Rapid mobile app development, app refactoring, low code, no code: Where are we at today?

James is editor in chief of TechForge Media, with a passion for how technologies influence business and several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

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Feature According to estimates from Gartner in its recent market examination of rapid mobile app development (RMAD), there are more than 30 companies playing in what is only one part of the enterprise mobility space. The truth is that not all of them are going to survive long-term.

A few months ago, Reddo Mobility, a Massachusetts company which focused on HTML5 to mobilise desktop apps, and which this publication featured at the beginning of 2015, went to the wall, as confirmed by TechTarget’s Gabe Knuth. The same fate has recently befallen Atlanta-based StarMobile Inc., which offered a codeless platform claiming to mobilise any enterprise application.

The rest carry on, ostensibly with the ultimate goals of any startup; to go public or be acquired. Speaking with senior executives at several of the leading companies, while teething troubles still need to be ironed out, the market need certainly remains evident. 

Defining the landscape

It is perhaps worth starting off by clarifying what each term represents. RMAD, as defined by TechTarget, is broadly “the use of code-free programming tools to speed the process of creating applications for mobile platforms.” App refactoring is the “restructuring of existing code to improve its performance, readability, portability or code adherence without changing the code’s intended functions.”

Other terms, such as low-code, or no-code, are also frequently bandied about – and it’s here that we encounter the first issue.

Lance Walter is chief marketing officer at Palo Alto-based Capriza. While the company has certainly been busy in recent months – $23 million raised in a series C extension in July – Walter argues the language barrier is one which needs to be addressed.

“What we don’t necessarily love about [the term] RMAD is the word development,” he tells Enterprise AppsTech. “We’re predicated on the notion that you can deliver beautiful, contextualised, personalised mobile applications on top of very complex back office, custom, or packaged applications with literally no development – pointing and clicking. [The word] development arguably undermines that message.”

Kia Behnia, CEO of San Francisco-based PowWow Mobile, argues customers need to bear product architecture in mind so as much as possible is considered. “Most RMAD solutions emphasise the ‘no code’ development and not the operational and organisational challenges inherent to enterprise deployments,” Behnia tells Enterprise AppsTech in an email. “I believe customers need to evaluate RMAD vendors more strategically and place more emphasis on ‘future proofing’ their selection.”

A question of education

Walter points out that if those who follow the space at close quarters can’t completely decide on a term, what hope is there for the mass market? But in a wider context, more education on the benefits may be required.

“I still think many organisations are not aware of the category and how powerful it can be,” says Behnia. “RMAD solutions are transforming and modernising business processes and workflows in days and weeks without an army of developers or having to learn exotic skills.

“These solutions increase employee productivity and business agility with a user experience that is consumer simple,” Behnia adds. “It’s a winning combination for organisations of all sizes, so it’s inevitable that the industry is poised for growth. The ability to educate those still not ‘in the know’ will determine how quickly the industry can scale.”

Going back to the prospective buyer, whoever it is, may also be another clue to the education question.

Nick McQuire, VP enterprise at analyst firm CCS Insight, explains: “The buying patterns in the enterprise for this type of technology are not clear, they’re not certain, and they’re highly mixed. Oftentimes you’ve got a line of business buyer. It’s an IT tool, but it’s a line of business buyer. They have the budget, they are the ones who have the need, those are the ones who measure the ROI, and to pitch an IT tool to a line of business buyer is a struggle.”

Walter adds: “If you go to the buyers, that’s yet another question of somebody who has a business problem that could be solved with one of these kinds of solutions – what exactly are they looking for? Because it may not be RMAD, or app refactoring,” Walter adds. “It’s a marketing challenge, and really a challenge for the market as a whole, that the language of the space hasn’t really crystalised.”

Ultimately though, it may come down to more straightforward factors. Going from a presentation deck and a demo – this reporter has seen many, and been impressed by many – to a fully-functioning, scalable product is not just achieved by a click of the fingers.

“A lot of it is timing,” McQuire says. “You’ve got to time a lot of these technologies to market a little bit ahead of the need, and then the need really has to land. I think that a lot of the app refactoring to an extent, going back the last 12 to 18 months, has been a market push, not a pull.”

The right type of investment

Alongside Capriza’s recent $23m, San Mateo-based SkyGiraffe raised $6m in a series A round announced at the very end of last month.

Here, it’s not all about the money, but who is supplying it and what they are doing with it. Boaz Hecht, co-founder and CEO of SkyGiraffe explains the importance from his perspective of getting James Lindenbaum, founder and CEO of platform as a service (PaaS) provider Heroku, Ilya Sukhar, CEO and founder of app backend firm Parse, and Kevin Mahaffey, CTO and founder of mobile security firm Lookout, on board.

“Being successful entrepreneurs who built the top player in their respective fields, which are around our fields, I want to make sure that I’m calibrated with the right guys,” he tells Enterprise AppsTech. “So that’s why I went to pitch them and brought them on as an investor.”

Capriza has Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) on its side. Not only did they lead the most recent funding round, and not only does Ben Horowitz sit on the Capriza board, but Benedict Evans, an a16z partner and one of the most respected voices in mobile, spoke at a recent event. Companies in the a16z portfolio get free education, workshops and training, and Walter explains the other advantages that can be made.

“[I’ve] worked for some venture funded startups, some of the best in the business, and just about every board member and venture capitalist will tell you at the board meeting ‘we really want to help, just let us know’,” he says. “In some cases, that means ‘okay, you’ve got a connection to the CIO of the company we’re trying to sell to, can we make an intro?’ but usually it doesn’t go much further than that.

“Andreessen Horowitz really puts the ‘we want to help you’ model into production. They help us in many direct ways, it’s great to have them,” Walter adds.

Platform [re]boots

Steve Jobs once famously decried cloud storage provider Dropbox as a feature as opposed to a platform. It’s a similar concept at work here. “Every single vendor company will tell you that they’re a platform, but actually when you think of RMAD, [and] you also think of app refactoring, these are tools that operate as features on top of something wider,” says McQuire. “Generally speaking, the market’s still very immature for apps.”

Walter proves the point somewhat, but adds an interesting caveat. “I spent years of my career in the business intelligence (BI) space, and the more I learn about enterprise mobility, the more I see parallels,” he explains.

“Back in the early days, just about every significant enterprise technology came with some reporting built in, but what enterprises said in most situations, which is now why BI has become a $17bn market according to Gartner, is that people said ‘wait, we don’t just have Oracle, or SAP, or Salesforce, we have all of that stuff, and we have custom applications as well. Don’t we want one platform where we can address all the analytics needs across those systems?’

“And so what we’re seeing is a similar thing in terms of mobility – how might we approach mobilising a combination of those systems in one consistent way? There’s a lot of parallels to the business intelligence industry.”

Hecht’s view is summed up succinctly – “you cannot build a business off one part of the stack if it doesn’t add enough value” – but equally, even if you have a platform, there are other aspects to consider.

“A platform itself isn’t a business, it’s a configurable part of what you need to build, and so if you’re trying to build it you effectively need to build the rest of the stuff. So the platform isn’t the big money,” he says. “You can’t rely on somebody else. If that somebody else gave you an infrastructure, then that’s very different, but if all they’re giving you is the middle part of it, where you still have to build the entire back end and you still have to build the front end, then really the value of it is not that high.”

This may go some way to explaining the recent move by SkyGiraffe to focus on bot integration with communications provider Slack. Using SkyGiraffe, developers can build a Slack app that reads and writes from a plethora of legacy enterprise systems. Other companies in the wider enterprise mobility space have performed similar expansions; take Tangoe, moving from a more traditionally siloed telecoms expense management (TEM) base to ‘mobility as a service’, as well as Apperian moving from traditional mobile app management (MAM) to EMM for unmanaged devices. Having a speciality is good, but having a backup is better.

Pinpointing the market need

The overall sense is that despite a couple of bumps in the road, the runners and riders are progressing well enough towards a denouement, whatever that might be. Regardless, the market need for this type of solution is clear.

“There’s no doubt there’s a need there,” says McQuire. “The wider opportunity will unfold and the tech will get consumed, I’ve no doubt in the future, but in our opinion it’s going to be consumed off a wider bed of technology and cloud services as opposed to standalone.”

For Walter, the Gartner report highlights the issues ahead. “I think one piece of it says there is a real market opportunity here, there is a high value problem to be solved, and a mass market problem to be solved, and that’s why so many people are going after it,” he says, adding: “At the same time, it’s almost certainly not a big enough space today to sustain 30 vendors.”

Hecht argues that long term, it may not be the worst thing to see the market streamline. “Instead of me having to walk to the customer and explain why I’m different from 20 competitors, it’s easier because I have three,” he says. “That happens in every single addressable market that’s big enough to justify it, and this one fundamentally is, so that’s okay.

“This is effectively an unlimited addressable market, and so it’s justifiable if you have a lot of players trying to get into it.”

Behnia argues we are currently in the ‘second inning’ of the nine inning game. “Over the next 24 months, the RMAD space will evolve to be more about customer success and market penetration,” he says. “Lots of RMAD vendors have shut down due to poor execution and there will definitely be more consolidation of the broader RMAD space.

“Customers’ needs are evolving and device vendors have not stopped innovating so the space is fluid around what capabilities are required,” Behnia adds. “The winners continue to add partners, customers and expand their products, and ultimately I believe that there could be three or four vendors in the space with scale and depth.”


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