Backend as a Service (BaaS) speeds up mobile app development, improves scalability and reduces the need for server-side code, proponents say. An alternative to mobile middleware, BaaS uses the cloud to connect back-end data to the front end of mobile apps. The approach is new, but some industry viewers say the space is growing rapidly: Analyst group MarketsandMarkets predicts that the BaaS market will be worth $7.7 billion by 2017.
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Others say that 2013 will be a "shakeout" year for BaaS startups, shrinking the vendor pool. "Some BaaS vendors will flame out, and some will be the target of acquisitions by big cloud vendors," said Miko Matsumura, senior vice president of developer relations at Kii Corp., a Silicon Valley-based BaaS provider. Either way, BaaS continues to gain attention from both enterprise and nonenterprise developers. BaaS users today run the gamut, from developers of game apps to mobile social networks to mass transit apps.
In this Q&A, Ty Amell, CEO of StackMob, a BaaS vendor first launched in 2010, discusses the future of BaaS and its uses, as well as top trends in mobile development. He sheds light on the HTML5-native debate and explains what BaaS means for the role of the mobile app developer.
What's the state of the BaaS market heading into 2013?
There's a lot of competition now. It's a hot space [and won't] slow down too much in 2013. Some people [predict] some consolidation. There might be with the smaller players. There are a bunch of BaaS players who have raised seed money and might have trouble raising the next round. I don't see any of the big players going away. It's too exciting and too much fun right now.
It's not just the early adopters anymore. We saw this with the PaaS [Platform as a Service] space: All of the sudden, it was mainstream. Now we [see] it with BaaS. Enterprises, agencies and brands are starting to figure out what their API and mobile strategies are. They're afraid of missing the boat -- like they did with the Web back in 1999.
Do you view BaaS as changing the roles of mobile app developers?
I don't think it's shifting their roles; I think it's enabling them. We're in this 'Internet of Things.' Devices are extremely powerful, but a lot of apps haven't quite caught up to them. We expect a lot of innovation on the app side, and I think BaaS can enable developers to concentrate on the interesting things they can do there. They don't have to worry about scaling out the back end or what their data source will be. They can concentrate on the UI/UX.
The next wave of applications is probably [going to have them all] talk to each other. We're moving into a world where we interface with applications in more humanized ways -- through motions and biometrics and those kinds of things. If developers don't have to worry about the back end for that, and they don't have to worry about scaling that out, then they can spend more of their time being creative on the app side.
What are some common BaaS use cases?
Early on, [Backend as a Service] started out with iOS games. Those monetize on indie developers, so you see a lot of use cases around that. We've also started to get into large corporations that have silos -- maybe they have five or six departments that are fairly siloed and all building mobile apps. They're trying to figure out how to manage these applications, get them out the door and have a centralized place where these mobile applications are built. That's another big use case we're seeing.
What are some features offered by StackMob's BaaS, and what are they used for?
One is a business feature: our core API. It's free, so developers don't have to worry about how many API calls they make or how many users they have. They're not penalized for being successful. We charge for the modules they can add from our marketplace, and that's how we make money. One of our popular modules is custom code. … It runs on JVM so you can do very interesting things.
We've had people write genetic engines on our custom code; we've had people write real-time game-playing. [For example], if you get on this rock-paper-scissors app, you can find a random opponent to play in real time, and then it goes back and forth. That's all done through custom code. Enterprises can connect back to old app systems [using the custom code]. It gives them flexibility so they're not tied to what StackMob is building, and they're not reliant on us. If we don't have a feature that they want, they can build it themselves.
Another feature that's big with our larger enterprise customers is API versions. You can run multiple versions of your production API concurrently. What that means is, if you're making a change to your API that's going to break all of your legacy applications, you just roll out a new version and keep your old version up and running to support your legacy applications. Then, you can use analytics to view traffic on that [old API version] and, when it eventually gets down close to zero, you can shut it down.
From your vantage point as a BaaS vendor, what is the current state of the Web vs. native debate?
[At StackMob] we support both native and HTML5. A lot of our customers are going native, some are going hybrid. They're really using HTML5 more for dashboards and interfaces for the actual applications. If they're creating content around it -- or they want to pull out special analytics from their database or expose information to executives -- that's where we see a lot of HTML5.
I do think that HTML5 eventually will win. I don't think it's going to be this year, but it will probably be within the next two years.
Why do you think BaaS is gaining traction now?
It's no longer 'Web first' or 'mobile first' -- it's now 'API first.' We're in this Internet of Things, where you just want every new device to have a simple, lightweight user interface. You're battling against all of these applications and all of these devices. You don't need to worry about the back end. You don't need to worry about what services are out there. [BaaS] offers ongoing maintenance, making sure servers are scaling, making sure they're healthy and the best of cloud services.
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