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Using a MEAP to develop mobile applications

Expert contributor Bill Claybrook offers tips and best practices for building mobile apps using mobile enterprise application platforms.

Today, the most popular way to develop mobile applications is to develop them as native mobile apps. A native app is installed directly onto a mobile device and developers create a separate app version for each mobile operating system and mobile device. The cost of developing native apps can be high, especially when many types of devices are in use. Many corporations are adopting a bring your own device (BYOD) strategy, and as a result, the cost of developing native apps increases considerably.

Most corporations want to develop native apps when needed, but also want to develop mobile apps that can run on many mobile devices and operating systems without the need to rebuild the app for each one. That is, corporations want write once, run anywhere (WORA) mobile apps. There are at least three technologies that give developers varying degrees of WORA mobile apps: mobile enterprise application platforms (MEAPs), HTML5 and hybrid mobile apps. I focus on MEAPs.

Stamford, Conn.-based IT research firm Gartner Inc. has developed the Rule of Three whereby companies are encouraged to consider MEAPs for developing mobile apps when they meet certain criteria. For example, companies that support three or more mobile applications, mobile operating systems or back-end data centers are encouraged to try MEAPs.

MEAP software typically comes in the form of mobile middleware that connects back-end data sources (enterprise applications and databases) to mobiles devices. It also offers a set of development tools such as HTML/CSS/JavaScript and 4GL rapid application development tools. MEAP tools provide the ability to build and design data models using a graphical editor and then translate those elements into applications that can display the content on any type of mobile device.

Mobile applications developed using MEAPs can be deployed from a central server out to mobile devices, regardless of the mobile operating system. For instance, your bank can create a mobile application for managing your bank account that runs on all of your devices -- Android smart phone, Apple iPhone and Apple iPad -- without having to rewrite the app for each device.

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Key takeaways

According to IDC (The Power of Mobile Enterprise Application Platform: Capabilities and Advantages, June 2012), the MEAP software market is expected to grow to more than $3 billion in 2015. The market for MEAPs is growing and there are several MEAP offerings on the market. One of the best known is the Sybase Unwired Platform. Other MEAP offerings include Verivo Software and Antenna software.

There are several downsides to the use of MEAP software. For example:

  • MEAPs generally do not take full advantage of native device features such as GPS, compass and camera
  • Developers are at the mercy of MEAP vendors and count on them to support new mobile devices
  • While MEAPs are growing in popularity, they are fairly new and have not been evaluated in long-term deployments
  • There are no standards around MEAPs -- most MEAP vendors offer customization and development tools, but they vary significantly
  • MEAPs are generally on-premises software and may require corporate staff expertise for maintenance and troubleshooting

MEAPs also offer several benefits. They include:

  • MEAPs can enable employees without a developer background to develop some mobile apps
  • MEAPs allow mobile apps to run on many different mobile devices without needing to rewrite the code
  • MEAPs enable the development of more affordable mobile apps and faster time-to-market, improving employee productivity
  • MEAP management capabilities make it easy to manage devices and apps (maintained in a central location) and install and update mobile software
  • MEAPs can enforce security and guard against unauthorized access to applications and mobile devices

Once an organization determines that it needs to use a MEAP, it's important to evaluate each vendor's current capabilities and determine if they can support requirements well into the future. Organizations should also determine how much maintenance to expect. Will you have to write some come to fix problems that you encounter once the MEAP is installed?

Of extreme importance is vendor longevity. Many of today's vendors are in start-up mode and may not be around long term. Determine how the MEAP offerings are priced. Is pricing on a per-user basis or per-server basis? For some corporations it may be wise to start with per-user licensing, and if the product solves problems and more widespread use occurs, switch to per-server licensing.

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