In the first three quarters of 2009, I’ve had an increasing number of discussions with Forrester clients about the state of mobile development and what technologies they should be evaluating. These conversations usually start with the statement “mobility is a mess…” What I mean by that statement is that we’re in the midst of a sea change in the technology options that IT shops have at their disposal when it comes to building custom mobile applications. The frenetic pace of evolution makes mobile development one of the Top 15 Technology Trends and it warrants careful attention on the part of enterprise architects and application development professionals.  By the end of 2010, you’ll have at least five distinct mobile applications architectures to choose from, including:

  1. Native, on-device applications. With smart phone use growing, we’re seeing the evolution of distinct mobile operating systems like the iPhone OS, Windows Mobile (WinMo) 6.5, Symbian, Android, and BlackBerry OS. Unfortunately, each mobile OS has its own programming model, so while building native apps gets the most out of each device, it takes a lot of effort to execute a native app strategy.
  2. Java ME. Java runs on many mobile platforms, including many feature phones. While there’s less work involved in targeting many different devices, it’s not as simple as you might expect. Inconsistent implementations of specifications and APIs by different devices have led to a fractured landscape, giving rise to a “write-once, port everywhere” reality.
  3. Mobile middleware. Companies like Sybase, Antenna Software, Vaultus and Pyxis Mobile solve the porting challenge by providing a consistent set of APIs and design tools that generate on-device applications. These companies are extending their products to support the mobile OSes listed above, and their tools are a good option for shops that need to get started immediately. But be warned: the tools aren’t cheap, and you’ll need specialized development skills to get the most out of them.
  4. Web development.  Emerging mobile OSes provide full support for Internet standards like HTML and de-facto standards like Ajax. Development frameworks like Appcelerator Titanium, PhoneGap and Rhomobile Rhodes allow Web developers to build apps with technologies they know, and then deploy them on mobile devices.
  5. Mobile RIA plug-ins. Forrester has documented the rise of rich Internet applications (RIAs) on desktop OSes, but now plug-ins like Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Sun JavaFX are getting slimmed down and ready for action on the next revs of high-end mobile devices. Mobile RIA is not a realistic option yet, but it will be by the end of 2010.
  6. If possible, you should focus on tactical per-project implementations for the remainder of 2009 and the first half of 2010 while the technologies at your disposal continue to mature. All you need to do is look at the announcements in the mobile space over the last few weeks to see how fluid the situation is. Here’s a sampling from just the past week:

    • RIM and Google joined the Open Screen Project (10/5/09). The Open Screen Project is an effort led by Adobe to port the Flash player to multiple devices, including Mobile phones and set-top boxes. Adobe also announced the intention to release Flash on Windows Mobile, and Palm’s Web OS as well as "ahead of time" compilation of  Flash applications to iPhone OS. Expect betas of full Flash on mobile devices to start toward the end of 2009 and continue through 2010
    • RIM Announced the Widget SDK for the BlackBerry Platform (10/6/09). The BlackBerry Widget Software Development Kit (SDK) lets developers build apps for BlackBerry OS 5.0 using common web technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.
    • Verizon joined the Android camp (10/6/09). At this year’s CTIA show Verizon announced that it will launch a range of Android-powered devices over the next few weeks. As more and more Android devices surface and more carriers adopt them, they become a more tempting target for developers, which could create the first significant challenge to Apple’s iPhone as the developer platform of choice.
    • PhoneGap got back into Apple’s good graces (10/7/09). PhoneGap was an attractive early option for developers that wanted to build apps for both Android and iPhone OS, but Apple began rejecting PhoneGap apps from the app store with the release of the 3.0 update to its operating system. It now appears that Apple’s concerns with PhoneGap have been resolved.  

    These four events illustrate the reality of the mobile space: shifting alliances, and investment by ISVs, device manufacturers and carriers in multiple technology options as each establish themselves as players tries to emerge as a winner in a hyper-competitive market. But there’s an upside for shops that keep their options open: lower prices, better-looking apps, and mobile development platforms that are easier to use.


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