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Navigating the Options for Mobile Application Development

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You need a mobile app fast. What are you going to do?


The boss has just rushed into your office and said, "We need a mobile app for our salespeople to use, and we need it soon!" And before you can ask her just what she means by "mobile app" and what, exactly, the salespeople need, she's gone.


A little research and you find that you have basically three options:


  1. Create native mobile apps
  2. Create hybrid apps
  3. Create responsive web apps


Which option will support the broadest range of devices, and which option will allow you to deliver it "soon"? Back to the Google answer man....


Native Mobile Applications

Native mobile applications have the advantage of performance. You will be able to develop apps that are closer to the "metal," and that means speed and device compatibility will be better. But it also means that you will be developing applications in different languages and IDEs. At minimum, you'll be dealing with Objective C and Xcode for Apple devices and Java and Eclipse/Android SDK for Android devices. The good news is that you won't need to spend much on the Android side of things. Eclipse and the Android SDK are free and open source. For Apple, you'll be out at least $100 for a developer license, and you'll need a Mac to compile your code. There some "open-source" projects in the Apple world (Swift, Webkit, and don't forget that Mac OS is a UNIX derivative), but you'll need to dig a bit if you choose to develop for Apple devices.


Native mobile applications have the disadvantage of an approval process if you want to make your app available in iTunes or Google Play store. You have to play by their rules to get approval, and if you find a bug and need to tweak the app, you go through the whole process again. So, early on, as your release cycles are frequent, you'll be waiting on Apple and Google to vet your app so you can release new code. There are alternatives: you can release new Android apps just by making the APK files available (and changing some device security settings). Apple requires an upcharge for an Enterprise developer license that allows you to distribute without using iTunes. Both options can be used but require more user installation support. If you distribute through iTunes or Google Play, then your app will join millions of other "zombie" apps taking up space in these distribution channels.


Hybrid Mobile Applications

A look at hybrid applications gives you a slightly sunnier view. Most hybrid apps use the basic building blocks of web application development: HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS. You already know this stuff! In fact, you already have a website that uses PHP and CGIDEV2 to produce HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS. You could use a mobile-friendly JavaScript library like jQuery Mobile, and that could help handle the more responsive elements needed for the app. Perhaps you could even add some more AJAX-y components to decouple the front- and back-end a bit more efficiently and add more modularity to the design. Add a framework like Cordova (PhoneGap) and a service like PhoneGap Build, which will compile your HTML5/JS/CSS into native code, and your need for knowing Objective C or Java goes away. You'll still face the same deployment issues as a native mobile application, though. You can solve the learning curve issue, but the need for rapid deployment may be hampered by going "native."


Responsive Web Applications

You could go the route of responsive design, which would involve re-engineering your existing website so that it's more "device aware," and could adapt the look and feel to the architecture of the device and browser. You'll discover that there are plenty of open-source resources, libraries, and frameworks available to help in the process. You'll end up with a single website that can serve both your traditional desktop users and your mobile users, and you won't have to use an intermediary to deploy the application. There are possibilities here.


Which Way to Go?

So, how to make a decision with so many variables? You decide to make a list of the application requirements and then decide which of the options support the requirement and which will be the easiest and fastest to implement.


Application requirements:

  1. Real-time access to IBM i data and local storage when no mobile connectivity is available
  2. Ability to take pictures, store them on the device, and upload them
  3. Ability to retrieve and store geolocation information
  4. Ability to record audio for taking "audio notes"


Good news! There's nothing on the list that requires a "native" mobile application. All of the requirements can be met using a "modern" browser that can handle HTML5/CSS3 and JavaScript. You could go the hybrid route, but there really isn't anything that requires a natively compiled app. Mobile web application it is!


Your plan is to concentrate on the pages used most by your salespeople and re-work them into a more responsive design first by adding the jQuery Mobile open-source library. Your next step will be to create the pages that will support access to camera and microphone. And, finally, you can add local storage to your web application so that the data will be stored locally on the mobile device or desktop and uploaded as needed.


You breathe a sigh of relief! This won't be nearly as difficult as you first thought. You'll leverage skills your shop already has. There will be no need for additional language learning or unpacking the intricacies of an IDE or new framework. Using PHP and CGIDEV2, you can just refactor and re-engineer some existing web pages with the long-term goal of making everything responsive, a page at a time.


Time to drop an email to your frantic boss: you have this covered!


Peter Helgren

Peter Helgren is programmer/team lead at Bible Study Fellowship International. Pete is an experienced programmer in the ILE RPG, PHP, Java, Ruby/Rails, C++, and C# languages with more than 25 years of system 3X/AS400/iSeries/IBM i experience. He holds certifications as a GIAC certified Secure Software Programmer-Java and as an MCSE. He is currently executive vice president on the COMMON Board of Directors and is active on several COMMON committees. His passion has always been in system integration, and he focuses on open-source applications and integration activities on IBM i. Pete is a speaker/trainer in RPG modernization, open-source integration, mobile application development, Java programming, and PHP and actively blogs at petesworkshop.com.

MC Press books written by Peter Helgren available now on the MC Press Bookstore.

Open Source Starter Guide for IBM i Developers Open Source Starter Guide for IBM i Developers
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