Forrester Research: Time To Completely Rethink Mobile App Development

As mobile devices play an ever-larger role in corporate IT environments and app development, developers will find it harder to find a way for their apps to stand out and gain customer recognition.

That’s the word from Michael Facemire, principal analyst at Forrester Research, who told solution providers at this week's XChange 2016 conference that growth in mobility itself does not guarantee success in app development.

XChange 2016, held this week in San Antonio, is run by The Channel Company, the parent company of CRN.

[Related: Here's Who Made Gartner's 2016 Magic Quadrant For Mobile App Development Platforms]

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Facemire, who specializes in the mobility market at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, said the IT industry has evolved over the years from building great things, to global distribution, to a focus on data, and is now in what he termed "year five of the Age of the Customer."

"We need to build great interfaces," he said. "Not just a better way to present data, because we've been doing that."

Businesses, from small companies to large enterprise, have to think first and foremost about what customers want when developing apps in order to succeed, Facemire said. He cited the example of USAA, a financial services company serving military members and their families, which knew that customers wanted to cash checks without going to the bank, and then built an app that allowed them to do just that by taking a photo of the check with their mobile device.

Facemire said when helping a customer develop an app, the first question should be, "Why?"

In reality, users are not likely to want to open a developer's new app, he said. The average user spends 50 hours a month on mobile phones, and typically use six apps per day. Four of those apps, such as Google or Facebook, will be used over and over. "Will yours be the other two?" he said.

Building mobile apps requires developers to build a complete mobile experience, given that this is what the larger application vendors are doing, Facemire said.

He cited the immersive digital experience offered by Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, and Google Now as examples of the future of app development. "Customers not only don't want to open your app, they don't want to open any app. … We have to build things with these new experiences," he said.

Developers also have to be prepared to get their apps to market quickly, and forget the traditional 12-to-18 month software development cycle, Facemire said.

The time customers are targeting for new apps is rapidly approaching "immediate," and improved software development tools are helping decrease the development time needed, he said. However, not all developers have been able to take advantage of such tools.

Mobile app developers also cannot wait for an app to be totally finished before release, which requires releasing the app in stages and building in feedback capabilities that provide information about the customer experience, Facemire said.

It is important to look at what customers need, and what they think is successful, the analyst said. "Once you know that, build the minimum of what they need," he said. "Don't wait for it to be 85-percent finished. Ship the minimum, and look at the feedback."

Facemire also said that modern app development is less about the front end and more focused on a "system of systems." Those include systems of engagement to support customer interactions, systems of data, systems of automation, and systems of insight to let the apps determine automatically what a user wants next, based on past usage.

However, the biggest challenge in mobile app development remains on the back end with directories and customer relationship management, human resource and content management systems that must be tied to either the native platform or cross-platform tools used to develop the app, Facemire said. This back-end access is now being optimized with such tools as Node.js and nGenx, he said.

The future of mobile app development will be on the web where composition is taking the place of code for faster development, Facemire said. However, he said, there is still a lack of necessary tools including those needed to bundle back-end and front-end components, as well as tools to run applications locally when web access is limited, he said.

Facemire suggested mobile app developers invest in the latest in modern skills. This includes using functional programming, or coding the application to react to changes in the user's environment rather than the user's current state. For instance, users know that if it looks like it is going to rain, they will take an umbrella. An application to make that decision is hard, but expressing it as a function is easy, Facemire said. AWS, Google, and Apple also have tools for that, he said.

He also suggested developers invest in their JavaScript skills and work with tools like Node.js.

Having the right tools is key to web app development, said Michael Knight, president and chief technology officer at Encore Technology Group, a Greenville, S.C.-based developer of solutions for education, government and healthcare clients.

Rather than JavaScript, Knight suggested HTML5 as a development tool. "Java doesn’t' run on iOS," he told CRN. "HTML5 is the great equalizer for web devices."

While most businesses do indeed typically use only six to ten apps, education users may need 50 to 350 apps, Knight said. "Every single grade, class, and course may have an e-textbook and digital media," he said. "If you try to develop to the digital app level, you will get digital sprawl."

Encore's alternative is to develop IAM, or identification access management, apps, Knight said.

"People talk apps, apps, apps, but they act in different roles every day," he said. "IAM looks at your role, ties it to the apps, and bundles them into a single UI with full single sign-on and analytics. Our app doesn't help customers do something. It helps customers get access to all their resources without 350 apps."