With at least five major platforms competing for developer mindshare, it seems that developers need to be careful when choosing one. Developers have to consider all sorts of factors, from the platform's market penetration to the cost of development tools and revenue potential.
The emergence of cross-platform tools offers developers a way around these issues, by providing a low-cost way to create apps that work not just across platforms, but also, increasingly, across screens. Cross-platform tools (or CPTs) allow developers to extend the reach of their apps, while at the same time avoiding platform lock-in.
Using cross-platform tools
Let's start off with a quick definition of cross-platform tools. The term describes developer tools that allow applications to be created and distributed to multiple platforms, while reducing the incremental cost per platform and maximizing code reuse. Cross-platform tools can address platforms across mobile (e.g. Apple's iOS, Google's Android and Microsoft Windows Phone 7), tablets, desktop (Microsoft Windows, Apple OSX and Linux) and gaming consoles (PlayStation, Nintendo and Xbox).
It's quite telling that there are over 100 CPTs currently in the market--check out our newly released Cross-Platform Developer Tools 2012 report for a full list). Some of the best-known tools include PhoneGap, Adobe Air/Flex, Corona, Appcelerator Titanium, Marmalade, MoSync, RunRev LiveCode, Qt, Sencha, Unity and Xamarin Mono.
Using cross-platform tools has several advantages for developers--CPTs allow developers to use their existing skills, while reducing platform "lock-in", i.e., allowing developers to reach more platforms--at an incremental cost. Also, CPTs help developers avoid the issue of fragmentation that is a pain point for many major platforms. Cross-platform tools have also opened the gates of the mobile industry to scores of software and web developers, allowing them to create apps quickly and efficiently, while avoiding the associated costs of having to learn a new programming language from the ground up.
Adopting CPTs, however, comes with a price; a lot of these tools do not allow the creation of apps with the same "feel" and quality of native apps, while they often lag behind in terms of features introduced by native platforms, as well as access to the full set of device capabilities. Our online survey of over 2,400 developers found that performance was the biggest issue for developers, with nearly 30% of respondents citing it as the main reason they dropped a CPT (more in our report). The respondents in our research also felt that a major hindrance for CPTs was that they "were always a step behind native [platforms]".
The fragmented cross-platform market
The CPT market is just crossing the threshold of the early adopter phase and into the mainstream. It's still a relatively new market and, as such, is highly fragmented, with over 100 vendors competing over slim pickings. As the market is still underdeveloped, many vendors need funding in order to achieve prominence. Some large companies even acquire cross-platform vendors, in an attempt to boost their offering and extend their portfolio, as was the case in Nitobi's (PhoneGap) acquisition by Adobe. Other examples include IBM's acquisition of Worklight and Motorola's acquisition of RhoMobile.
CPT vendors often have to subsidize their entry to the market with free products, while developers are happy to hop from one tool to the next, as perceptions are still being formed. All in all, the CPT market has yet to undergo large-scale consolidation before reaching maturity.
The future of cross-platform tools
Although CPTs are seemingly threatening native development right now, the situation will become more stable as CPTs become mainstream. It's difficult to create certain types of apps with CPTs, like demanding games or apps that require intense user interaction; these types of apps will necessarily have to be developed natively. Despite the advantages of a much wider consumer reach and monetization potential, provided by CPTs, developers will have to resort to the native SDK when they require a deeper level of integration or access to specific features, such as the gyroscope--found only in the iPhone 4 and 4S and certain high-end Android models.
The battle of the software ecosystems is raging across many screens--mobile, tablet, PC and soon smart TV devices. However, the complexities of cross-platform development in a multi-screen environment are growing exponentially and beyond the simple sharing of the code between multiple platforms. The next frontier for cross-platform tools--and the next major point of vendor differentiation--will be catering to multiple screens.
Various screen types have different interaction models, input methods, screen sizes, go-to-market channels, pricing models and are used by consumers in different ways. Mobile, desktop and TV app developers work in very different environments, tool-chains, development cycles and collaboration processes. Yet, with the proliferation of "connected screens", app developers will need to provide apps with a cross-screen experience to their users.
Matos Kapetanakis is the marketing manager at VisionMobile, a leading market analysis and strategy firm for all things connected. Kapetanakis is also involved in market intelligence and leads some of the company's research projects. To download the Developer Economics report, visit www.DeveloperEconomics.com.