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Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Mobile App Development Skills: Buy, Rent or Build

Companies getting into mobile app development can buy or rent outside talent, but the best bet may be creating your own team. Here's why.

Finding good developers is always difficult, but it's especially tricky in the field of mobile applications. According to a recent InformationWeek reader survey on mobile apps, nearly half of those developing or planning to develop mobile apps say finding and nurturing expertise is a significant challenge. And 31% of respondents not building mobile apps cite a dearth of staff expertise as the top reason.

Walmart provides a great case study in how it can be easier to buy talent than grow it. The nation's biggest retailer acquired a tiny mobile development shop, Small Society, that had done work for everyone from Starbucks and Whole Foods to the Obama campaign. The Portland, Ore.-based group reports into Walmart's Mobile Labs, a quasi-independent group of developers charged with changing the way customers interact with the mega-retailer.

According to an ex-Yahoo employee, Eran Hammer-Lahav, now part of Walmart's mobile push, the firm's mobile app group is building more than just mobile catalogs or light versions of the Web store. The goal is to "change the way customers interact with the brand--from organizing your shopping list based on where the items are in the store you just walked into to highlighting promotions and reviews as you drive through the aisles."

If you're not Walmart and can't buy a 10-person mobile app startup, you can always rent them, but using so-called app shops has pros and cons. App specialists certainly provide results faster than staffing up a new team: They already have the necessary skills with mobile APIs, UIs and app design, and are used to the hair-trigger development cycle. But they can get expensive as you expand your portfolio.

[There are good reasons to embrace mobile development. Get real-world examples in "The Business Case for Going Mobile".]

Plus, as mobile invades more and more business processes, you're just pushing back the learning curve while competitors get a jump on building mobile expertise.

The final option is to create your own internal team. While this approach has its challenges, they aren't insurmountable. For one, mobile development isn't as difficult as many believe. Tools like Appcelerator Titanium, PhoneGap, Corona, RhoMobile and Xamarin allow developers to write in a single language--often one they already know, such as Javascript or C#, and deploy to multiple platforms. For more on how to get started, check out the report "Fundamentals: Mobile App Development." (Registration required.)

Alternatively, you can do what one of our commenters suggests and target native apps for only the most demanding cases and use HTML5 for everything else. This technical sales engineer for a mobile development shop writes, "Organizations are missing an easy solution: Choose one native platform for your pickiest and/or most populous users, and all other platforms get a mobile Web solution that's 'good enough'. Native development is not slower than Web development; if anything it's faster (especially on iOS) because it's so easy and so compatible."

As companies bring more mobile developers into the organization, they have to strike a balance between retaining a creative culture without letting mobile hipsters run wild. That means keeping them linked to business units and corporate initiatives. According to Chris Silva, a mobile analyst at Altimeter Group, the best mobile shops, particularly in retail and sales organizations, are tightly aligned with marketing and e-commerce teams.

For example, he says, the initial motivation for Starbucks wasn't about using mobile to generate revenue or customer loyalty and stickiness, but to streamline the purchasing process, which could get severely bottlenecked at times of peak demand. Only after fixing this problem did they apply their mobile technology in other ways.

It's past time for organizations to do a thorough analysis, across their business units and processes, of how mobile can be applied. And whether you have to buy it, hire it or grow it, you must build mobile app development capability. As Nolan Wright, CTO and co-founder of Appcelerator, puts it, "Soon, all development will be mobile development."

Kurt Marko is an InformationWeek and Network Computing contributor and IT industry veteran, pursuing his passion for communications after a varied career that has spanned virtually the entire high-tech food chain from chips to systems. Upon graduating from Stanford University ... View Full Bio
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