Mobility

A look at mobile app development with Alpha Software

Alpha Software allows developers to build cross-platform mobile and web business apps. Learn more about how the process works.

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How a finished app looks like using Alpha Software.
Image: Alpha Software

Last fall Boston Technology Corporation published some interesting statistics about enterprise mobility, such as "the global enterprise mobility market will be worth as much as $140 billion by 2020" and "by 2018, more than 50% of all mobile apps will be created without coding." This latter fact is particularly intriguing given the fact BTC also stated "a study of 1,000 full-time and part-time employees reveals that 43% of smartphone users and 41% of tablet users are not impressed with the corporate mobile apps they're expected to use."

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Clearly there is room for improvement in the mobile app space and opportunities to enact this improvement are growing.

"Companies are scrambling to mobilize hundreds of business processes and applications. The demand for mobile applications to speed the pace of business, is, paradoxically, slowing businesses down as they try to keep up with explosive demand for mobile apps," said Alpha Software Corporation CEO, Richard Rabins.

I recently wrote about Appmobi, a cloud service which facilitates the secure development of mobile apps. Whereas Appmobi focuses more on the management of apps, I wanted to take a look at the development process itself. And so I examined Alpha Software, which just updated their mobile development platform, called Alpha Anywhere.

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Image: Alpha Software

The app, Pumpjack Pro, was created for a utility company using Alpha Anywhere for their workers to use in the field and serves as a good example of a custom-built app which can perform critical functions needed by employees.

Alpha Anywhere handles the development and deployment of mobile apps in a timely fashion encompassing both the front and back end. Best of all, coding requirements are minimal (in fact, it's described as "optional") making it usable by developers and non-developers alike. Alpha Anywhere can access all features of a mobile device as well as capture data via a mobile optimized forms capability which facilitates creating user interfaces tuned to mobile use.

"In order to be successful, enterprise mobile apps must meet critical user requirements, including intuitive use, the ability to leverage mobile hardware device features, such as touch interaction, geo-location, video, audio, and camera, and the ability to work with large amounts of read/write data - even when working offline," said Dan Bricklin, CTO of Alpha Software. "These functions are no longer optional in enterprise mobility - they are critical requirements for mobile app development and success. Alpha Anywhere V4 was developed with the horsepower to quickly meet these requirements with little to no coding."

According to a recent press release, Alpha Anywhere V4 capabilities include:

" Mobile optimized forms made possible through the new FormView Control and enhanced Adobe® PhoneGap™ Build integration. This exclusive technology allows users to finally make replacing paper and clipboards a reality with mobile apps that can speed data capture in the field with rich media capabilities, annotation, custom keyboards made for one-handed use and context-aware data capture. In addition, each field can be enhanced with custom controls such as checklist swipes and stopwatches for speed and accuracy.

Digital ink and image annotation allowing users to capture handwritten notes, sketch and draw (with a finger, stylus or a mouse) on pictures or images, or add signatures in mobile apps.

Audio capture via a mobile device for dictating notes, equipment sounds, or recording customers' comments at field locations within mobile apps with audio recorder controls.

Seamless access to device hardware including cameras, scanners, specialized hardware add-ons, recording, GPS, and video, to give developers the capability to utilize full mobile device features for automatic or rich data capture within their business apps.

Industry-leading offline capabilities, including client-side data caching, which allows mobile app users to store large amounts of data (GB) or rich media files when they don't have a connection.

Support for OData Web Services to connect Alpha Anywhere desktop, web or mobile apps to a wide range of corporate data sources and systems of record.

Support for NoSQL (MongoDB), SQLite, and Amazon S3 Cloud Storage, giving developers the ability to leverage some of the most popular technologies in use today.

Access to web sockets for direct messaging, which allows developers to push data instantly to applications in the field, such as auction sites, instant messaging and worker location tracking.

Performance and speed enhancements that speed throughput, enable UX components to load up to five times faster, and power Ajax callbacks on large UX components up to five times faster.

Alpha Software is also set to release its first mobile optimized forms sample app for customers to quickly understand how to incorporate new features such as customized keyboards, digital ink and large media file storage into their Alpha Anywhere business apps. Thus far, Alpha Software has seen a 50 percent increase in sales this year and, with this release, the company expects this growth to continue."

In terms of how the software is used to architect apps, a variety of different components that can be assembled to create powerful browser-based apps are available. The Grid component is the most popular for quickly creating common tabular data-centric apps that connect to SQL-accessed databases using a wizard (called "genies") and dialog-driven developer environment. For mobile applications, the UX component facilitates creating multi-screen, single-page HTML5 and hybrid (PhoneGap) apps out of controls using an intuitive object-tree and property sheet interface. The UX component also provides genies and templates for specifying the visual appearance of controls and data.

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Image: Alpha Software

In addition to customization through trees of objects, property sheets, and dialog boxes, Alpha Anywhere lets the developer drop into HTML, CSS, and JavaScript on the client, and Xbasic, JavaScript (Node.js), and .Net languages on the server, for pinpoint customizations. An extensive library of predefined, dialog box-configured functions are available through its "Action Javascript" feature.

The actual coding elements underneath the app development process appear as follows:

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Image: Alpha Software

Here's another example of how a finished app appears:

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Image: Alpha Software

I spoke with Dan Bricklin, CTO of Alpha Software, regarding the background of their product.

DB: "Our goal is to make mobile apps buildable, manageable and affordable. Alpha Anywhere is for people who want to get jobs done with data in a more business-oriented area. Developing for Microsoft Access, a very popular way in the past to build business applications, is becoming obsolete; those developers, with domain knowledge and understanding of databases and data structures, now need to move to mobile."

SM: "Can you tell me about the history of the company and how the software operates?"

DB: "The company has been around a long time - back in the mid 80's when I was developing software out of my bedroom I used the popular Alpha Three database system as a customer to run my business," Dan replied. "This initially was standalone on a PC, then in the coming decades Alpha was enhanced to run on a network with other PCs and then on a server. Then, in Alpha Software's Alpha Five system, you could develop apps that operate in a server/browser environment using local and remote devices - HTML5 apps for instance. Finally, with today's Alpha Anywhere, you can also create standalone, mobile apps."

SM: "How about the software interface?"

DB: "Alpha wants to give you the headroom to do whatever you want. We don't want to say 'you can only build these things then that's it.' You can drop into code when you need to and take advantage of pre-built stuff, lots of lists, hundreds of events you can add code for, either via JavaScript on the client or in a variety of languages on the server. The output is HTML5-based and can run on all modern browsers. You can target both Android and iOS platforms as well. If you want to run offline, we've done a lot of work to make it easy to use these apps like that - they cache data, then send it back to the server when appropriate. These apps can run when you're not connected to a network because that's the way it needs to work in the real world."

SM: "Who is your target audience?"

DB: "Well, Alpha isn't aimed at people who are only comfortable building simple Excel spreadsheets, but if you are comfortable building apps through Microsoft Access, this will be a good solution; the data and user interface design should be intuitive. The target audience is people who are comfortable with apps in a development environment like Access, Excel with VBA, etc. It helps to know HTML and CSS, and even JavaScript. Forrester called it a 'low code' system. You can do most of what you need to do in a visual environment to construct your application. As opposed to 'low-code', there are also 'no-code' and 'code-centric' systems. There are systems (like Appmobi) that take the thing you've built through extensive coding and put a wrapper around it to provide certain types of security which you may or may not need. Alpha Anywhere can be used with some of them. However, for many data-capture applications, secure login and HTTPS take care of some of the transport protection, and, to be honest, in the past the data has perhaps been on paper and isn't really that secret when it comes to on-device security."

SM: "What else is unique?"

DB: "The speed of mobile app development and being able to rapidly make changes is important," he told me. "Alpha Anywhere builds both the client and the server side of an application at the same time, keeping them in sync. We've built in a lot of things that are really hard to do; for instance you can tell the app to upload a picture to Amazon S3 and then use a link to that picture instead, so the app can cache the picture on the mobile device for offline access. We've done the same thing with audio. It handles write-conflict detection and resolution when multiple users are accessing the same database, even with hierarchical data tables modified offline and then synchronized. We added a lot of stuff in version 4 - support for recording audio, and the ability to specify a sampling rate to get much more compact voice recordings."

A free trial of Alpha Anywhere V4 is available at their site.

Also see:

Appmobi: A look at a secure mobile app development platform

How startups can predict what developer tools the enterprise will use in the future

How public cloud providers are making security a non-issue for app developers

10 human factors that are critical to your app testing

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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