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Mobile app development trends in 2012 and beyond

Industry experts weigh in on the mobile app development trends in 2012 and shed light on what to expect in the coming year.

At the start of 2012, the SearchSOA.com Reader Challenges and Priorities Survey indicated efforts to use SOA services on mobile apps were on the rise: Fifty-two percent of respondents had plans to use SOA for mobile apps in the future. The question was how SOA would change as a result. Now, looking back on 2012, industry viewers share their answers to that question -- and make predictions for mobile in 2013.

Mobile application development and integration are at the forefront of the modern SOA story. Key mobile trends in 2012 included the emergence of app stores, the HTML5-native debate, mobile back ends, RESTful services and open APIs. At the center of these events was the consumerization of IT.

It's no secret that a tidal wave of mobile devices and social media applications is changing the complexion of application development. "Traditional enterprise software development is complex in any age of computing," said Peter Price, co-founder and CEO of Webalo. "Now put that in the context of mobility. Everyone's got a device; there's all of this data. You can't build apps [the way] you've built them in the past."

Security and scalability ruled the mobile app development roost this year. To ensure both, effective SOA architects had to concentrate their designs on mobile application needs -- if they hadn't already done so. "Owners of poorly designed SOAs felt pain [in 2012]," said Michael Facemire, senior analyst at Forrester Inc. "Mobile demands scale. If SOA is done properly, you have a much higher level of engagement with mobile users."

A new direction for middleware

To that end, new kinds of middleware arose to deal with mobile device diversity. Backend as a Service (BaaS) -- also called mobile Backend as a Service (MBaaS) -- made its debut as an alternative to mobile middleware. While traditional mobile middleware federates back-end services through a physical server, BaaS moves the point of integration to the cloud.

The approach provides developers with a ready-made, customizable back end. This aims to address a major pain point of mobile development: Building out a back end that works across multiple platforms can be time-consuming and expensive.

"Some companies spent years retooling their back ends, and now they can quickly connect to any mobile application," said Miko Matsumura, senior vice president of platform and developer relations at Kii Corporation. "Those without that strategic advantage are turning toward the mobile back end."

While the BaaS market is several years old, the concept is now gaining traction with developers who want rapid mobile app development, flexibility, scalability and security -- without sacrificing back-end features.

"Backend as a Service became real this year," said Facemire. "Going forward, this space will become more mature. I think we'll see some mergers and acquisitions activity in 2013."

Interest in BaaS points to a larger shift toward mobile and consumer-centric integration strategies. The open API trend is part of this; today, some SOA houses are even building API management tool sets.

"We saw a trend this year toward folks keeping 'mobile first' as a paradigm -- not only for the delivery channel of content, but in the service layer as well," Facemire explained. "For example, folks either created additional sets of APIs to address their mobile needs or they went back to refactor their existing APIs. They broke them down to a lower level of granularity so that their mobile apps could have the exact APIs that they need."

"The year of the developer"

To meet the expectations of the mobile user, development teams today are required to design and deliver better applications and application interfaces. The representational state transfer (REST) version of SOA seems to carry this forward. Notably, this is a continuation of a trend seen last year, when mobile applications drove incorporation of REST and Javascript Object Notation in the enterprise service bus.

Industry viewers say developers are the force behind this focus on RESTful services. Now that more companies are extending their SOA infrastructures to mobile computing, they need to use lighter-weight protocols.

"This truly was the year of the developer," said Jaime Ryan, partner solutions architect at Layer7 Technologies. "Developers got to pick and choose, and they said they want REST APIs with JSON formats."

Application developers are also increasing their demand for app store platforms, which provide a centralized place to buy, sell and manage their apps. More applications are designed with open APIs to enable application-to-application integration. As a result, the relationship between business and developer is shifting to give external developers more sway.

But some say this "open culture" has an uncertain future ahead. "Some of the largest players in the open API space are questioning whether exposing to the world is worth the return on investment," Ryan said, citing Netflix and AT&T. "Instead, they're focusing attention on large enterprises and internal developers and partners."

Developers this year were also central to the debate about Web versus native browsers. HTML5 signals a new wave of Web programming methods, but controversy rages over its long-term impact on open source software and mobile applications. While some predicted 2012 would be a year of widespread HTML5 adoption, experts saw a different outcome.

"The battle between Web and native was in force when [Mark Zuckerberg] said HTML5 didn't meet the business needs of Facebook," said Facemire. "That created quite a stir because a lot of folks came out and said, 'Maybe HTML5 isn't the silver bullet we thought it would be.'"

"This year, with the heightened media attention [on the HTML5-native debate], it's becoming clear that the important thing is to be focused up front on using the appropriate technologies for your mobile initiatives," he continued. "Native has a lot of things it works well with; HTML does, too."

HTML5 adoption may be slowly growing, but that doesn't mean it will eclipse native anytime soon. "I don't think 2013 is the year of HTML5," said Ryan. "Some of the underlying protocols are still in their infancy … and some of the low-level technical questions still haven't quite been answered."

If mobile trends in 2012 were governed by IT consumerization, what will next year bring?

"This was the year of employees rebelling," Ryan said. "Companies were reactive to that, bolting down on security and governance. I think 2013 will be about enterprise IT taking it back and owning it. They'll be deploying tablets and phones to the workforce. The access will be managed much better, with the enterprise optimizing for mobile interfaces and doing more caching and compressing."

Price added that companies that spent the past year beefing up security for mobile devices will have a new focus moving forward: "Companies are saying, 'Now that we've secured these devices, what are we going to use them for? How are our users going to interact with them?' 2013 seems like the year when the focus will be on how to get the most out of these [mobile] devices."

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