Home Topics Introduction to Mobile Application Development What is mobile application development?
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Illustration showing mobile application development for making software for smartphones, tablets and digital assistants
What is mobile application development?

Mobile application development is the process of making software for smartphones, tablets and digital assistants, most commonly for the Android and iOS operating systems.

The software can be preinstalled on the device, downloaded from a mobile app store or accessed through a mobile web browser. The programming and markup languages used for this kind of software development include Java, Swift, C# and HTML5.

Mobile app development is rapidly growing. From retail, telecommunications and e-commerce to insurance, healthcare and government, organizations across industries must meet user expectations for real-time, convenient ways to conduct transactions and access information.

Today, mobile devices and the mobile applications that unlock their value are the most popular way for people and businesses to connect to the internet. To stay relevant, responsive and successful, organizations need to develop the mobile applications that their customers, partners and employees demand.

Yet mobile application development might seem daunting. Once you’ve selected the OS platform or platforms, you need to overcome the limitations of mobile devices and usher your app all the way past the potential hurdles of distribution. Fortunately, by following a few basic guidelines and best practices, you can streamline your application development journey.

To learn more about the specifics of mobile application development on either platform, read our articles on iOS app development and Android app development.

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Choose a platform

Many independent application development teams choose to build their apps for Android first. Why? The vast majority, around 70 percent, of smartphones run Android, and the Google Play Store has fewer restrictions than the Apple App Store.

On the other hand, mobile applications developed for iOS have far fewer devices that need support, making optimization simpler. And user retention is typically higher for iOS applications.

Depending on the intended use case and target audience for the mobile application you are developing, you might have other considerations. For example, if you’re designing an app for your organization’s employees, you’ll need to support the platforms they use, which might mean developing cross-platform apps that work for both Android and iOS.

Or if you’re building a mobile application for your customers and you know most of them use iPhones, then developing iOS applications should be a top priority. Other considerations when developing your mobile applications include monetization strategies and anticipated user behavior, which can be influenced by geographical and cultural factors.

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Develop for both Android and iOS: Native apps or hybrid apps?

Let’s say you need to do mobile application development for both the Android operating system and iOS. What is the best software development approach?

You might develop two native applications. Taking advantage of native APIs and OS-specific programming languages can help you build a powerful app. Most enterprise apps, especially ones that require substantial application programming interface (API) traffic, benefit from native development.

If you decide to develop native applications one at a time, you’ll likely want to begin with Android, for some of the same reasons that independent app developers often focus on Android. You’ll probably have better luck developing the full application as an MVP on Android and then converting and optimizing it to iOS after release.

You will still need to debug and rewrite the code for the native language and redesign the front-end user interface, because the two operating systems function differently, making cross-platform operation impossible.

So why not start completely from scratch? While you can’t translate the code into a new programming language, much of the back end can be replicated cross-platform. Frameworks, libraries and third-party extensions often function identically in both environments, allowing you to avoid costly reworking. You can also use a prebuilt mobile cloud service, such as IBM Mobile Foundation, to manage the web back end.

Another option is to go hybrid, taking a write-once-run-anywhere approach. Hybrid apps use a single codebase that can function on either platform. They’re typically coded in a programming language that’s universally recognized, such as Java, JavaScript, HTML or CSS. Because you’re denied access to the operating system’s native APIs, hybrid mobile application development works best for simple web applications, three- or four-page mobile applications with limited functions.

Think light: Building for a mobile platform

Whether you choose native or hybrid mobile application development, one of the first hurdles you’ll need to overcome is the relatively limited resources on mobile devices. Your target mobile device has much less processing power and memory than desktop computers or enterprise servers.

These constraints might seem like a significant challenge, especially if you’re more familiar with the comparatively boundless resources for conventional software development for web apps.

Limited mobile platform resources mean you need to adjust your goals for your app design.

Throughout the mobile application development process, developers must work to help ensure that their mobile app is less resource intensive than a typical desktop application.

Delivering a great user experience is vital. That starts with understanding that your user interface for a mobile app should be simpler than a desktop application interface. By creating a straightforward UX design that is focused on critical functions, you can provide a better user experience while consuming fewer resources.

Your mobile app interface should be designed for touch. Mobile users must be able to navigate your app easily and provide input without excessive typing.

Fortunately, these requirements for efficient, simple touch-based apps map well to user expectations. Mobile users generally want to accomplish tasks easily, with just a few taps. They want apps that are above all fast, convenient and simple to use on their mobile devices.

Offload processing to the cloud

What if your mobile application requires more processing than a typical mobile platform can support? Consider offloading that processing to the cloud.

Through the judicious use of APIs, you can connect your app to cloud-based services and databases to provide advanced functions without slowing your application or straining the device it is running on. You can even offload data storage and caching to a cloud-based server, leaving little data on the device.

Extend your app with advanced cloud services

The cloud can offer other advantages beyond performance boosts. Connect your mobile application to powerful cloud services to add features and improve usability.

Employ APIs to integrate new features, such as advanced cloud-based services that can help you enhance your mobile apps. These include push notifications, IBM Watson®, powered AI analytics, Internet of Things (IoT) smart device integration and more.

Join a developer program

Neither Android nor iOS is an open environment. Before your application can be officially distributed, you’ll need to join the appropriate developer program.

The Android mobile application development program lets you use your existing Google account to create a developer account, pay the USD 25 fee and submit your application.

Google Play, the official Android store, does have quality standards that must be met before publication, but they’re more guidelines than actual rules. As part of your app development process, you can also distribute your applications outside the Google Play store and allow users to directly download and install them.

By contrast, the Apple mobile application development program sets a high barrier to entry. You need to pay a program fee of USD 99 per year and adhere to high standards. When you’re a member of the program, you get early access to beta versions of the operating systems and proprietary frameworks or APIs. Meeting the high standards for the App Store also signifies to the world that you’ve developed a high-quality app.

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Take the next step

The Mobile App Development Platform from IBM makes it easy to architect, prototype and bring apps to market. With IBM Cloud offerings behind the scenes, you can build, launch and maintain native, hybrid or web-based mobile apps.

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