Kicking off our month of interviews, case studies, data crunches and profiles with an introduction to the space.
In early 2008, the then CEO of Glu Mobile, Greg Ballard, told ME that the firm had produced no less than 25,000 SKUs of its recently launched Transformers game. The figure aggregated all the different variants of Java (pre Apple App Store, Java was still in charge), different handset types, languages and more.
It was fragmentation taken to the point of absurdity, and the pity of it was that Ballard actually conceded it helped Glu because only big and well-resourced companies could handle the workload.
Was it any wonder that innovation in mobile content shrivelled and that Apple was able to revolutionise the market so quickly and completely?
As we all know, the Apple hegemony was short-lived. Sure, iOS still controls a huge part of the market (at least in terms of developer mindshare), but with proliferating flavours of Android plus WinPho, BlackBerry, Symbian, bada and all their variants – well, here we are in fragmentation land again.
What's different this time round is that the app store model of self-publishing has opened up app development to a broad canvas of coders – from EA to the stereotypical bedroom hobbyist.
Whereas in the mid-noughties, fragmentation affected a small number of content providers, now there are now thousands more developers in need of a solution to the porting nightmare.
Moreover, what was once primarily a mobile gaming issue is now a conundrum to be addressed by all manner of sectors and enterprises. Banks, pizza chains, estate agents – they're all using apps to get closer to customers, and they all need the broadest possible device reach.
All of which explains why a new army of cross platform development firms has emerged to help these app makers reduce costs, speed time to market and respond more quickly to any new platforms that emerge.
Today, there are well over 100 cross platform development specialists in the market – and appropriately enough they come in a variety of flavours. Broadly, though, they fall into three main families:
* Source code translators
These are solutions that let the developer programme 'to the metal' and then convert this source code into native code. In effect, app makers can create one code base for each chipset (ARM, MIPS, PowerPC and x86) without worrying about different OSs. Key providers include Marmalade and Metismo (now Software AG)
Here, the app is executed in a 'runtime' or 'virtual machine' that sits on top of the native OS. Early runtimes were the forerunners of today's app market – Java ME, BREW, Flash Lite – but were discredited because of their own fragmentation and distribution issues. But now runtimes have been re-born as a means to solve fragmentation. Leading firms include AppCelerator, Adobe Flex, AppMobi, Antix and Unity.
* Web-to-native wrappers
As we all know, developers have proliferated in the present decade. So embedded is the app and mobile web in daily consumer life today that these cross developer platforms now boast huge usage rates.
According to Vision Mobile's report 'Cross-Platform Developer Tools 2012', Sencha counts 1.6 million SDK downloads, Corona apps were downloaded 35 million times in 2011, Unity reports 200,000 developers active each month, while AppCelerator boasts 35,000 apps published using the tool across 40 million devices.
Meanwhile Useablenet, which specialises in solving fragmentation for m-commerce channels, serves more than 300 major clients, of which 25 per cent are in the Fortune 1000.
These numbers have prompted a flurry of M&A activity too. Vision Mobile counted ten acquisitions and over $200m in funding rounds in the last 12 months. AppCelerator alone has raised $31.2m from VCs since 2008.
The investors interested in these companies are undoubtedly inspired by two factors that look set to increase both the number of developers in the space and also the number of devices available to them.
First is the migration of web designers and developers into the mobile space (thanks to HTML5), and second, the 'connected device' revolution that promises to bring tablets, interactive TV, in-car and more into the addressable market.
It all sounds rather lovely doesn't it? Who could argue with tools that save you money and time?
Well, Steve Jobs for a start.
The late Apple CEO was an outspoken critic of some of these solutions. All his life he was at pains to keep Apple products pure, and he famously railed against Adobe in an open letter criticising poor technical performance of its products and its slow adoption of new product features.
Nevertheless, even Jobs couldn't hold back the tide for ever. Today, cross-platform developer tools are everywhere, and many developers simply couldn't function without them.
So that's why ME has scheduled a series of features on the subject.
Throughout April, we'll be publishing data, Q&As, company profiles, case studies and more.
So keep checking back on the site for updates.