Mobile Application Development: A Comprehensive Guide
Every mobile use statistics all seem to make a convincing case for mobile app development:
- Mobile apps account for 1/2 of the time people spend on digital media.
- Smartphone users spend about 90 percent of their time on apps.
- 85 percent of consumers prefer native mobile apps to mobile websites.
- An average user has up to 30 apps on their mobile devices and spends over 35 hours per month on them.
Even though all these facts favor building mobile applications, these decisions cannot be taken lightly. Considering that there are 1.5 million apps each in Google Play and Apple's App Store, it's critical to know the process of mobile app development and all the components that go into making it.
Table of Contents
What is Mobile Application Development
Mobile application development is the process of developing software applications for mobile devices, including mobile phones and tablets. A typical mobile application relies on a network connection to work with remote computing resources. Hence, during the mobile app development process, you would need to create installable software bundles (including code, binaries, assets, etc.), deploy backend services, and test the application on its target devices.
Mobile Applications and Device Platforms
The two most popular platforms in today's smartphone market are the iOS platform and Android from Google.
The iOS platform is created by Apple Inc to power its flagship cellphone line, iPhone. On the other hand, the Android operating system is developed by Google and is used not only by Google devices but also by many other OEMs that manufacture their own mobile devices.
Developing for iOS vs. developing for Android has some things in common. But there are differences between them that are worth discussing. First, each of them involves different software development kits (SDKs) and development toolchain. Second, Apple exclusively uses iOS for its own devices, whereas Google's Android is available for other companies as long as they meet the platform's requirements.
Developers can develop mobile apps for millions of devices on these two platforms.
Methods for Building Mobile Apps
When it comes to mobile app development, these are the 4 most popular approaches:
- Native Mobile Applications
- Cross-Platform Native Mobile Applications
- Hybrid Mobile Applications
- Progressive Web Applications
Each of these methods for developing mobile applications has both advantages and disadvantages.
When considering mobile app development approaches, you need to look at the desired user experience, the computing resources and native features required by the app, the budget, timeline, time constraints, and resources available to maintain the app.
Native mobile applications are written by the programming language and frameworks provided by the platform owner. A native app runs directly on the operating system of the device such as iOS and Android.
- Best performance in terms of runtime
- Direct access to the device’s APIs
- Higher costs for developing and maintaining apps
- Various code bases for each platform
Cross-platform applications can be written in various programming languages and frameworks. But they are bundled into a native application that would run on the operating system of the device.
- Single code base for multiple platforms
- Easy to develop and maintain
- Relying on on bridges and libraries for native features
- Performance limitations due to bridging
- Web and mobile apps sharing the same code base
- Utilizing web development languages for developing mobile apps
- Lower performance compared to native apps
- Limited support for native device features
Progressive Web Applications
Progressive Web Applications is an alternative approach to traditional mobile app development, where app store delivery and app installations are skipped. PWAs are technically web applications that utilize browser capabilities - such as working offline, running background processes, and adding a link to the device home screen - to provide an 'app-like' user experience.
- Same app is available for both web and mobile
- No installation required, accessible through a URL
- Limited support for native device features
- App capabilities depending on the browser
Differences between Native vs. Hybrid Mobile Applications
You can differentiate a native mobile app from a hybrid one in these four ways.
|Compiled Language||Scripting / Compiled|
|Access to Device Hardware||Plugins / Native Modules|
|Platform Frameworks||Web Frameworks|
Why Choose the Hybrid/Cross-platform Approach?
Native mobile application development requires highly specialized skillsets, which typically is a problem. Most developers today are familiar with C and Java - the two most popular languages for native development. However, not everyone is experienced in the platform-specific versions of those languages and their respective IDEs. That’s why native apps developers are always in high demand. Many companies instead outsource their mobile app development to a 3rd party vendor;
How Hybrid and Cross-platform Frameworks Work?
Since hybrid mobile apps are basically web apps running on a browser, most of the code from a web app can be used to build a mobile app. The rendering and runtime performance of mobile browsers are ever-growing, making it possible for developers to use a hybrid environment to build mobile apps.
Most cross-platform frameworks such as React Native and Native Script offer native components to work with the cross-platform codes. Some others such as Flutter and Xamarin compile cross-platform codes into the native code for better performance.
Most Popular Mobile App Development Approaches
The type of mobile app development methodology you choose will determine your project’s team members, timeline, and outcome. Below are the 5 most popular methodologies you can apply to your mobile app development project.
1. Waterfall Methodology
The waterfall is perhaps the oldest approach to developing applications and software. In this methodology, your team moves from one phase to another sequentially. In other words, you must finish one phase before moving to the next.
The major drawback of this methodology is that there would be no turning back. The waterfall is predefined from start to end. Changes could only be made in the maintenance phase, which takes place after product launch.
2. Prototype Methodology
The prototype is also referred to as evolutionary design or incremental development. This mobile app development approach is the improved verson of the waterfall methodology. It enables team members to make changes during the design phase.
The idea behind this approach is that your team needs to create a prototype to fully understand project requirements before the design stage.3. Spiral Methodology
This is a type of risk-driven mobile app development methodology. It depends on the project’s risk pattern and applies more than one method during its process. To some extent, spiral app development approach combines waterfall methodology and iteration.
In the spiral approach, you must define requirements for every phase. All stages in the spiral relies exclusively on the project risk. Thus, it is ideal for large, risky projects.
4. Agile Methodology
Agile is a mobile app development approach designed for sophisticated projects. It allows for iterations, which aids in reducing errors.
The model divides the mobile app project into a series of cycles or short time boxes. Being collaborative, it allows for continuous changes of requirements. Agile is flexible in that it accounts for changes in requirements during the mobile app development lifecycle.
Also, there are many variations to Agile. They are
- Feature Driven Development (FDD)
- Lean software development
- Crystal Methods
- Rapid Application Development (RAD)/ Rapid-application building (RAB)
- Adaptive Software Development (ASD)
- Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)
- Extreme Programming (XP)
The purpose of this mobile app approach is to solve many of startups’ problems when developing apps.
Lean startup methodology requires a minimum viable product (MVP) to initiate mobile app development. The lean startup model enables you to build, track, and learn from the mobile app you are building.
Overview of Mobile App Testing
Today’s customers expect a user-centric, high-quality mobile app experience. A poor experience can lead to a loss of users and brand reputation. Thus, you need a comprehensive mobile app testing strategy.
Challenges of Mobile App Testing
Today's mobile app development is evolving rapidly, posing various challenges for developers. They are:
- New Technologies: Today’s mobile apps must work seamlessly with smart-connected cars and homes, voice interfaces, kiosks, and more.
- Rapid Release Schedules: Now that continuous integration and continuous development are critical, it becomes harder to carry out comprehensive testing that delay your release schedule.
- Personalization: Users demand personalized experience and communications when using your app.
- Device Fragmentation: Not only do you have to update your apps with the latest devices, you also need to make sure they work seamlessly with the newest OS version.
Because of these challenges, carrying out mobile app testing in a lab environment is no longer viable as it fails to account for many things that can go wrong when your apps are used by real people with real devices.
Types of Mobile App Testing
Below are some of the most popular mobile app testing approaches to leverage for your next project:
- Functional Testing: An exploratory or structured mobile testing to make sure your apps perform as expected on every device and in every use case.
- Usability Testing: Building test groups that simulate your target audience and receive actionable feedback on UI and functionality to make customers have seamless experience every time they open the app.
- Manual Testing: functionality or testing that requires testing once or twice should be tested manually.
- Automation Testing: Regression test cases are automated. Any regression tests that repeat times and again are perfect for automation.
The Mobile Application Front-End
The front-end is the visual and interactive part of the mobile application, where users experience.
Front-end resides on the device. Or at least there is an icon representing the app on the home screen or is pinned in the application catalog of the device.
The mobile application can be downloaded from app stores, side-loaded directly onto the device, or can be accessed through the device’s browser, which is the case for PWAs.
What does a Front-end Development Workflow Looks Like?
Depending on the size of the team developing the mobile app, many people can be involved in the process of creating the front-end. The team size can range from one who handles everything to tens or hundreds, each having different roles and skillsets.
For example, a front-end team can involve creative designers, who create visual elements for the mobile application, such as icons, backgrounds, colors, themes, etc. There can also be user experience and user interface designers who are responsible for how components interact with each other and with users.
How Mobile Apps Integrate with the Backend?
One critical part of the mobile app development process is building the logic that makes network calls to the back-end services, retrieves data, and updates the data in the back-end with new data from the app.
These back-end services can be accessed via various application programming interfaces, most commonly known as APIs. And there are various types of APIs, including REST and GraphQL. There are also various means and styles to access them.
Although there are available back-end service APIs in the platform, many of the specialized services must be integrated into the app by a software development kit (SDK). After the SDK has been added to the app via the development environment, the application can use the APIs defined in the SDK.
How to Interact with the Backend Data?
Database containing information used in the app is a perfect example of how the back-end interacts with the front-end. If a mobile developer wants to access the database, he would need to know the network location of the database, the protocol for accessing that database, the credentials for authenticating and authorizing the data access, and the specific database commands needed to extract data.
As an alternative method, the developer can use a specialized API to interact with the database. This way, he may only have to know the necessary parameters in a method call to get or update the data.
The mobile developer may have to program these APIs themselves or use the API definition provided to them by the one responsible for the back-end resource.
Typically, a REST API can be used to interact with data sources on the cloud, such as a cloud database. On the other hand, a GraphQL API can make it easier for developers to work with backend data in a mobile application. Alternatively, GraphQL offers querying support via an API endpoint, and a data schema that developers can use to build and easily expand data models used in the app.
The Mobile Application Back-End
A high-quality mobile application that can attract and retain users needs a reliable back-end, regardless of what front-end platform or development methodology is used to build it.
As back-end services are critically important to mobile application development, developers must seriously consider the architecture of the apps. For example, they must decide which services should they develop themselves and which available third-party services should they utilize, and then should they run and maintain their services or should they leverage 3rd party services.
Mobile application modernization
Application modernization is the process of updating old mobile apps in terms of features, languages, frameworks, and infrastructure platforms. It is the mobile app development equivalent to renovating an older house to improve efficiency, safety, structural integrity. Instead of retiring an existing mobile app, application modernization extends its lifespan while leveraging the latest technical innovations.
Common patterns of mobile app development include:
- Lift and shift: also known as rehosting, “lift and shift” means taking an existing application and moving it from a legacy environment (for example, on-premises server) to modern infrastructure, such as a public cloud. With this approach, the application is modernized with little to no changes to its existing code or architecture.
- Refactoring: Refactoring is “rewriting” or “restructuring” the mobile app. This app modernization approach includes retooling chunks of code in the app to better run in a new environment, usually cloud infrastructure. In addition to a major restructuring of the existing codebase, this approach often requires rewriting code.
- Replatforming: This approach can be viewed as the compromise between the lift-and-shift and refactoring. Replatforming does not require major code changes but it needs complementary updates that allow the old app to utilize a modern cloud platform, such as modifying or replacing the application’s backend database.
Key Mobile Application Services
Developers can take advantage of hundreds of available cloud and 3rd party services to accelerate the development and delivery of their mobile applications. Nevertheless, it’s not feasible for a developer to become an expert in all of these individual services.
Instead, what mobile developers should do is to look for a development environment where they can easily integrate, use, and consume the most commonly required capabilities into their application, while still having the freedom to utilize many available services.
- User Sign-up/Sign-in and Management
- Social login (Facebook sign-in, Twitter sign-in, etc.)
- Analytics and User Engagement
- Push Notifications
- Real Device Testing
- Cloud Storage
- Real-time and Offline Data
- Application Logic/Cloud Functions
- Conversational Bots
- Image and Video Recognition
- Speech Recognition
Mike Lazaridis, the creator of BlackBerry, invented the phrase "super app" back in 2010. He described it as a "closed ecosystem of multiple applications" that people would use on a daily basis because they provide a "seamless, integrated, contextualized, and efficient experience."
In a nutshell, a super app is a marketplace for services and products that are offered using in-house technology and third-party connectors.
Super applications, on the other hand, have become synonymous with a growing number of Chinese super goods, such as WeChat and Alipay.
WeChat began as a texting app in 2011. It has evolved into an ecosystem, with 1 million "mini-programs" that allow users to accomplish a variety of tasks, like ordering a cab, applying for a loan, transacting with local companies, government service providers, and even celebrities. All of these transactions (including payments) take place within the WeChat ecosystem, which is the finest part.
As a result, WeChat has a $7 average revenue per user (ARPU), which is 7X more than Whatsapp.
Alipay, which is owned by Alibaba, offers an even tighter network of services. To begin with, it is the primary mode of payment on the major e-commerce sites Taobao and Tmall (owned by Alibaba). Ant Financial, the company's financial services arm, captures social and transactional data from these three platforms and delivers it to Ant Financial. Ant Financial then utilizes it to create a credit-rating system for merchants and customers, as well as to give personal and commercial loans. Merchants will use the secured funds to acquire more merchandise on one of
Alibaba's e-commerce platforms.
The advantages of the super app strategy also include:
- Product launches that are both faster and less risky: You already have a target audience and a plethora of data to assist you build the correct offering and present it to the right people at the right time.
- Lower product ownership and development costs: Most of WeChat's apps were built by integration by enterprises looking to conduct business with WeChat's massive user base, rather than being developed in-house. To grow their products, the majority of "super applications" use a platform-based strategy.
- Ant Financials was able to cut their loan application and approval procedure to three minutes because of reduced KYC expenses and better onboarding (while maintaining very low default rates).