Flexibility is Key in Mobile App Development, Magic Says

As organizations ramp up their mobile development programs, they’re faced with decisions. Should they choose Apple or Android? Native, hybrid, or browser-based? Tablet or smartphone? Once an organization chooses a direction, it risks potentially locking themselves into that approach. With its history in 4GL development techniques, Magic Software realizes that flexibility is a feature in its own right.

You may remember Magic and its eDeveloper product, a 4GL development environment that supported the capability to generate RPG code that deployed on AS/400 servers. eDeveloper is no longer actively developed, but its heritage lives on in newer products, namely xpa (formerly uniPaaS), the application development and runtime stack and the flagship of Magic’s suite.

Developed using Microsoft .NET technology, xpa features a metadata-driven development approach that harkens back to the 4GL days and eDeveloper. The software enables developers to design business apps that run natively on IBM i, Windows, Linux, and Windows, and feature Web, Windows, or mobile interfaces.

Magic has focused much of its own development efforts for xpa on rounding out its mobile capabilities. To that end, it gives developers the option of deploying mobile interfaces as native apps on Apple iOS, Google Android, and Blackberry. It also supports HTML5 interfaces for those developers that want to take a pure Web browser approach, or blend native with HTML5 technology with the hybrid approach.

That level of flexibility is central to Magic’s strategy, explains Regev Yativ, CEO of Magic Software Enterprises Americas, the Irvine, California-based division of the Israeli company.

“Once you write [the app], you run it through specialized codes and wizards that take that one piece of code and, based on your configuration, actually changes and modifies it for the designated targeted OS,” Yativ explains in an interview with IT Jungle.

“So for example, if you developed an app for an iPad, but now you have people who want to use with the Nexus 7 tablet from Google, you would take that same piece of code, run it through our emulators and wizards, and the output would be something that looks like an Android application,” he says.

There will be some “tweaking and changes” that need to be done to optimize the app to utilize the particular screen elements used by iOS and Android, such as scroll bars, he says. “But you would not be redeveloping that code just because now some people want it to run on an Android tablet,” he says.

There has been a lot of interest in tools that enable multi-device deployments, such asPhoneGap, a free and open source framework that competes with Magic’s mobile solutions. But Yativ argues that the actual development process is faster using Magic’s metadata-driven approach.

“Our tools from day one, with eDeveloper, were very interoperable. Magic traditionally had that strength in its tools,” Yativ says. “We advanced this interoperability over the years into a cross-platform environment with client-server apps. Now we’ve taken these capabilities into mobility. It’s slightly different, but the metadata principle is still the same.”

Magic has a long history with the AS/400, and it continues to support the IBM i server today. Yativ says that Magic’s IBM i customers are a little slower on the uptake of new technology, such as mobile, than customers who run primarily on Windows, Linux, or Unix servers.

“The way I know this market, I think they’ll always lag 10 to 20 percent behind,” he says. “Not because they’re laggards in nature, but because the installations are heavier. It takes more time to do the change management, and they’re restricted by regulations. But it [adoption of mobility] is coming. It’s definitely coming for this community just like any other community.”

About 20 to 30 percent of Magic’s customer engagements are spurred by a need for mobile solutions, he says. By 2014, that number will likely rise to 60 or 70 percent, he says. “It’s a very aggressive trend,” he adds.

In addition to flexibility in deployment, Magic counts backend integration as a key differentiator for its mobile solutions. The company includes its xpi (formerly iBolt) integration engine with its mobile offerings, which enables it to connect to ERP systems such as JD Edwards.

“Enterprises certainly need connectivity to the backend,” Yativ says. “Otherwise they would have very fancy apps, but completely empty of data. It’s almost pointless not to have it.”

The prospect of having ERP data on a smartphone or tablet is certainly driving lots of interest in the technology. But along with that freedom comes the fear of losing a wireless network connection, and suddenly losing what one is working on.

Magic will address that fear with a new offline mode that it expects to announce next month. The new data caching feature will allow users to continue to work on a record they have open on their devices, even if the network connection is lost. When the network connection is re-established, it automatically syncs any changes made to the record with the business application.

Supporting Microsoft’s new mobile platform is also in the works. “Microsoft has been a bit elusive about that,” Yativ says. “We’re getting ready to support that platform. But we wanted to give them a bit of time to take market share. It seems like they’re doing it. We hope to fully support that in the coming short period. That’s certainly on the table.”

Magic licenses the enterprise mobility feature of xpa on a per user basis, with prices starting in the mid four figures. The company provides a variety of training programs for xpa, which a C#-C++ or Java developer would probably pick up faster than an RPG or COBOL developer. Professional xpa development services are also available from Magic and its partners for customers who prefer to have turnkey applications developed for them.

By Alex Woodie, ITJungle.

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