Traditional desktop app development is dominated by large-scale software companies with huge workforces, sometimes scattered around the globe. However, the mobile app development industry is quite different. Its ecosystem has created a new breed of small-scale and highly efficient developers. Its dominant players are powered by innovation and efficiency, rather than by the number of heads on the payroll. Even an individual developer can produce a killer app that has millions of downloads in the app stores.
So how do these individuals or small teams of developers achieve such great results, without a large human workforce? It's because the mobile app ecosystem has a broad range of software tools that simplify the workflow and improve efficiency. There are tools that even guarantee certain types of functionality, up to certain standards.
In this post, you'll be exposed to various mobile development tools that enable you to make your app unique and stand out from the rest. With these tools, you can achieve success even without a large team of programmers.
1. General-Purpose Tools
These include Software Development Kits (SDKs) that make it possible to develop for a specific platform such as Android, iOS, and Windows. In addition, Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) that help streamline the workflow also fall into this category.
1.1 Native Platform SDKs
An SDK usually consists of compiled core sources, supporting software libraries and various other components such as documentation, sample apps, etc., that are designed to facilitate app development. Platform SDKs can be defined as the immediately usable form of the platform's source code.
Android SDK & NDK
You can download Android SDK from the Android Developer website's Downloads section, free of charge. You just need to download the SDK command-line tools package that matches your OS and use the SDK Manager included there to download the other packages. Then, you can use this SDK to develop apps with or without the help of an Integrated Development Environment (IDE).
Unlike the SDK, which facilitates Java-based development, Android Native Development Kit (NDK) enables developers to implement their apps in the C or C++ languages. This comes in handy, especially when external libraries written in C or C++ are used within your app. Also, this ensures the fastest performance and maximum utilization of the device's hardware features. Therefore, if performance is the main criterion, you'd be better off using Android NDK.
You can find a large collection of Android tutorials on Envato Tuts+ that can help you get up and running in a flash.
Similar to the Android SDK, you can download the iOS SDK, free of charge, once you register for an Apple Developer Center Account. However, you can't run the apps developed using that on an Apple device, unless you join the paid iOS Developer Program. However, you can still run your app on an emulator and test if it works correctly.
When you are ready to run your app on a real device, you can join the Developer Program and eventually publish the app on the App Store. If you need more help on iOS development, check out our iOS From Scratch series.
Windows 10 SDK
Microsoft has unified the app development process for different devices including PC, Mobile, Xbox One, and HoloLens, with its Universal Windows Platform (UWP). You can download the Windows 10 SDK (also supports UWP) from Microsoft Windows Dev Center and use it for developing mobile apps with other tools, such as mobile emulators, to test your app.
When used together with UWP, the Windows 10 SDK allows you to port your existing Android, iOS and older Windows apps to the latest Windows 10 platform. This is really great because it enables developers to expand their reach and target the broadest possible range of devices. Windows Phone SDK tutorials on Envato Tuts+ could be a great place to look for expert help.
1.2 Complete IDEs
IDEs help streamline your workflow and get the maximum out of the SDKs. They also save developers a great deal of time with clever features such as code completion, interactive debugging, and automated building.
Android Studio is the IDE officially supported by Google for building Android apps. It's an all-in-one IDE featuring intelligent code completion, fast and realistic device emulation, and robust build systems. You can share the same code base across many devices, ranging from wearables, through phones, to smart TVs.
The latest Android SDK is also bundled with Android Studio so that developers can start coding from day one. The older versions of the SDK can be downloaded via the SDK Manager included in the IDE. It's also full of sample apps, code templates, and project wizards that make life really easy for developers.
If you are an iOS developer, you must get yourself familiar with Xcode, which includes the iOS SDK and a number of other useful tools. Similar to Android Studio, it's a productive environment for building apps for Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Xcode's features include a powerful source-code editor, built-in interface builder, advanced device emulator, and complete, up-to-date documentation.
Anyway, you don't have much choice, because it's mandatory to use the Xcode IDE if you plan to publish your iOS apps to Apple's App Store. Xcode handles all the app signing and developer-key management, plus the verification process for app submission, so that developers can focus more on their core business rather than worrying about their apps' administrative overheads.
Visual Studio is the IDE of choice for Windows developers. It's from Microsoft, and therefore, you'll get the full support that you'd expect from the official vendor. With Visual Studio, you can use the same code base for desktop apps, mobile apps, and other Microsoft device-based apps.
Naturally, the Windows 10 SDK is bundled with the IDE, as in the case of Android Studio and Xcode. Visual Studio makes it easy for developers to find their way around a large code base with features such as Peek To Definition, improved GoTo, and more. Depending on your capacity and budget, you can select from three versions, namely Community, Professional, and Enterprise. Also, Visual Studio comes with two OS flavors, Windows and Mac. So it doesn't matter whether you own a PC or a Mac; you can use Visual Studio to code your next mobile app.
2. Special-Purpose Tools
These are the tools that enable your app to have a competitive advantage. That's really what it takes to build a killer app or a niche market. Here, you'll read about the most popular ones.
2.1 Game Engines
Mobile games are the most popular app category, in terms of download volume, on almost all the app stores. So, if you're planning to develop a mobile game, why not try one of these game engines?
Unity is a popular game development tool that can be used for creating a compelling user experience. Its features include an all-in-one editor, 2D and 3D workflow support, realistic physics engine, built-in UI creation components, and a lot more. Based on the size of your game development studio, you can choose a suitable version from Personal, Plus, or Pro.
Unity allows you to maintain a single code base and publish to multiple platforms such as Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Unity is essentially packed with tons of features such as 360 panoramic video support, cinematic VR, and photo- or video-based asset creation. It even has its own mobile app monetization platform with Unity Ads.
Released under the MIT license, Godot is a free and open-source game creation tool that enables you to publish 2D and 3D games to all the popular mobile platforms. You can write your programs either with its default scripting language called GDScript or in the C++ language. It also has a nice visual editor with an uncluttered UI. What's really interesting is that it supports live editing on mobile devices too.
libGDX is a game engine with multiple publishing targets including Android and iOS. It's released under the Apache 2.0 license and maintained by an active community of talented developers. It also comes with a large collection of books and tutorials, so that it's really easy for you to get started and continue.
2.2 Computer Vision SDKs
Computer vision has made remarkable progress since its early days of conception. Now it's become such a commodity that there are thousands of apps that use some form of computer vision. The availability of the built-in camera has made computer vision-based mobile apps a widespread type of software.
IBM Watson is a cloud-based suite of machine-learning tools. With its Visual Recognition service, detecting and analyzing images from a smartphone app is actually quite easy. Check out some of our Watson tutorials here on Envato Tuts+. You can even use it to guess a person's age and gender from a photograph.
Google Cloud Vision
Google Cloud Vision is another cloud-based machine learning platform that makes computer vision easier. Through the Cloud Vision REST API, Google shares its deep learning AI technology with app developers everywhere. With this API, you can easily add features such as face detection, emotion detection, and optical character recognition to your Android apps. In this tutorial, you'll learn how.
OpenCV was one of the early adopters of computer vision technology, and today it's one of the leaders in the field. There are several other projects, some open source, and other commercial ones, based on OpenCV. It's available for Android, iOS, and Windows platforms. In Android, you'll need Android NDK to use it.
OpenCV itself is written in C++, and you'll need to brush up your C++ skills if you intend to write programs using the SDK. You'll be able to add a wide range of computer vision based features to your app using OpenCV. They include face recognition, eye tracking and gaze estimation, object recognition, and a lot more related to both still images and videos. OpenCV is released under the BSD license and is completely free to use.
Released by Qualcomm Technologies Inc., FastCV is another popular computer vision based SDK. It supports features like gesture recognition, face detection, tracking, and text recognition. Although FastCV can perform reasonably well on most ARM-based processors, it's specifically designed for Qualcomm Snapdragon processors. A high-end processor is needed to fully utilize FastCV's capabilities.
2.3 Augmented Reality (AR) SDKs
AR is slowly gaining traction and becoming more of a day-to-day mobile experience, thanks to some state-of-the-art SDKs and enthusiastic developer communities. Here are some of the leaders and trendsetters in the industry.
Vuforia is a widely used mobile AR platform that can support a broad range of Android, iOS, and Windows smartphones and tablets. It helps you create memorable AR experiences in mobile apps, so that those apps can stand out from the rest.
Vuforia can cater to a variety of AR use cases such as print media and magazines, toys and consumer products, boxes and product packaging, and even bottles and cans. It also supports object recognition and object tracking and enables developers to create AR and VR apps by using its Mixed Reality API. You can choose from four available pricing plans depending on your requirements.
Another serious player in the field, Wikitude combines mobile geo-location with other standard AR features. So it must be another essential tool for any aspiring developer who wants to produce really cool mobile AR apps. The SDK comes with different options for licensing, such as a one-time fee and yearly subscription-based models.
Wikitude can currently deploy to Android and iOS mobile targets. Its community is also full of seasoned developers who are ready to share their knowledge, and hence you could take a shortcut to accelerate your development efforts to full speed.
Tango is an AR SDK developed by Google. It currently supports only two specific device models, namely Asus ZenFone AR and Lenovo Phab 2 Pro. So, if you are interested in specifically developing for any of those devices, Tango is worth considering.
ARKit is the AR platform of Apple. You'll need to get Xcode 9, in which ARKit is included as part of the iOS 11 SDK. So, if you don't want to mess up with third-party tools and prefer to focus only on official Apple tools, ARKit is ideal for you.
Stay tuned to Envato Tuts+ for courses and tutorials about ARKit!
3. Hybrid Development Tools
Some novice developers are intimidated by the steep learning curve normally associated with native mobile development platforms. They might have to learn new programming languages and acquire platform-specific development skills, such as mastering the testing tools.
Hybrid development tools address this issue in a clever manner. They enable developers with web development skills to develop mobile apps—without needing platform-specific knowledge. There are many such platforms available, but we'll focus only on a few popular ones.
It's wonderful since you don't have to install Android Studio or Xcode on your development machine. And the real fun begins when you switch to native code within the React Native code editor itself. You can mix code snippets from several native platforms in the same code editor, and that makes you really powerful and versatile.
NativeScript can target Android, iOS, and even the Windows Universal Platform. Unlike Ionic, which uses Cordova's WebView for rendering the UI of the app, NativeScript uses the native platform's rendering engine, which means that it provides a truly native user experience.
PhoneGap was one of the pioneers of HTML-based hybrid mobile development frameworks. Since being acquired by Adobe in 2011, it's just gotten better and better.
The quickest way to get started is to download the PhoneGap desktop app and dive into coding. You can emulate apps in your browser, and you can also perform live testing on connected devices, using the PhoneGap Developer Mobile App. It can serve all the three popular platforms: Android, iOS, and Windows Phone.
If you encounter a problem while writing your app, there are thousands of posts and articles on the web that will help you fix the issues. PhoneGap has a thriving community of developers who are really knowledgeable and helpful.
Xamarin is another hybrid mobile development tool, but it's based on C#, instead of HTML. So, if you are coming from a Microsoft development background and want to develop cross-platform mobile apps, it's an ideal choice. You'll also need Visual Studio IDE when you develop mobile apps with Xamarin.
The availability of the right tools and the ability to use them correctly are the key success factors of mobile app development. So, when you plan to develop your next app, give these tools a try.