For A Boost Building Mobile Apps, Web Developers Step On the Appcelerator

11/22/11Follow @wroush

Apple’s iPhone and iPad may be the hottest, most stylish gadgets out there—in fact, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has already enshrined the iPad 2 in an exhibit on industrial design. But inside, iOS devices use a programming language that’s truly antiquated. It’s called Objective-C, and it rose to prominence in the late 1980s as the language used by Steve Jobs’ NeXT to build the user interface for the company’s workstations.

Objective-C is considered less powerful and harder to learn than more modern programming and scripting languages like Javascript, Python, and Ruby, and it has nowhere near as many adherents. “Very few people in the world know Objective-C,” says Jeff Haynie. By contrast, “Eight to 10 million Web developers around the world know Javascript and HTML.” And if you think Google is in a stronger position with Android, think again—that operating system is based on Java, another finicky language with a dwindling following.

Haynie’s view is that developers shouldn’t have to learn Objective-C or Java just so they can write apps for today’s fastest-spreading computing platforms, i.e., smartphones and tablets. And that’s the whole business proposition behind Appcelerator, the company Haynie co-founded in Atlanta, GA, in 2007 and transplanted to Silicon Valley in 2008. The company, which just collected $15 million in new venture funding, specializes in software that takes programs written in the language of the Web and transforms them into mobile apps that will run equally well on iOS or Android, or even desktop Mac and Windows computers.

Comb through the 500,000 apps in the iTunes App store, and you’ll find that nearly one in five was built using Titanium, Appcelerator’s free, open-source development platform. One of the most prominent examples is NBC Universal’s iPad app, which lets users watch full episodes of NBC shows, play games, view broadcast schedules, and view behind-the-scenes photos from their favorite shows. “That app was built by one JavaScript developer in three months,” Haynie says. A previous attempt to build the NBC app in Objective-C, Haynie says, “took four people six months, and was a complete and very expensive disaster.”

Appcelerator co-founder and CEO Jeff Haynie

Appcelerator isn’t the only company offering ways to get around writing native (that is, Objective-C or Java) code for iOS or Android devices. Its biggest direct competitor is probably Rhomobile, a San Jose startup acquired by Motorola Solutions in October; Rhomobile is the creator of Rhodes, an open-source framework for turning apps written in Ruby into native apps for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Windows Phone. But Rhodes is mainly used by developers of enterprise apps, while Appcelerator shines when it comes to making high-gloss consumer apps like the NBC app.

And Appcelerator may have a more worrisome competitor in HTML5, the next-generation Web language that includes more support for audio, video, and animation. Some developers are using the standard as a way to produce browser-based games and publications that have the look and feel of native apps, but don’t have to be approved by the app store authorities at … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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