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A guide to mobile development: The facts you need to know

You’ve heard the mantra: more mobile, more of the time. You know the numbers. Active mobile broadband subscriptions in developed countries have more than quadrupled over the past seven years. There are now more mobile users than desktop users. Users spend 60 per cent of their digital media time on smartphones on tablets, and 89 per cent of that time is spent in mobile apps, not web browsers. None of these trends are new, but mobile adoption is only just reaching that truly critical mass.

This means both excitement and headaches for mobile developers. Until this year, mobile first was a goal for the farsighted but a dream for those of us who just needed to release now. But now mobile first is an absolute requirement for any app that wants to cross all verticals — and more and more users are expecting a seamless experience across all devices as well.

Dev-level mobile challenges haven’t changed radically over the past year. Neither of the two dominant platforms is eclipsing the other. Native apps are still a lot more efficient than web apps. Devices are getting more powerful, but connectivity is still a serious issue. The list goes on; check out our Key Research Findings below for more details.

But the mobile development toolchain is getting better. Android Studio 1.0 was released last December, to great love and fanfare, and is already on a stable v1.2. Swift is enjoying blindingly fast adoption, and Apple just promised to make Swift open-source by the end of this year. Use of cross-platform tools is also growing quickly—up 25 per cent from last year, among our survey respondents.

And the promise of IoT creates new possibilities for virtually every mobile application. What notifications would be supercool to send to someone’s wrist? Car? Home lighting system? When do I need to start thinking wearable first, just as I begin to embrace the mobile first ideal?

We can’t answer all these questions for you. The mobile market is too mobile for that. But we can give you enough information about the mobile development landscape to simplify your decisions and make your mobile-first coding easier. The latest Guide to Mobile Development includes views from developer, user, and infrastructure perspectives; a sweet listing of platforms and frameworks to facilitate mobile development; plus a fun glance at pain points encountered by mobile developers.

The Guide to Mobile Development

This Guide to Mobile Development addresses the questions: How are developers building mobile applications, and how can developers build better mobile applications with less pain and greater user satisfaction?

To learn what tools and techniques mobile developers are using and where problems in mobile development arise, we surveyed more than 500 developers (95 per cent confidence level, 5 per cent confidence interval). Key takeaways include:

  • Use of cross-platform tools (e.g. Cordova/PhoneGap, Xamarin) is growing rapidly. Over the past year, usage has jumped 10 per cent (from 41 per cent of respondents last year to 51 per cent this year)
  • Fragmentation is still the biggest headache for mobile developers, despite increased use of cross-platform development tools. Among our survey respondents, the top two pain points during mobile development are testing on different hardware and screen sizes (56 per cent) and building native apps for multiple platforms (52 per cent)
  • More and more companies are building mobile applications in-house. 70 per cent of survey respondents work for organisations that develop mobile apps/sites, up from 51 per cent last year


To learn how to build mobile apps with less pain and better results, we interviewed a wide range of mobile developers, on the one hand, and product owners and engineers who create solutions to simplify mobile development, on the other. Recommendations from both perspectives are included in the guide, which cover:

  • The relation between end-user satisfaction and pain points encountered during mobile development
  • Advantages and disadvantages of native, web, and hybrid mobile app development and deployment
  • The convergence of mobile devices and the Internet of Things
  • The impact of Mobile-Backend-as-a-Service (MBaaS) on mobile app development

Key findings

More mobile hobbyists and employees than freelancers

An overwhelming majority (70 per cent, up from 51 per cent last year) of those surveyed work in an organisation that develops mobile apps, and 69 per cent (up from 48 per cent last year) of all respondents have participated in their organisation’s mobile development. Freelancing is still not as popular (35 per cent of respondents develop mobile apps on their own, down from 37 per cent last year) as those developing as hobbyists (42 per cent), which have also seen a decrease from last year’s results (down from 56 per cent). 19 per cent of respondents don’t expect to see a return on investment from their apps, which is down from 30 per cent last year.

Android continues to be the most popular platform for organisations and individual developers, with 87 per cent of respondents saying they are targeting the Android platform. iOS has closed the margin, with 77 per cent of respondents saying they are targeting iOS—the difference last year was 14 per cent. Interestingly, non-native development seems to be decreasing slightly: 50 per cent of respondents say they are developing for web or hybrid (down from 56 per ecnt last year). Windows Phone remains a distant third, targeted by 24 per cent of respondents

Individual developers becoming more efficient

App development time can vary widely based on a host of factors, but finding out how much time it generally takes organisations and individuals to develop apps is useful for discovering industry opinions about how long an app should take to complete or how large a project should be. The top three answers for organisations were 12 weeks (15 per cent), 8 weeks (12 per cent), and 4 weeks (12 per cent), which is exactly the same as last year. This suggests consistency for app turnaround time within organisations. For individuals working by themselves, timetables gravitate toward 8 weeks (15 per cent), with 4 weeks (13 per cent) and 6 weeks (11 per cent) close behind. These timetables are all smaller than last year’s results, which could be explained by a number of factors — more legacy code, more APIs, or more developer knowledge.

Cross-platform tools used by nearly half of mobile devs

51 per cent of respondents say they or their organisations are using cross-platform tools such as Apache Cordova/ PhoneGap, up from 41 per cnet last year. This is the most popular type of mobile tool, with IaaS/PaaS as the second most crucial development utility at 29 per cent usage (up from 20 per cent last year). For programming languages, Java is very popular in this group of enterprise developers (74 per cent), more popular, in fact than HTML/ CSS (70 per cent) or JavaScript (70 per cent). Objective-C for iOS is fourth with 51 per cent, while Swift is being adopted quickly (already at 22 per cent). C#, the language of Windows Phone, is fifth with 25 per cent.

Developers still rely on commissioned apps for revenue

Commissioned apps (41 per cent) continue to be the number one way respondents expect to make money as a mobile developer. The actual purchase of the app (26 per cent) is the second most popular way developers expect to make money from their app. Marketing/brand awareness of another service (23 per cent) and monetising online content (20 per cent) are other strong options. 19 per cent of respondents said in-app purchases are the way they expect to see a return on investment. Unfortunately, 27 per cent of respondents said they do not expect to see a return on their investment.

John Esposito at DZone