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

11/22/11Follow @wroush

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pre-built yet customizable software elements, ranging from user-interface controls like buttons, tabs, and scrollbars to integrated maps, photo and video viewers, social sharing options, and analytics packages. It also provides code that lets developers connect their apps to cloud services and mobile ad networks such as Apple’s iAd.

Because of all the modules Appcelerator has added over time, Haynie argues, using Titanium is a huge time-saver, even for developers who know Objective-C. “If you wanted to do an app that contained video or augmented reality or a sophisticated UI [user interface], you’d have to deal with memory management and garbage collection and all that,” he says. “That might be thousands of lines of code in native, but three lines in Titanium. It has the effect of decreased cost and increased speed.”

After Google entered the mobile fray with Android, Appcelerator added Java to the mix, and is in the process of adding BlackBerry OS, with Windows Phone coming down the road as well. But Haynie is careful to say that using Titanium isn’t a “write once, run everywhere” solution. The various mobile operating systems, not to mention the smartphones and tablets themselves, are still different enough that developers have to do some platform-specific tuning to make a Titanium app really shine. “A lot of bad stuff” has been written in the name of the write once, run everywhere philosophy, Haynie says. “We like to think of it as an 80/20 situation, where 80 percent of the tooling can work across most platforms, and a unique 20 percent might have to be done manually.”

Like so many other startups today, Appcelerator has a freemium pricing scheme. There’s no cost to download Titanium and build apps that use basic components. But if you get hooked on Titanium and you then decide to include some fancier components such as geolocation features or ongoing analytics to measure adoption and usage, you need to upgrade to the “Indie” plan for $49 per month. And if you want support, handholding, and debugging help from Appcelerator, you’ll need to negotiate an enterprise contract, starting at $499 per month. “The idea is to have Titanium freely available as an open-source platform for development,” says Haynie. “You don’t pay until you really start getting into things and you need higher-end functionality.”

Appcelerator now has a head count of 115, and three weeks ago it closed its Series C funding round, which included return backer Storm Ventures as well as Mayfield Fund, TransLink Capital, Sierra Ventures, and strategic investors eBay and Red Hat. It’s now raised about $31 million overall. With the new funding, the company plans to expand into Europe and Asia, where iOS and Android are still just beginning to take hold, Haynie says.

This fall the startup unveiled its Open Mobile Marketplace, which features Titanium-compatible modules from 130 third-party developers. The idea is to encourage make Titanium more attractive by rewarding outside developers who create features such as skins or payment modules that can be easily dropped in to other apps. “It’s similar to Salesforce.com’s AppExchange, in that third-party developers can build modules and extensions around our platform and then trade or sell them around the marketplace,” says Haynie.

But are native apps endangered species? If you surf the gadget columns these days, you’ll see a wave of recent posts predicting the eventual demise of the iTunes App Store and the Android Market. As HTML5 spreads, the idea goes, developers working within the bounds of the mobile browsers will be able to access more and more of the smartphone and tablet functions that, at the moment, are only accessible from a native app. On top of that, some HTML5 apps are starting to feel just as natural and comfortable to use as native apps.

But while Appcelerator is hedging its bets through strategies such as the Particle Code acquisition, Haynie doesn’t seem too concerned about HTML5. In fact, the big new mobile platform that developers are excited about right now, according to a developer survey that Appcelerator released last week, isn’t HTML5 at all, but Amazon’s Kindle Fire.

“It’s going to be a fight between ecosystems, and there are going to be many of them,” Haynie predicts. “Of course Google and Apple continue to dominate, but we think Windows is going to be a bigger player in the next couple of years as well. We are going to see continued fragmentation, not only in the operating systems, but in the screens and the devices. We feel like we’re very well positioned, because at the end of the day companies need to reach all ecosystems and all consumers, wherever they’re at.”

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

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