Five start-ups unveiled services for building mobile applications and Web services this week at DEMO Spring 2011, bringing application development capabilities to the masses - or, at least, to people who lack traditional programming and mobile development skills.
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The start-ups promised less expensive and more convenient ways for businesses and even individuals to create their very own iPhone and Android apps, or to create sites for desktop Web browsers. Let's take a look at what each one has to offer.
MobileNation gave what may have been the most visually striking demonstration among the five vendors we'll talk about in this article, but it's not necessarily the best tool for building apps. CEO Tod Pedler and his team actually built a whole application in front of the audience's eyes, using drag-and-drop tools to build a simple app for golf enthusiasts that offered locations of local golf courses pinned on top of a Google Maps widget, along with an RSS feed of PGA Tour news.
"MobileNation allows anyone to build apps for Android and iPhone. Anyone - you, me, even my mom," Pedler said. "MobileNation is all browser-based. We don't use any plug-in technology. Everything is point-and-click, drag-and-drop. There is no programming required."
It took three or four minutes to build the app, which then could be located by users with a smartphone's barcode scanner. The limitation is that the app is not published on the iPhone App Store or Android Market. Instead, the user downloads the app through the phone's Web browser and runs the app in the browser itself.
When I tried downloading the golf app with my Motorola Droid, it took well over a minute to load the first time, and 20 or 30 seconds the second time, much longer than it takes to start up a normal Android app. But it was pretty amazing to watch someone build an app on-stage and then be able to download it myself before the presentation was even over.
The basic MobileNation service is free, but the company will release an enterprise version in June.
This vendor's "Small Business iPhone and Android Apps" service helps customers build apps in 20 minutes and manage them for $40 a month. It also gives businesses the ability to publish those apps to the official iPhone and Android app stores.
"Our vision is to take every small business in this country mobile," said founder Andrew Gazdecki.
The Bizness Apps process has five steps: edit tabs, edit content, edit appearance, preview the application, and finally pay and publish. Users building apps can pull in content from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, RSS feeds, as well as forms to gather feedback and customer information. Gazdecki also showed off a FourSquare-style check-in service with rewards for checking into places a certain number of times.
Innovation is often spurred by youth, and Gazdecki emphatically fits that category. "We're all college students and we're pretty excited about the open bar, so come have a beer with us," he told the audience.
Cloud 9 IDE
Cloud9 IDE from the vendor Ajax is a platform-as-a-service focusing both on mobile apps as well as Web tools that run on desktops.
Daniels has teamed up with Mozilla, and claims to have interest from IBM and a company from Mountain View, Calif., home of Google and other tech vendors. Unlike MobileNation and Bizness Apps, Cloud9 looks like it will require some real programming knowledge, but could be more convenient than existing models.
ApSynth targets development of Web applications, rather than mobile, and provides its own market for users to publish their apps.
"Once published, applications can be embedded and spread to other Web sites, blogs and social networks," the company says. "App authors deliver either free apps or set a price for a monthly number of displays on tiers Web page. With ApSynth Web apps become a monetized Web content just like text, video, etc."
ApSynth will have to compete against existing platform-as-a-service offerings such as Force.com and Google App Engine. ApSynth says it can lure users who need to build SaaS applications but lack IT skills. Bloggers and Web content creators are among the target users. The service is in a private beta.
Rather than help customers build stand-alone applications, ScreenReach gives them a way to develop "real-time interactive experiences," which can then be consumed by end users through ScreenReach's own Screach mobile application.
A smartphone using the Screach app can be transformed "into anything - games controllers, quiz answer pads, voting and polling tools, bingo cards and roulette tablets - the possibilities are limited by imagination alone," the company says.
Customers build using the ScreachXML platform language, and once a service is built it can be used on either iPhone or Android, with support for BlackBerry, Symbian, Palm and Windows Mobile coming later. "Once you have created your experience it will generate a unique experience code - simply tell your audience the code (could be on TV, in print, or by word of mouth) and they can start interacting instantly," ScreenReach says.
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