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Grow Your Business Technology

What Is Mobile App Development?

image for Jelena Danilovic / Getty Images
Jelena Danilovic / Getty Images
  • Mobile app development is the creation of software intended to run on mobile devices and optimized to take advantage of those product's unique features and hardware.
  • The types of mobile apps that developers create include native apps, hybrid apps and HTML5 apps.
  • The mobile app development business is set to grow to nearly $600 billion this year. 

With the exploding popularity of smartphones and tablets, mobile application development is becoming an increasingly popular medium of software creation. In fact, mobile app revenues are projected to hit nearly $600 billion in 2020. This prolific and growing industry is attracting businesses from every corner of the marketplace looking for returns.

The creation of mobile applications draws much of its roots from traditional software development. The end result, however, is software intended to utilize the unique features and hardware of mobile devices. Modern smartphones are equipped with Bluetooth, NFC, gyroscopic sensors, GPS, cameras and so much more. They can be used for virtual or augmented reality, barcode scanning and more. Mobile apps should utilize the full range of smartphone features, which is easier said than done.

With desktop PC software development, programmers must create an application that can operate on a minimum set of hardware. The same goes for mobile applications, though the hardware variances in this instance are much more minimal. At the same time, the hardware in smartphones and tablets doesn't quite match that in laptops and desktop computers, which means mobile apps must be designed to show optimal performance.

For example, a gaming app would be limited in its graphical elements because of the less-powerful graphics processors in mobile devices. With that said, cloud computing is making it easier than ever to accomplish mobile gaming. Popular games such as Fortnite, Hearthstone, and PUBG connect players across computers, phones and even consoles.

Solving the issue of performance on any given device is ultimately dependent on developing an app natively on that device. This means designing the code specifically for the hardware on a particular device. In the instance of iOS devices, this proves quite easy, as mobile developers only need versions of the app for the iPhone and iPad to achieve universal usability. For Android devices, however, each smartphone and tablet runs on different hardware and varying versions of the operating system.

 

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Web-based apps, on the other hand, don't depend on the device; they run off of a web browser, making them cheaper to develop and easier to access. The problem with web apps, however, is that their performance doesn't compare to that of a native app. For example, with web apps, you cannot use the phone's full features or send proper notifications, and they look less professional.

Like desktop software, mobile apps are designed using a wide range of programming languages and frameworks. While the most popular operating systems, iOS and Android, have done an excellent job of standardizing the types of mobile app development available for programmers, apps can still vary. Here are some mobile app types:

  • Native apps. These are apps created for a specific platform (iOS or Android) using the software development tools and languages supported by those operating systems. iOS uses Xcode and Objective-C, whereas Android uses Eclipse and Java. Developers often prefer native apps because of their ability to utilize a device's full potential. With smart home devices becoming more ubiquitous, developers are creating unique applications that integrate things like wearables, IoT sensors and smart screens for personalized experiences. Of course, development for each platform is easier said than done and is a costly and time-consuming process that doesn't work for all businesses.

  • HTML5 apps. Based on the near-universal standards of web technologies – namely, HTML5, JavaScript and CSS – this type of mobile app takes a write-once-run-anywhere approach to mobile development. Apps developed in this framework are compatible with many platforms and require only minimal changes to ensure complete functionality in each operating system. HTML5 apps can still send desktop notifications and trigger interactions through email and other avenues. Don't discount web apps' usability, but keep in mind that users are more likely to use a native app. A study from Oracle found that millennials spend 90% of their mobile time in apps, compared with 10% in web browsers.

  • Hybrid apps. These apps entail the creation of a container developed in the native system that makes it possible to embed an HTML5 app within it. This allows apps to make use of the diverse and unique elements of each native system. Before creating your own branded app, consider instead utilizing already existing apps for greater impact. For example, by using mobile-focused marketing on services such as Yelp, Facebook and Google Maps, you can drive traffic to both your website and brick-and-mortar location.

Mobile app development requires access to software development kits (SDKs) that provide an environment through which programmers can design and test code in a simulated mobile environment. However, creating an app does not require full use of these kits. For example, developers can create mobile games using Unity and then use the Android SDK to ensure its deliverability on mobile devices. Developing apps for iOS requires a paid iOS developer license, whereas the Android SDK is freely available to users.

iOS (47%) and Android (52%) have similar mobile market shares, but developing for Apple is somewhat easier in that you don't need to worry about a wide range of devices from different manufacturers. Regardless of which operating system you choose, however, there are barriers to entry.

Mobile application development is changing constantly. Typically, every six months or so, a new version of an operating system rolls out with unique features that mobile apps can utilize. Developing for a specific version of the operating system, or even for a native operating system, usually requires developers to try multiple solutions to find the one that suits their development needs.

Failure to keep up with development updates could cause catastrophic cybersecurity issues. Consider the costs of developing an app, which can range from $5,000 to $15,000 to start, plus the costs for continued development and maintenance. If Android or iOS releases a new OS update, you can be delisted quickly for being incompatible.

Developing an app is useful, but only if you develop a great app. A poor user experience will drive customers away, leaving you essentially marketing for your competition. Be cognizant of creating a user experience and realistic about budgets, and you'll be well on your way.