MBaaS for beginners: An indie developer's guide

There may be only one fate worse for developers than failing to find a sizable audience: not being prepared to handle success.

In this case, "success" doesn't refer to fawning coverage by technology publications, rave reviews in an app store or large amounts of revenue. It's the increased usage of consumers that could put a drain on server performance, storage capacity and the ability to manage user data. This is where the concept of working with a mobile backend as-a-service (MBaaS) provider comes in. MBaaS refers to vendors that offer tools for hosting the infrastructure behind an app or mobile game via cloud computing.

A recent blog post from Kii, one of the providers in this space, gave an example of an open-source Android game called Frozen Bubble that doesn't have any backend functionality. Although the game works well, it lacks sophisticated means to analyze user behavior or manage high scores without considerable coding. Kii's MBaaS service is designed to reduce that level of programming to a simple snippet.

In a recent video clip, Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research analyst Michael Facemire provided a more comprehensive definition of MBaaS and how it works.

MBaaS makes obvious sense for those creating enterprise apps, but in an interview with FierceDeveloper, Facemire suggested it may take time before vendors such as Kii, StackMob and others establish themselves with the corporate crowd.

"In reality they make most of their bread and butter on the indie developer," he said. "They've not really cracked the enterprise that much."

Enterprise focus aids developers
Joe Chernov, vice president of marketing at Kinvey, a Boston-based firm which Facemire pointed out as a major MBaaS player, admitted as much. Chernov said the best thing that ever happened to indie developers is that BaaS providers began targeting enterprise buyers.

"BaaS players are largely startups, so it's not like any [of them] has the resources to tool and maintain two different platforms, one for indie developers and one for enterprises," he said. "Instead they run a common platform and offer enterprises premium features. This means that indie developers are getting an enterprise-grade platform, but for consumer pricing. So the question is less about how enterprise solutions will scale for the indie audience, and more how indie solutions will scale for enterprise buyers."

Facemire says developers' choice of MBaaS provider may depend in part on whether they need essential back-end data services that just keep an app running, or more advanced functionality to support e-commerce or some kind of specific workflow.

"Right now I would say it would be a feature-by-feature comparison," he said, noting that pricing models include those which offer free tiers and those which charge by the number of API calls in a given month, unique users or number of apps built. "Understanding what your usage types are going to be is going to go a long way to determine what the overall cost of the BaaS offering is," he added.

Kinvey's Chernov suggested developers should also check into how often features are added and bugs are fixed (vendors should make this information public and discoverable). In addition, they should look at which major companies have partnered with the BaaS vendor. He said doing this will give the developer a sense of how viable the company is perceived to be by the "authorities" in tech. (Kinvey, for example, works with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) in the enterprise space.) Lastly, he said developers should do some grass roots-type research.

"Search Quora, tweet at each vendor and see who replies, file help tickets to see how responsive the organization is," he suggested. "Even in a self-service business like BaaS for indie developers, it's important to know that there are folks who have your back on the other side of the monitor."

Adding a business strategy into the mix
As they grow more accustomed to various MBaaS services, indie developers who make consumer apps should think about how they could leverage them to add enterprise apps to the mix, suggested Tim Panagos, CTO of a firm called based in Wayne, Pa. Sometimes compared with Parse, which was acquired by Facebook earlier this year, focuses on a more niche space in the MBaaS area around managing documents inside business apps.

"The older you get, the more money you need to make, and if you want to make any money, you need to make business apps," he said. "Take what you've learned in the consumer crucible... I think the end state is pretty simple. Businesses shouldn't build their own applications."

Even if they choose that route, indie developers will need to know they have an MBaaS provider that will be with them in the long haul. Facemire said he expects more M&A activity in this space, particularly from the API management vendors. As more companies look at MBaaS offerings, it could become harder for those companies to differentiate themselves as sustainable, standalone entities.

"There are at least 40 players in this market that I'm aware of. There's tons and tons of overlap," Facemire said. "There just can't be that much uniqueness to an offering. I would shy away from a smaller-tier offering, just because it will go away or get rolled up into something else."

Chernov said the ultimate selection criteria should be which MBaaS vendor allows developers to free up their time for creativity.

"Developers need to consider how they will balance their hours," he said. "For those who put a priority on the user experience and UI polish, then a BaaS solution to handle the boilerplate functionality probably makes a good bit of sense."