Review: 7 excellent mobile app builders

Alpha Anywhere, AnyPresence, and Salesforce1 lead a rich field of low-code mobile development tools

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NSB/AppStudio

NSB/AppStudio targets both mobile Web and mobile hybrid apps. The AppStudio IDE was written in JavaScript, HTML5, and WebKit, and it runs on Windows and Mac OS X. The combination of ease of learning, ease of use, royalty-free distribution, and low prices helps AppStudio bring mobile Web and hybrid development to the masses, in the spirit of Visual Basic and the early Borland visual programming products.

You can drag and drop your way to runnable mobile applications built from forms and controls, and write code either in NS Basic -- essentially VBScript with a few extensions -- or in JavaScript. At app publication or runtime, whether for local development or server deployment, any Basic script is transcompiled to JavaScript. You can display the JavaScript for any displayed form from the IDE.

In the AppStudio IDE we have a form designer, toolbox, project explorer, property sheet, and help windows, all familiar from Visual Basic and its heirs and imitators. The IDE doesn’t do its own debugging, however -- that is handled by the browser or, in the case of PhoneGap apps, through weinre, a remote debugger for Web pages. 

NSB/AppStudio form designer

NSB/AppStudio is a drag-and-drop IDE for mobile Web and mobile hybrid app development, very much in the spirit of Microsoft Visual Basic. Notice the familiar form designer, toolbox, project explorer, property sheet, and help windows.

Right-clicking on a control brings up a context-sensitive action menu that lets you create event handlers, add components, and adjust the layout. The selection of components is satisfying and includes almost 60 controls, ranging from simple labels to complex widgets and interfaces to financial services and social media.

AppStudio allows you to build both mobile Web apps and mobile hybrid apps; the latter is facilitated by integration with PhoneGap. AppStudio comes with more than 100 samples, ranging from “hello, world” to demonstrations of using all the included controls, about 30 Web services, and a dozen third-party JavaScript libraries.

The performance of AppStudio NSBasic mobile Web and hybrid apps is surprisingly good and basically identical to the performance of JavaScript from other mobile Web app builders.

If you are only beginning to play with mobile development and don’t have a programming background, NSB/AppStudio is a good place to start. Be aware, however, that it has limited functionality compared to full-featured mobile IDEs and MBaaS platforms, and specifically lacks native mobile app support and enterprise integrations.

Salesforce1

Over the last few years, Salesforce.com, the prominent SaaS platform for sales force automation and other business applications, has been building out its mobile strategy at multiple levels of developer difficulty, ranging from easy with minimal control to hard with complete control. In the simplest option, the Salesforce1 toolkit includes a Web-based drag-and-drop designer suitable for a business analyst. It allows the analyst to customize the app, control security and access, and streamline the process of working with records from a mobile device.

While using the Salesforce1 designer seems simple, it provides a lot of value. When you use it, you provision a custom schema in a cloud database as a service, with strong security, role-based permissions, and automatically exposed REST API endpoints. You get a mobile app that can access anything in it. Should you need to connect to Salesforce via XML Web services, Salesforce can generate the appropriate WSDL for your custom schema.

At the next level of complexity, a Web developer who knows some HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript can build pages for Salesforce1 in Visual Force with Mobile Packs or using Lightning components. At the highest level of complexity, a mobile developer can build native or hybrid applications against Salesforce data for iOS and Android with the Salesforce Mobile SDKs. Meanwhile, any of these can utilize the mobile back-end services provided by the Salesforce1 Platform.

salesforce1 setup

The Salesforce1 setup screen is a new part of the Force.com home screen for developers. As you can see, it exposes a quick start wizard, ways to customize your app, ways to control security and access, and ways to enable working with records from mobile.

Salesforce provides free Salesforce1 native mobile shell apps for iOS and Android, which users can download from the appropriate store and use for viewing Salesforce1 Web content. These hybrid apps provide advantages over Web apps, such as retaining state after a context switch and supporting secure offline read access once the data has been loaded. A Salesforce1 Windows Phone app has been announced, albeit without a scheduled release date.

Just as Salesforce has mobile development methods for all levels of developer, it also has back-end development methods for all levels of developer. For novices and business analysts, the obvious choice is point-and-click declarative Force.com logic. For developers familiar with Java, Apex code will be relatively easy to learn. For those who know the SQL Select statement, SOQL (Salesforce Object Query Language) will prove to be an easy way to query Salesforce objects. For full-text searches, there’s SOSL (Salesforce Object Search Language), which allows you to search Salesforce text, email, and phone fields for multiple objects simultaneously.

Finally, for even more flexibility, you can connect Salesforce to Heroku and do server programming in open source languages.

Mobile development to match

Alpha Anywhere is a good choice for consultants and corporate developers who need to build mobile Web and hybrid apps for corporate use, especially apps that depend on data in centralized SQL databases. Alpha’s support for offline mobile operation, offline/online data synchronization, and conflict resolution is exceptionally good.

AnyPresence is a good choice for enterprise developers who want to create mobile APIs that their ecosystem of departments and partners can use to access their services. As its Editor’s Choice and high score reflect, AnyPresence is our all-around favorite in this category, but its hefty annual price tag favors larger businesses with high mobile usage.

Appcelerator Titanium is a good match for JavaScript developers who want to generate native apps without writing Java, Objective-C, or Swift. It’s especially suited to people who like Backbone-like JavaScript frameworks and Node.js.

Appery.io is a good match for corporate designers and developers who want to build their mobile Web and hybrid apps in the cloud, but don’t require native apps. It’s also good for easily connecting to REST services.

EachScape is a good fit for consultants as well as corporate designers and developers who want to build their native iOS, native Android, and mobile Web apps in the cloud. It integrates well with REST services.

NSB/AppStudio is a good choice for students and consultants who like the Basic language and the Visual Basic drag-and-drop paradigm and who want to build mobile Web and hybrid apps. Its greatest strengths are its simplicity and ease of use.

And Salesforce1 is a good choice for businesses that already use Salesforce and want to extend access to their Salesforce applications and databases to mobile devices. It offers several development options suitable for different levels of skill, ranging from online drag-and-drop configuration for business analysts to native SDK support for experienced mobile developers. If you already use Salesforce, it’s free. If you don’t already use Salesforce, however, it would be an expensive option if all you need are mobile apps.

This story, "Review: 7 excellent mobile app builders" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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