Mobile app development: learnings from the San Francisco AT&T hackathon
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If you happen to live in the Bay Area of Northern California right now, it’s actually more difficult to find a weekend where there isn’t a hackathon going on. Maybe it helps keep the melanoma levels down amongst the developer segment. Maybe these folks would just be at home playing Halo 4, so why not donate a few hours away from the couch? Maybe (and I suspect this is closer to the truth) startup fever is in the air and what mobile development offers is the chance to turn ideas into reality (or at least a working prototype), making the prospect of computer programming that much more appealing.
Whichever way, when the AT&T Hackathon rolls into town, the team manages to generate a good level of excitement. For a recent contest in downtown San Francisco they attracted over 140 eager developers. Why? Perhaps it’s the educational bootcamps leading up to the events, the quality of partners they bring in or the openness of the format (they reward apps that display strong usage of AT&T technology, but this isn’t required),
I had the opportunity to observe this event which pitted developer against developer in two days of code sprinting. Working in teams, developers built applications which they demoed to a panel of judges and the assembled crowd on the Sunday afternoon.
Watching these teams present their apps, a number of trends around mobile development jumped out at me.
Can there be mobile without social?
All but one of the apps created at the hackathon had some social component. The connection could be through social media channels like Facebook and Twitter or via SMS, or in some cases mobile-to-mobile niche networks built by the developers (say around selling textbooks or jobs).
Power of the cloud
Just like social, cloud was everywhere at this hackathon. It looks like the web is finally delivering on its promise of a client/server architecture where the server does all the thinking and the client just worries about input/output. Many of the apps relied on some degree of external service integration.
Location, location, location
Having a computational device that knows where it is in the world is arguably what makes the mobile computing revolution a revolution. The winning app at the AT&T Hackathon (FollowMe) allows groups of folks in separate cars on a road trip the chance to communicate and share their current coordinates. Someone in the party has a full bladder and needs to make a restroom detour? No problem. The other cars will spot this deviation and can act accordingly.
Another application (Bookr) allows students to find folks locally who may just have that textbook they are looking for. The app works on the basis it is just as important to know where someone is, as to know what they have, when it comes to exchanging real goods. We still live some of our lives in the physical space.
It’s not who you know, it’s what you know
Analytics can be taken to a whole new level in the mobile space. The BFF Mate app crawls over your social profile data and can provide recommendations across specific categories like movies and sports. Whilst this may be redundant when applied to your closest family/friends, think of the folks you happen to meet at an event. Like a hackathon. Who knew that you shared a common interest in mobile development and the Simon & Garfunkel back catalog.
Another app (CarbonPrint) allows users to track their carbon footprint on a daily basis and see how it changes over time. Given the guilt imperative, hopefully the trend is downward.
Handing out glue
There are a number of apps and services that help enable mobile developers, whether it be in the context of a hackathon or generally throughout the application development lifecycle. This can take the shape of storage capabilities (eg. nosql), online development environments or any number of services and APIs. Connection points can be as simple as a few lines of code that will instantiate and connect with the service.
It was interesting to see that rather than handing out reams of documentation or an O’Reilly tome on how the service works, many of the partners in the hackathon distributed code samples via GitHub:
So, think you have what it takes to compete in a hackathon? Check out this list of upcoming AT&T hackathons.
(Disclosure: IBM has a developer partnership with AT&T)