In 2001 when the PDA market was all the rage and smartphones didn't really exist, a company called Interactive Intelligence a leader in the contact center space saw an opportunity for a development platform called Mobilite (pronounced as if you are French) which would allow developers to develop once and have applications run on any mobile device.
The idea was genius and ahead of its time so Mobilite was shelved sometime later.
I couldn't help but think of this product as I spoke with Rhomobile Founder and CEO Adam Blum who was telling me about his company's open source mobile application framework Rhodes which lets you quickly build native mobile applications for all smartphone operating systems: iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Android. Blum emphasizes that applications can take advantage of native GPS, PIM contacts and camera and that they are native, not just web applications optimized for each platform.
Another company in the space is PhoneGap and Blum explains that Rhodes focuses more on business applications while PhoneGap focuses more on consumer apps.
This graphic was chosen due to its looks and may or may not be related to the subject matter in this article -- depending on your perspective.
He went on to tell me Wikipedia rewrote their iPhone application using the Rhodes framework and used 20% of the code needed in Objective C and the resulting program also ran faster. He further went on to explain that while you may imagine his development environment is slanted heavily towards the iPhone, the reality is objective testers have shown applications run the same across all platforms.
Blum was Director of Engineering for Good Technology and explains he saw $200 million pushed into the company and as a result 200 engineers worked to get an email client on three smartphone operating systems. This lunacy (my chosen term, not his) made him decide to launch a company to stop the madness and his twelve-person company is looking to make mobile application writing more efficient.
In our conversation Blum explained that he believes it is virtually impossible to develop to more than two device operating systems beyond version 1.0 without some sort of cross-platform development application. He further explained that such an environment needs to be open-source in nature and as such his solution is completely open source.
As mentioned above there is a strong business focus here so new features are to added to the development environment with business developers in mind first.
Blum also told me his company is well-positioned in this economic environment as they are solving a pain point - one that has a high-degree of urgency. He concluded by saying, "What would you do without it?"
With that Blum and his 12-person company may have made some software development history by announcing RhoHub, perhaps the first development-as-a-service offering for mobile applications.
What are the benefits to developers? Well first of all you don't need to have a variety of development environments and disparate computers in your company in order to develop mobile applications for multiple devices. In addition, the company offers up a provisioning server and can even host the application and allow users to download the correct version based on device.
If you are developing mobile applications it is apparent you need to support the iPhone, Palm, RIM, Nokia, Android, Windows Mobile and Blum thinks Linux Mobile is going to be a contender as well soon. You obviously can't be an expert at all of these environments and you will obviously benefit from some sort of cross-platform development tool like the one his company sells.
But before you go out and trash your Mac and start developing your iPhone apps on the web, you should be aware that Apple's App Store seems to be rejecting a high number of applications which are being built on cross-platform development tools. This could have something to do with the major changes in the iPhone 3.0 OS coming soon but for now it is too soon to tell.
While it is obvious this sort of solution is necessary, we need to watch what companies like Apple and others do to existing customers of cross-platform tools before jumping in too quickly.
This entry from the company's blog may prove useful in your decision-making process.