Putting mobile app development frustration on ice

Telerik wants mobile app development to be less overwhelming. What if you could develop for multiple platforms simultaneously? Meet cloud-ready Icenium.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Let's face it: developing mobile applications across multiple platforms sucks.

Different languages, different rules, different looks -- how is a mobile developer supposed to keep his or her customers happy if he or she has all this to contend with? It's no wonder developers have enough hardware lying around to moonlight as an electronics store; it is only necessary given this challenge.

Telerik, the U.S. application development firm, thinks it has a solution to the problem. In October, it took the wraps off a new business division it calls Icenium (that's "eye-sin-ium," not "ice-nium"), giving it the mandate to use cloud computing as a foundation to build a cross-platform mobile app development environment.

The idea: allow web developers to build mobile applications without managing the various SDKs, compilers, APIs and tools for each platform. Want to build an iOS app with a Windows-based PC? Go for it. Want to make a change and have it mirror across the apps for all the mobile platforms you want to support before your eyes? Knock yourself out.

I spoke with Doug Seven, a Telerik executive vice president who until October held the coveted title of "EVP, Black Ops." (Now that the cat is out of the bag, he merely leads the Icenium venture.) The longtime Microsoft veteran had a few things to say about the need for mobile app devs to go to the cloud.

ZD: You worked at Microsoft for a long time. How has that experience informed your new work?

DS: I've been at Telerik for 15 or 16 months. I was the director of product management for Visual Studio at Microsoft. When I was there, I really had to think about all the platforms at Microsoft: Windows, Office, desktop, phone, whatever. I was there for six or seven years, across two tours of duty.

Very few developers are solely focused on a single platform. For mobile devices, it has become a requirement to work across platforms -- [that need is prompted] either from themselves or from customers. Consistently, the problem was that they were forced to learn multiple technology stacks and development tools. It's intimidating.

We needed developer tools, not just developer platform tools. At Microsoft, it would be out of charter [for Windows developers] to make anything but Windows better. At Telerik, we could work across platforms.

What if we could build something that enabled developers to work across platforms and [bridge] the development environment and the target environment?

What if we could leverage the cloud? Do for development environments what Pandora and Evernote do elsewhere in life. What if we took all those SDKs and so forth and put them in the cloud as services?

We didn't have to dumb it down as much as just make it easier. Simplify the process. The developer should really just be able to focus on the content of their application, and not downloading and managing SDKs and all this other stuff. That was what was broken.

ZD: Seems like a no brainer, and yet. Why is this only happening now?

DS: We've built more features for the [Integrated Development Environment] over the years, but the IDE itself hasn't really evolved. We needed constantly connected, high-speed broadband to make this concept happen.

So we have three products. Icenium Graphite, a Windows-based coding environment; Icenium Mist, a browser-based development environment; and Icenium Ion, for iOS. Take Apple for example -- xCode is a 1.5-gigabyte download. Icenium Graphite is a 10-megabyte download.

ZD: You mentioned that you're focused on web developers in particular.

DS: I believe web developers are the most likely people to move to mobile development quickly. They're already thinking about it. We really considered the web developer our primary audience here.

For example, we offer a text-based coding environment; many developers are suspicious of WYSIWYG tools. Statement completion options, instant error prompts, navigation options -- such as 'find definition of argument' -- a browser and debugging tool, device simulator. My goal was really familiarity. We want them to walk up [to our product] and use it like they would their other tools.

We also have "run on device," which will build it in cloud and deliver the package down to the environment and then push it through USB to the real devices. [It was at this point that Doug demonstrated exactly that using the fleet of mobile devices he has in his office. Indeed, he made a change and they all updated, regardless of operating system. --Ed.]

It also works on modified [Google] Android for [Amazon's] Kindle Fire.

It's great because you can give the application to clients easily during your presentation. If they request a change, you can make it and give the updated app to clients during that same presentation.

ZD: You're not the only one working on mobile development. Who else is out there?

DS: Our competitors are extensions of [Apache] Cordova, such as the Salesforce Touch Platform, which counts on xCode and Mac. There's Appcelerator, which is based on Eclipse, but that's still based on big bulky IDEs. Adobe has all the right pieces, but they're sort of myopically focused on web development -- phones are almost like a stepchild [at Adobe], it's their only product that doesn't get the Edge branding. There's also PhoneGap.

For some reason, nobody's had the vision to tie this together and make a new development environment. If you give me a few minutes to demonstrate it, almost everybody's convinced. Apache Cordova people are into it; they just need to buy into the idea that the SDK need not be local.

We'll be doing a private beta over the summer.

ZD: Sounds all well and good, but what are the hurdles?

DS: One of the biggest challenges we're going to have is that there's a certain amount of pride from developers in how powerful their machines are. They certainly won't need that anymore. I just ordered a Windows 8 ultrabook for this. And it works on my iPad. All the heavy lifting and power is done in the cloud.

ZD: Sounds like a humblebrag to me, but I'll take it. So what's next? Mobile keeps evolving. How do you stay nimble?

DS: We made a bet early on on HTML and Javascript as the de facto technology script to use. Microsoft was heavily committed to those for native applications in Windows 8. Seeing the momentum shifting toward HTML 5 shows that that's very likely how we'll build apps for generations to come.

If Windows Phone 8 becomes successful with consumers, it's actually very easy for us to add support. The only thing that would hurt us is if one of those vendors would choose not to support HTML and Javascript. I really don't see that happening. We're really lined up for a good future.

We're driving people into app stores with this kind of support. It's good for everybody.

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