Mobile development requires 1990s skills

Programmers offer advice for startups at Unlimited Potential forum

The shift from web-based applications to mobile as a dominant medium takes startup developers back 10 to 20 years, to a much lower-level and more complex environment, say developers convened to swap ideas at a meeting of Wellington forum Unlimited Potential.

The language used for iOS forces developers to think again about detail such as pointers and reference-checking, says Dan Khan, program developer at the Lightning Labs startup accelerator.

These are concepts unfamiliar to young developers who are used to agreed standards and readily available and mature tools of the web, he says.

For Melissa Clark-Reynolds, CEO of game company Minimonos, the lack of common standards is also reminiscent of the 1990s.

“As developers swapped floppies in and out of the primitive PCs of the time, they debated the merits of WordPerfect; versus Microsoft Word. We’ll be having those arguments again,” she told the meeting. “Should we bother with the Samsung; how much would Nokia have to pay me to put it on a Lumia?”

The environment is made more strenuous by the broad expectations of the market and applications have to be “cross-browser, cross-mobile, cross operating system; the expectations are to have that from day one,” Kahn says. “An interesting skillset for next generation getting into startups.”

Some of these environments will rise to the top, then they die,” says Clark-Reynolds. Any of the environments may survive or may not. If Android is to be among the survivors, it will have to become less handset-dependent, she reflects.

“My advice to anyone getting into this space; pick something. If Microsoft pay you enough to develop for Windows 8, take the bribe. If you pick one, you’ll still have to have the skills to switch to something else.”

Mobile development wasn’t meant to be easy, Kahn says “If it is easy, there will be someone in a cheap-labour country that will do it for less than you. Embrace the difficulty, because that’s where the opportunities are.”

A number of myths were attacked, such as that of a thriving Kiwi game industry. There are “isolated examples” of local entrepreneurialism like Sidhe Interactive, Clark-Reynolds says, but “most people in the NZ games industry are working for hire for international companies.”

Even when those companies licence some Kiwi intellectual property they still pay the developers as employees, she says.

The consumer apps market is oversupplied by comparison with the under-exploited corporate market, the developers suggest. Education is another area where New Zealand has an acknowledged lead and where, Clark-Reynolds says, there are a lot of investors’ funds available.

Speakers said the role of the entrepreneurial founder with a brilliant idea is overrated.

“My advice to someone who wants to start a high-growth company is to work for a high-growth company first; there are plenty that want to hire,” said Brock Abernethy, lead mobile designer at Xero.

“Internationally it’s been shown that it isn’t ideas that make a good startup,” says Clark-Reynolds; “it’s shit-hot teams who really know a market and that market has a problem that needs solving. If someone comes to me with a brilliant idea, I do my best to pour cold water on it. The most likely path to failure is a [single] brilliant idea.”

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