Cross-platform apps? There's a tool for that

The questions facing developers who decide to take a cross-platform approach to apps must be endless. Are the code bases parallel? Is the user interface consistent? And perhaps most importantly, is this really worth all the effort?

Gingee says its arcade games demo is a great example of arcade games running smoothly on all devices.

At the AppsWorld North America conference in San Francisco earlier this month, experts said that the choice comes down to going native, creating a hybrid app, using HTML5 or, increasingly, working with a cross-platform development tool.

Crowded space
Of course, scores of cross-platform development tools already are on the market, with PhoneGap, Appcelerator, Adobe AIR, Sencha and Qt among the most popular. But according to a benchmark report from London-based Research2Guidance, only 11 cross-platform tools out there are known by more than 20 percent of the app developer community. This makes finding the right solution almost as much work as the effort to develop a cross-platform app itself, said Ralf-Gordon Jahns, the report's author. But the increased use of such tools may be inevitable. 


"They will sooner rather than later look at those tools and find out which of them meet their requirements because they want to reduce development cost," he told FierceDeveloper. "It's only a matter of time when these kinds of tools in general become more popular."

Gingee is among the firms hoping to still find room in a crowded sector. Gingee recently launched a free downloadable toolset that is intended to let users drag and drop objects to create apps for iOS, all Android versions, BlackBerry and the mobile Web without coding. Based on a proprietary algorithm that analyzes relations between objects and maps them uniformly to all operating systems and devices, the technology is designed to offer near-native performance.

According to Gingee CEO  and co-founder Roei Livneh, the company started out making its own social and mobile gaming apps for a dozen years before getting frustrated by the challenges of extending its reach to the increasing variety of devices and OSes. 

"We wanted to target iOS, but it's not possible to create a product that will run on iPad and iPhone with the same look," he said. "This was not a fair race. The big guys would have the money to have multiple pipelines [to develop for iOS, Android or another platform], while for us as a small developer, we had no chance whatsoever."

Native vs. HTML5 debate continues
Not everyone sees cross-platform tools as the answer, however. "If you are looking for the best consumer experience, if you want your brand to stand out, [you'll want] a native mobile app. It's money well spent," said Scott Wasserman, founder and CTO at Artisan Mobile, which offers a framework for developing native apps. "The mobile audience is very fickle and can get turned off by the simplest things. It can make your brand reflect poorly. I think you get what you pay for."

Jerry Cheng wasn't so sure. The director of mobile engineering at recalled an early Bank of America mobile app, which he noticed was built on HMTL5. "It was slow--I think they've now switched to a native app--but it's not something where I would switch my bank because an app was written in HTML5," he said. "What you often find is once you start developing, there are quirks inside Android vs. iOS and you will find you have to start customizing because the performance on certain rendering engines is different."

Meanwhile, although Vision Mobile's most recent Developer Economics study said 16 percent of developers will be adopting HTML5 to address cross-platform challenges, Livneh shares Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's view that the technology just doesn't cut it. 


"We were no different. We were sure we could work with HTML5," he said. "But we needed to offer in-depth game-lay with a lot of graphics and assets and things that needed to perform very well. HTML5 failed to allow us that."

Livneh said he hopes Gingee will be seen as easy to use as PhotoShop, which he believes could be a differentiator among the other choices available to developers. "I appreciate that there are a lot of other cross-platform tools out there," he said. 

Jahns said all cross-platform tool vendors face a major challenge in raising awareness around developers, but it helps if they can carve out a specific niche. 

"If they concentrate on a certain app category or industry, that can make a difference," he said. Jahns added that despite the many vendors offering cross-platform tools, he doesn't expect to see a significant amount of merger and acquisition activity in the coming year, which means tools developers adopt today probably won't disappear tomorrow. "It's not where investors are focused."