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 Google and Apple. If HTML5 apps started to edge out these closed, controlled app ecosystems, it could undercut Appcelerator’s business. In fact, Rhomobile CEO Adam Blum told me this summer that he thinks Appcelerator is “in a no-win situation competing with the momentum of HTML5.” But Haynie says Appcelerator is preparing for this future too.It recently acquired a Palo Alto startup called Particle Code whose software automates the creation of HTML5 apps from other codebases.

For now, though, most mobile developers are still gravitating first to iOS, then Android, followed distantly by Windows and HTML5. For the broadest distribution, there’s no choice but to build cross-platform apps, Haynie argues. “From our standpoint, having four different development teams with four different skill sets is not rational and not sustainable for the industry,” he says. “That is where we think Appcelerator can really come in and help.”

Appcelerator didn’t actually start out in the mobile business. The short version of Haynie’s story is this: he served in the Navy during Operation Desert Storm as an electronic-warfare technician, then got computer science degree at Southern Illinois University. He eventually co-founded a voice-over-Internet company in Atlanta called Vocalocity. Employee No. 8 at Vocalocity was Nolan Wright, and after Haynie sold the company and waited out his non-compete period, he and Wright co-founded Appcelerator, with the idea of putting to use the skills they’d acquired helping Web developers build voice and call-center applications.

Wright and Haynie boostrapped the company for the first year by doing contract app development work, but their main project was Titanium. Haynie says the platform started out as a kind of precursor to Air, Adobe’s cross-platform runtime environment. It allowed Web developers to turn their JavaScript, HTML code, and CSS stylesheets into desktop apps that run on Windows and Mac OS X.

Zipcar's mobile app, as rendered by Appcelerator Titanium for the iPhone (left) and Android (right).

The desktop tool is still “the core foundation of our product, but isn’t growing nearly as fast” as the mobile app generators, Haynie says. Helping Web developers build mobile apps became Appcelerator’s main focus in 2008, after Apple opened up the iPhone to apps built by third-party developers. “Nobody knew how big this thing was going to get, so fast,” Haynie says. “But it was an ‘Aha’ moment.” To be closer to the action, the company relocated its 10 employees to Mountain View, CA, and started adapting Titanium to ingest HTML and JavaScript and churn out native apps in Objective-C. In December 2008, it won its first round of venture funding—$4.1 million, courtesy of Storm Ventures, a Menlo Park firm founded by a group of former wireless infrastructure engineers.

Today, Titanium is mainly known as a tool for building iPhone apps that feel as if they were written in native Objective-C, even though they were originally built using Web languages. The platform helps developers make their apps feel even more native by giving them hundreds of 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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