What Is a Mobile App Development Tool

These days, all you ever hear about is mobile apps. The consumer world has been there, done that with standard websites and online offerings. The new competitive standard for every business in almost every industry centers around a great app with a clean UX. So, if you’re reading this, then you’re probably one among the many in the market for your very own, brand spanking new mobile app. It’s also not a stretch to guess you’re thinking something along the lines of: where do I even begin?

If you’re on the hunt for some of the best (and cheapest!) mobile app development tools, call off your canines because the search ends here. We’ve put together a very-special edition of A Guide to Mobile App Development Tools: Picking the Right Tool. Free tools, cost-effective and the more expensive ones: we’ve covered, discussed and reviewed it all, in order to best help you along this important decision-making process.

Why Mobile Phone App Development Tools Are Important

First, we probably need to address the question: why is mobile app development significant? The answer lies in the single most important influencer to the success of your business: the customer. Ask any big-time entrepreneur, from the legendary Steve Jobs, to one of the world’s richest men Elon Musk, to Rootstrap’s very own founder of two award-winning startups, Ben Lee. They’ll all tell you the same thing: understanding and satisfying the end-user is what it’s all about.

Now that we’ve clarified the biggest driver of your business-making decisions, we can talk about why mobile phone app development tools are important.

Mobile phone app development tools save two concepts that we all want more of: time and money. Especially in such a competitive space, mobile app development can take loads of your time and cost ungodly amounts (check out our blog post that breaks down the Hidden Costs of Mobile App Development here). What mobile app development tools can do is nearly revolutionary, but the emphasis needs to be on the using the right ones.

Fundamentally, mobile phone app development tools are important because they save us time and money so that we can funnel both back into ensuring customer satisfaction. All positives. But there are so many tools out there it can make your head spin! So, how should you go about selecting the right one – cost and all?

How Much Do Mobile App Development Tools Cost

Any app development comes with a requirement for investment – make no mistake about it.

However, overall price necessary to make your own app will depend on a few central aspects. We like to break it down to four central areas: type, design, features, and platform(s). It is also worth considering that cost will be relatively dependent on the general complexity of your app.

Types of Mobile Apps

New to the world of app development? Some speedy definitions clarifying the three core types of apps to look out for below:

  • Native: This means the app can only be, “native,” to one type of operating platform (iOS, Android, etc.).
  • Web: A web app is a specific kind that only works on web browsers – it targets mobile devices, and also works on PC’s.
  • Hybrid: An app that is a mixture of the native and web, this means it is compatible with all platforms.

As for a brief estimate of the breakdown of costs per type of app – well this ranges, heavily.

There are some fantastic free developer tools out there. More realistically however, you will need to pay per developer seat or a flat fee for a license. This can range anywhere from $10 per month to $5000, depending on those four project areas we just talked about: type, design, features, and platform(s).

The Best Mobile App Development Tools: Depends on the Need

At this point, we’ve covered the basics, so you should have a pretty good idea about what type of app you’re preparing to build, and around how much of a price tag your prospective app will carry. Next up: evaluating and assessing the best mobile app developments tools out there.

Like the heading gives away, it depends on the need. Is your app going to be a native, web or hybrid app? Will the complexity be pretty high, with many features, or more minimal functions? What about the front-end design and graphics requirement? Cross-platform deployment or singular? iOS, Android, Blackberry, etc.?

So many good questions! Before deciding on the need, it’s probably a good idea to review the many variants of tools for mobile app development.

What Are Open Source Mobile App Development Tools

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “open source,” pop up in development conversation every now and again. If you’re not familiar with open source mobile app development tools, these are more or less tools that give developers a fast track to mobile app success.

Traditionally defined as, “open source tools are software tools that are freely available without a license,” these tools allow developers the freedom to all sorts of programming and projects.

Remember our point a while back about saving time and money? Yeah, open source mobile app development tools are awesome for that. Any company that optimizes for these is one that is on its way to a speedier, more cost-effective app solution.

You’ve probably also heard the expression, “nothing in life is free.” While open source mobile app development tools are “free,” by definition, there is always a hitch: they can sometimes be difficult to use, and in many cases can lack in certain areas, like speed or efficiency.

What Are Hybrid Mobile App Development Tools

We defined hybrid apps briefly earlier on, but here’s a quick refresher: hybrid development essentially combines native and web app development into one product. Built with JavaScript & HTML5, it’s a web app that provides accessibility to native platform features. While this may sound like an obvious choice for any developer, there are some sneaky downsides to this combination of app types:

  • Speed: It’s just not as fast as a native app. Period.
  • Price: Seems a bit obvious, but a hybrid is more expensive because you’re working with both native and web functionality.
  • Interactivity: Native apps win again. Thanks to the web app functionality, hybrid apps are less interactive.
  • Customization: There’s not as much playing room as a native app due to the web app mix. So, if you’re seeking customization, this may be worth considering.

On the other hand, hybrid mobile development apps do offer some noteworthy pro’s:

  • Web technology: HTML5, CSS & JavaScript make this an easy build.
  • Pricing: Comparatively speaking, it is cheaper than the native app. Cheaper can be nicer for those smaller businesses.
  • No browser: Although it is web based, you don’t need a browser, which makes for a cleaner UX for end users.
  • Speed: While it may not be as fast as the native app itself, hybrids are a lot faster to develop. This probably has something to do with the overall ease of the build. For those in a time-crunch, that should count for something!

Hybrid mobile app development tools? Check. Onto the next type of tool.

What Are Rapid Mobile App Development Tools

Don’t have much coding experience? RMAD, or Rapid Mobile App Development tools, are around just for you. Generally speaking, these are tools that allow for a developer to create a basic mobile application, with little to no programming knowledge.

Like its name suggests, RMAD combines a code-free or low-code programming experience (oh, the delicious irony!) with speed of build. What the tool does is make the app development process as hassle-free and speedy as possible.

Sounds like a dream, right? For basic apps, with limited feature functionality and design, it certainly can be.

Why Java Mobile App Development Tools Are Still Around

A pretty common question is posed above: why are java mobile app developments tools still around? There’s a relatively obvious answer – Java is a sophisticated programming language that is at the core of Android apps.

It all comes back to system and community; JavaScript still dominates the technology space and is widely considered the most popular programming language in the world today.

What Are Specialized Mobile Gaming App Development Tools

Another genre of mobile app development goes towards specialized mobile gaming apps. The specialized comes from the creation of, “niche,” apps that are directed towards a target audience, meaning higher engagement with end users.

Going back to why we even create mobile apps in the first place (the customer and their happiness), this is a pretty smart space to get into if your product allows for it. It is also revenue-growing, which is a massive plus. A $90 billion industry, gaming apps are easily one of the most downloaded apps in the app space. We wrote more about the rise of the mobile app phenomenon here.

Good examples of specialized mobile gaming apps would have to be brands like ESPN and Yahoo – these guys all offer brand apps but also, “niche,” apps that are specific for their consumers.

ESPN, for example, has a variety of diverse apps: fantasy football and live video among these.  Another case would be Yahoo’s apps for target groups of consumers, focusing largely on topics like the weather, finance and sports. Also, worthwhile highlighting is that both ESPN and Yahoo offer their apps on a variety of platforms, from iOS to Google Play.

What to Look for When Picking Between Top Mobile App Development Tools

You made it! We’ve defined the main types of mobile apps and tools out there. Finally, it’s time to start with our top recommendations.

What are the top things to look for while you’re surveying all of the top mobile app development tools out there? We probably can’t say this enough, but it all depends on your end-goal.

We like to look at it as a mix of price, function and output.

Mobile App Development Tools Review: Our Criteria

To help you select the most relevant tools, we developed a scoring system based on these measurement factors:

  • Price: We’ll rank and compare pricing per tool. Here overall affordability of the tool will influence the final mobile app development tool score.
  • Function: Assessing type of platforms, features, flexibility and usability, this part of the scoring system has more to do with the overall tool experience.
  • Output: The final component of the mobile app development tool scoring system is all about the end product. Here we’ll review some of the brands each tool has worked with, and report on things like reviews by other developers, as well as design.
  • Our ranking is: Based on all of these criteria, we’ll assign an overall grade.

Based on the above, we’ll rank the tool on a typical grading scale (A+ to F) and tell you which developer tool we would suggest.

Reviewing Some Mobile App Development Tools That Are Open Source

Free and open to the public are just brilliant words to hear in just about any business. Here are a few detailed reviews of some popular open source mobile app development tools:

Eclipse

A registered not-for-profit, Eclipse offers a developer environment for both, “collaboration and innovation.”

  • Pricing: Free!
  • Function: Java, C++/C and PHP developers can use Eclipse to develop mobile apps. Rated as very fast for programming, the tool has also been critiqued for slow executions and compilations. Memory consumption has also been negatively reviewed. 
  • Output: As their a not-for-profit, Eclipse doesn’t have customers. But what it does have is an expansive network of working groups, and communities encouraging developer collaboration.  
  • Our ranking: B-

For what it’s worth, Eclipse is great. It seems to be common however that users struggle with the tool’s speed and memory.  

Notepad ++

  • Pricing: Open source, so free. Very free. Free is our friend. 
  • Function: Pro’s include strong features, fully customizable user interface, great community that works to resolve tool bugs and further develop the tool, lots and lots of plugins to choose from (manual install however). But this is an open-source tool, so you’ve got to expect some con’s, too. Many developers like to comment on Notepad++’s outdated design, plug-in management, and occasional issues with execution speed.
  • Output: No customers since this tool is free, but it is steadily rated as one of top open-source tools in the past few years.
  • Our ranking: A-

All the plug-ins available – uncommon for an open source – make this a top choice.

Js

  • Pricing: Free as a bird! Just can’t get tired of saying it.
  • Function: Developers love Node. Of all the most reviewed systems, this one sticks out because of the sheer adoration. It’s almost overwhelming! The tool is designed to build scalable network applications. The consensus seems to be that for advanced Java developers, Node.js is the best in the open-source game. 
  • Output: Armed with the largest eco-system of open-source libraries in the world, Node.js has attracted some of the highest-profile companies. From Netflix to LinkedIn to Uber, Node.js is their primary application. 
  • Our ranking: A+

The win for open-source tools goes to Node.js, based solely off of the positive reviews surrounding the tool.

Reviewing Some Cross-Platform Mobile App Development Tools

We did some heavy research of our own, mixed with a bit of asking around, in order to handpick some of the strongest cross-platform mobile app development tools to recommend to you. Our top choices include:

Xamarin 

A fan-favorite amongst developers of all kinds, Xamarin is consistently rated as the, “best choice for native applications.” You’ll probably hear Xamarin come up often in conversation in the development space, simply because it’s just that good. Mainly it is used to build C# apps for systems such as Android, iOS, and Windows.

  • Pricing: Top marks to the team at Microsoft because through them you can access the free editions of Microsoft products Xamarin and Visual Studio, together which allows you to build and deliver native cross-platform apps. If you have the means to invest in their professional editions, those are individually quoted.
  • Function: This app development tool has killer reviews, and for a reason. Aligning with the multi-functionality that is Microsoft’s very brand, Xamarin encompasses all: mobile apps, web apps, desktop platforms and cloud-based services. From a developer perspective, it is also supremely easy to use and deploy with.
  • Output: Bigger brands that have used Xamarin include but are not limited to: Kellogg’s, Jaguar, Subaru and EasyJet. Not only that, but the sleek integrated development environment allows for multiple programming languages, including HTML, JavaScript, CSS, C, C++, C++/CLI, VB.NET, C# and F#, among others. Where do we sign up?!
  • Our ranking: A+

Not much else to say except Xamarin is the cross-platform mobile app development tool to beat.

Adobe PhoneGap

 This nifty app allows you to make an app which works on all mobile devices. That’s a clear win. It also makes for a pretty fast app development process. Adobe PhoneGap works effectively on CSS3, JavaScript, and HTML5, which the tool promises to compile for you.

  • Pricing: Adobe offers a free plan; however it only allows you to build one app and does not include any plug-ins for the development. The paid plan goes for $9.99 a month & upwards.
    • Side note: it allows for unlimited open-source apps to be developed (but they must be pulled from a public GitHub).
  • Function: Working across all platforms, Adobe Phone Gap’s biggest appeal is the tool’s emphasis on time-saving builds. It has a Hydration feature which supposedly quickens deployment cycles, and of course, you only need to code once & then upload your assets into Adobe’s Build cloud service. It also drives appeal because of its library of Cordova plugins (which again, you do need to get on the paid plan to access).
  • Output: Surprisingly, it is quite hard to find the brands associated with the tool on its website. The larger names attached to Adobe PhoneGap appear to be Logitech, mobile FX & CodeChops, but the testimonials aren’t easy to find. Overall reviews by developers online do demonstrate that this tool is equal in terms of praise to Xamarin, and there just isn’t a clear winner between the two.
  • Our ranking: A-

Comparatively speaking, Xamarin offers a stronger developer experience to PhoneGap, thanks to online rave reviews which applaud the Microsoft tool’s ease of build and also the more appealing price plan (free is better in our book!).

Salesforce Lightning

Easily one of the most comprehensive business CRM’s in the world, it probably shouldn’t surprise you that Salesforce offers a development console. Recommended for any level developer, Salesforce Lighting can achieve basic mobile app setup, in a low-code environment.

  • Pricing: Pricing here for the open source software is included in the overall CRM pricing, which is dependent on a personalized quote Salesforce determines based on size of your business, number of user profiles necessary, and functionality. If you’re a smaller start-up however, the quote will be reasonable, ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $4k.
  • Function: Salesforce Mobile SDK’s allow for native and hybrid app accessibility and give the developer flexibility to design to an acceptable level standard. It also allows for cross-platform hybrid, native and HTML5 development.
  • Output: Adidas, AWS, (RED), T Mobile, YETI, US Bank, Canon…the list of Salesforce Lightning customers is endless. The final product is also impressive (albeit pretty standard design-wise).
  • Our ranking is: C+

Comparatively speaking, Xamarin and Adobe PhoneGap blow Salesforce Lightning out of the water. Just saying. Still a nifty tool, though.

Reviewing Some Rapid Mobile App Development Tools

We did the same for RMAD tools, just for your reading (and selecting) pleasure:

  1. io

The tool’s website describes it as a way to, “create hybrid apps that behave like native but use common APIs that run consistently across iOS and Android devices.”

  • Pricing: Paid editions only, you can choose from one of three tiers, ranging from $60 to $135 a month, or upwards, depending on how enterprise your quote is.
  • Function: Fast and simple is how most developers have rated this particular app. Appery.io builds hybrid mobile apps via its cloud platform. Ideal for iOS and Android platforms, Appery.io also promises a cross-platform developing experience.
  • Appery.io nails the RMAD space for programmers of all levels, from beginner to advanced. It is ideal for HTML5, Apache Cordova, jQuery Mobile, JavaScript, Bootstrap, and Angular JS. Users can create native Android, iOS, and Windows Phone apps.
  • Output: AT&T, ESPN, Samsung, and McKesson are some of Appery.io’s largest users.
  • Our ranking: B+

Simple. Easy to learn. Appery.io dominates the space for coders of all levels.

  1. MobileSmith 

More recently, MobileSmith has done a bit of rebranding towards their newer target audience: branded hospital apps. However, even if you’re not in the healthcare industry, this tool can work for you – it was created for usage by any individual looking to build a native app with zero coding. It uses AppBlock to give you the ability to use, “reusable code,” essentially meaning someone with limited programming experience can use them to build a native app.

  • Pricing: Another one of the brands that determines price based on consultation and scope of proposed project, the pricing structure varies. However, a bit of digging around revealed that it’s been reported to be a minimum of $1000 a month, which seems hefty.
  • Function: Custom consumer and enterprise apps offered, MobileSmith is also fully native for iOS and Android mobile devices. It also allows you to import code, integrate data or set up authentication, which is a positive when it comes to code-free app development.
  • Output: MobileSmith offers pretty appealing templates, but also allows for flexibility of your own design. This is another plus. Automatic operating system updates are done for you, too. One of bigger names, the business has won 25 mobile awards (although again, most of these are in the health-care app market).
  • Our ranking: C-

While the function and output are strong, the pricing detracts. MobileSmith is also very targeted towards health-care mobile apps, making it obvious that they have moved on from the easy mobile app development tools space.

  1. Appcelerator

For a faster mobile app development time, Appcelerator is a strong choice. It also stands out because it gives you the option of fewer lines of code!

  • Pricing: From free to $99 a month to enterprise quoting, this platform offers editions based on what you need.
  • Function: This developer environment offers App Designer and App Preview, which in combination allows for you to quickly build an app using their drag and drop pre-code feature, and then beta test the final product. You also have the option on Appcelerator to write in JavaScript if you prefer, and purchase of the product gives you access to analytics assessments (a nice feature for measuring app performance & lifecycle visibility post-launch).
  • Output: Appcelerator big enterprise brands onboard like Pulse, Virgin, Zipcar, USA Swimming and Bed Bath & Beyond. It also ranks in top ten RMAD app reviews across multiple developer forums.
  • Our ranking: A+

RMAD app development at its finest.

Reviewing Some Java Mobile App Development Tools

Lover of all things JavaScript? We wanted to check out the top java mobile app development tools, in order to give a pretty rounded out review of some of the top tools. Here’s what we found:

  1. Codename One

A tool specifically for Java or Kotlin languages, Codename One produces mobile native app development.

  • Pricing: They offer a free edition, which also has a limit on build credits. For paid plans you can pay anywhere from $19 to $399 a month (per developer seat).
  • Function: Great for Java developers, Codename One allows for a single code base to build native mobile OS applications. The base system seems to be open-source, but the build system actually requires servers which they limit for free users. A great thing the product does is in-depth compare their tool to other leading development environments. Reviews are strong, but many developers complain about Codename One’s graphics and visual themes.
  • Output: Brands that have used Codename One aren’t advertised on the product’s site, but it does display all of the press the tool has received since its early 2013 launch.
  • Our ranking: B-

The development tool does come up often when searching for top tools, however, with the compliments comes quite a bit of user critique.

  1. JavaFX

Under the umbrella product of Oracle, integrated cloud applications & platform services, sits JavaFX. This tool is specifically targeted towards enterprise client applications.

  • Pricing: The good news – it is completely free.
  • Function: It offers a string of features and functions, including Java APIs, seamless integration into Swing apps, high-performance graphics, embedding of web content, improved UI library, as well as a shortened development time and easier deployment. Feature heavy, what JavaFX doesn’t offer though is a clean user experience – it is clear from the website the tool is highly outdated and not user-friendly.
  • Output: As JavaFX sits under Oracle, the brand has massive partners like investment mogul Tecom Group and China Eastern Airlines, among thousands of other businesses worldwide.
  • Our ranking: C-

The development community seems unified in the front that JavaFX is no longer leading the way for java mobile development tools.

  1. NativeScript

A Java app developer, this is a great tool if you’re looking to make a mobile app. Not only does it use JavaScript, it also allows for building using Angular and TypeScript. Plus, this tool is free and open sourced.

  • Pricing: Free and open-sourced, people. Free. Love it.
  • Function: Cross-platform apps, this tool allows for unlimited iOS and android applications, a native UI, hundreds of plug-ins to improve your app and most of all is magnificently easy to use.
  • Output: Who’s used NativeScript? Verizon. Deloitte Digital. ADP. Capital One. Thomson Reuters. Southwest. The Lottery Online. Teradata. The list goes on.
  • Our score: A+

A clear favorite amongst Java developers and quality brands, NativeScript is our top recommendation for java mobile app development.

Reviewing Some Mobile Game App Development Tools

Like we mentioned before, mobile game apps are a hot space. Quite frankly, the demand outweighs the supply.

We took a look at some of the highest rated mobile game app development tools, for developers by developers:

  1. Fusion 2.5

This is one of the more popular tools for beginning developers. So, if you fall in the beginner boat, Fusion 2.5 is worth a look.

Here’s a quick breakdown of cost, function, and output:

  • Pricing: Free or paid plan availability. Massive plus if you’re just testing to find the best tool for you.
  • Function: Time is a big advantage here; you can create a full mobile game app in as little as an hour. Worth mentioning here though that a big drawback is flexibility of customization; as you’d imagine, the database has a library of set graphics to use for the design. It is also limited to 2D graphics only.
  • Output: Function 2.5 is pretty easy to use, and if you invest in the paid edition, you’ll get what you paid for – a very speedy game development tool that produces a clean 2D experience.
  • Our ranking: B-

While obviously a limited tool, it works well for what it’s intended for.

  1. Marmalade

Unlike Fusion 2.5, this is by no means a tool for beginners. However, Marmalade is a tool consistently preferred by most mobile app developers. The development environment offers various types of systems all under one flat-fee: Marmalade SDK is advertized as an, “advanced, cross-platform tool,” on its website, and includes use of Marmalade Juice (“recompiles iOS games for Android,”) & Marmalade Quick (“rapid 2D development).

Here’s a quick breakdown of cost, function and output:

  • Pricing: One simple downside: there’s no free edition available. Marmalade offers a flat-fee bridging license of $600, however what you’re purchasing is a one-time cost for permanent use. Not bad.
  • Function: A cross platform tool, it is supported on everything from iOS, Android, Windows Desktop, Windows Phone 8, Windows Store, Tizen, Blackberry, Mac OS X, & connected TV platforms. Marmalade SDK is a development kit and game engine, so what you’re getting is speed and lots of flexibility in what you can create. It allows for production of both 2D and 3D games. Native, hybrid or web app games – your choice. This tool offers all.
  • Output: This is a pretty popular tool used among advanced mobile app developers, and a big part of the draw is that it supports easy iOS transporting to Android systems.
  • Our ranking: A-

Only reason it doesn’t get a perfect score has to do with the lack of a free edition.

  1. Unity

If you type, “most popular mobile game development tools,” in your web browser, you are almost guaranteed to instantly come across Unity. Arguably the most popular tool in the lucrative industry that is mobile game development, Unity3D is one of the top developer choices for game creation.

  • Pricing: Free edition or paid, Unity offers a span of editions to fit your mobile game app development tool needs. Even if you’re looking to invest in the commercial paid edition, the cost is not steep. $35 or $125 a month will get you the paid license, which adds up to a yearly payment of either $420 to $1500. Relatively affordable comparing to what other mobile app development tools online usually ask for.
  • Function: Now the beauty of Unity lies in what it can do. Another cross-platform mobile app development tool, you can create the game and use it on any platform of your choice. Deemed very easy to navigate, Unity also offers something a lot of other tools lack: a fantastic help system and community. This goes a long way in the top mobile app development tools space.
  • Output: Some top games created by Unity are Temple Run, Angry Birds 2 and Tiger Woods the PGA Tour 2: The Masters, amongst countless other popular games you know and probably love.
  • Our ranking: A+

In our opinion, Unity ticks all of the boxes of mobile game app development tools.

Pick the Best Tool for You 

Whether you end up going for a snazzy mobile development tool or taking the app plunge alongside a team of talented developers and creative specialists, we hope these recommendations helped you in making the best choice for your brand.

And if you’re looking for help from a professional app development agency, Rootstrap is happy to assist. We’ve built mobile apps, games, and digital products of all kinds for clients big and small, and our Roadmapping service is a great place to start if you’re still in the idea phase.

Want to get started? Drop us a line. We don’t bite, and we’re always happy to have a quick chat with an ambitious entrepreneur.

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