are spread all over the country or world.
A common strategy is to create a channel partner program whereby technology resellers are used as a remote sales force to help sell the product. This can be extremely effective, but requires the creation of a program, hiring of managers, and more.

Roebuck says one often overlooked aspect is the way the software is invoiced. “Many of the ISVs I’ve met with think in terms of monthly revenue, which can make it challenging for distributors and resellers trying to offer their product,” he says. “Designing annual and multi-year plans not only make it easier to be introduced into the channel but also can provide longer-term relationships and revenue from end-clients.”

On the topic of marketing, Roebuck says many ISVs wrongfully take a solo approach, highlighting their software and not making clear the hardware that can be associated with it. “If they were to use a teaming strategy where they market their software and also showcase the hardware that is used with it, the message will be more impactful,” he explains. “In addition, ISVs can look to form partnerships with certain manufacturers that will also participate in the funding for the marketing campaign itself.”

The future
Mobile solutions will continue to have an important impact on the AIDC space and the changes we’ve seen in recent years are only the beginning. As technologies continue to improve, costs come down, and hardware companies innovate, application developers will have an unlimited number of new and exciting opportunities.

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Mike Monocello
The former owner of a software development company and having more than a decade of experience writing for B2B IT solution providers, Mike is co-founder of DevPro Journal.