The growing capabilities of mobile devices has brought about an explosion in development not just for consumer applications but also for those designed for enterprise use. The evolving technological capabilities of devices means that we are now seeing applications which have a very real function in almost every area of business. From placing orders, checking stock availability, and raising invoices to managing customer accounts, the increasingly mobilized workforce now requires the ability to access data and communicate with centrally held systems, with all the speed and efficiency that they can in the office.

What are the challenges for developers tasked with deploying enterprise applications on mobile devices? As yet, the battle for dominance between the major players has no clear winner in the market as the giants jostle for position. The recent launch of Windows Mobile 7 will see the competition intensify as Microsoft’s new mobile platform will be aiming to compete with established players, such as Google and Apple.

At the recent Mobile App World event, Brandon Watson, director for Windows Phone 7 at Microsoft, used a keynote speech to highlight the challenges for developers, stating that “there are so many choices, it’s almost overwhelming. It’s the paradox of choice.”

This shifting market (and fragmentation of available platforms) creates issues for developers and enterprises attempting to second-guess where the biggest commercial opportunities will exist, both now and in the future.

Mobile application development can be a complex process involving coordinating separate programming teams and programming languages. The reality is that mobile applications are defined by the limitations of bandwidth, which is typically much lower than that from desktop applications, and despite improvements in processing power, devices require compact software applications.

At the same time, developers must develop feature-rich applications that carry the functionality that enables business workers to have an experience, which is as close as possible to what they would be familiar with on their laptop or desktop. The challenge is closely related to that of developing rich Internet applications: how to bring together rich functionality and Internet mobility.

The ability to adapt to change is nothing new for most developers. However, the mobile application development market now seems to require a large degree of crystal-ball gazing. The difficulty is that developers need to make decisions now, regarding technological capabilities, platforms and functionality based on where they see the biggest commercial opportunities. Similarly, enterprises need to develop applications for mobile devices that have been selected perhaps due to cost or the personal preferences of the purchaser. There is no “one-size-fits-all” option.

Metadata-based platforms
The good news is that there are alternative approaches that enable developers and enterprises to remove this risk by using a platform-agnostic development platform, circumventing the need to try and anticipate where the mobile future lies.

These metadata-driven development platforms not only simplify the code writing, deployment and integration process, but also help deliver more business-focused mobile applications in a reduced timeframe. Time to market is clearly a key consideration in this dynamic industry, and keeping the process as simple and straightforward as possible gives players a first-mover advantage and also reduces the costs involved in the development effort.

These engines use precompiled and preconfigured business logic that contain prewritten coding functionality and services. This allows developers to bypass the intensive code-writing stage of application development, and to deploy more quickly and efficiently. This also means that developers can work independently of the underlying platform. It’s an approach that can also automate and synchronize a mobile application with other diverse applications, be it ERP or CRM, without the need for manual line-by-line scripting.

As the capabilities of devices and the preferences of users continue to shift, it would be a brave person that made predictions on where the mobile market will be in two, five or even 10 years’ time. There is, however, a way that developers can future-proof their decision-making in terms of devices or deployment channels and ensure that the choices made now are the choices that will pay dividends, whatever the next few years hold.

David Akka is managing director of Magic Software (based in the U.K.), which sells metadata-based development platforms.