Review: 7 great mobile app builders

Alpha Anywhere, AnyPresence, and Salesforce1 lead a rich field of low-code mobile development tools

smartphone mobile apps
Credit: Shutterstock

Over the last six months, I’ve been examining and testing a variety of mobile app builders and mobile back ends. In some cases, the app builders and back ends were part of a single product. In other cases, the app builders or back ends stood on their own.

In this roundup, I’ll summarize seven products that are at least partially a mobile app builder. Some have IDEs that run locally on your computer; others give you a Web IDE that lives in the cloud. Some are aimed at enterprise development, others at individual developers or even students.

As we’ll see, they can have almost any level of complexity for the developer, ranging from drag-and-drop simple like EachScape, NSB/AppStudio, and Salesforce1, to providing an API for the developer to code against in Xcode or Eclipse, which is the way Appcelerator supports native SDK developers.

They can target mobile Web, mobile hybrid, or native apps for Android, iOS, and occasionally some of the less popular mobile device platforms, such as Windows Phone. They may integrate with one or more mobile security products. For instance, AnyPresence makes it easy to secure your app with Apperian.

They may be tied to an MBaaS (mobile back end as a service) platform or not. They may or may not be able to consume and modify data from systems of record. If they can, they may require the developer to write a RESTful interface, or they may take care of the connection themselves.

They might reduce the work required to support offline mobile operation with offline/online data synchronization and conflict resolution to checking a few boxes on a form, like Alpha Anywhere, or hand you a box of parts and an assembly diagram with pictures and instructions in Swedish -- sorry, that’s Ikea, but you know what I mean. In between those extremes, they may supply a framework that does part of the work, but leave out the rest and expect you to fill it in with code and forms.

If they support HTML5 apps, they might or might not support your favorite JavaScript framework. If they target native or hybrid apps, they might have their own online app building services, integrate with PhoneGap Build, or rely on you to build apps with the native SDKs on your development box.

They may be priced anywhere from $99 per developer to “low six figures per company per year.” In most cases, I’ve found the prices to be appropriate and the value to be good for the right audience, but a student can’t benefit from an enterprise-level app builder and MBaaS any more than an enterprise developer could get by with a simple app builder with no integration capabilities.

In short, the scope and complexity of these seven products vary widely, and no single product is ideal for everyone. With that in mind, I’ll try to emphasize what sort of developers and designers are most likely to enjoy and be productive with each app builder. Different strokes ...

Alpha Anywhere

Alpha Anywhere is a database-oriented rapid development tool that allows developers and designers to create Web and hybrid mobile apps that work offline. It allows less-experienced developers to create sophisticated apps with a combination of configurable components, visual design tools, code-generation “genies,” and a small amount of coding in Xbasic or JavaScript.

The Alpha Anywhere IDE runs on Windows. The tool targets iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and other mobile and desktop clients with HTML5-compliant Web browsers.

Alpha Five was a Web and desktop application development tool with an application and Web server, a PDF report generator, and strong support for dozens of SQL and desktop databases. Alpha Five in turn grew out of Alpha Four, which was an easy-to-use dBase clone.

Alpha Anywhere is an extension of Alpha Five that brings mobile Web and hybrid mobile app development to Alpha Five’s bag of tricks, including the recent addition of support for offline operation, offline-online data synchronization, and intelligent data conflict resolution. The folks at Alpha Software have thought through most of the cases a mobile device might encounter in the field -- trying to consume, modify, and generate server data with unreliable network connectivity -- and have reduced the choices you need to make as a developer to a matter of checking a few boxes.

alpha anywhere mobile ux controls

To design a mobile UI with Alpha Anywhere, you typically drag panels, containers, and controls onto the tree view of a UX component, and set the properties of each element. This methodology is rapid, although not quite as intuitive as a WYSIWYG designer. You can see a working or live preview at any time, and you can see it simultaneously with the designer if you have enough screen space. The server-side Xbasic of an Alpha Web or mobile component generates HTML5 and JavaScript for rendering by a browser.

On the downside, the Alpha IDE and application server currently run only on Windows; Alpha’s application server is proprietary; Alpha lacks a scalable cloud service; and Alpha lacks native mobile client support. Mitigating factors for the lack of native iOS and Android code generation are integration with PhoneGap, and the fact that the Alpha Anywhere mobile components and controls have been crafted to look and feel native.

Overall, I rate Alpha Anywhere very good as a Web, mobile Web, and mobile hybrid development system. The IDE is powerful and easy to use, although it has so many features that it’s easy to forget where to find the one you need. The capabilities and integrations are very good.

Alpha has its own JavaScript client framework, which includes support for jQuery, but not for some newer frameworks such as Angular and Backbone. On the other hand, Alpha’s templating language has a distinctly Angular feel to it, and you can’t really complain about the framework when the system generates almost all of the code for you.

Companies that want to create mobile apps that use SQL and REST data sources will benefit from Alpha Anywhere, especially if ease of development and short time to market are important factors. Alpha’s strong support for offline mobile operation, offline-online data synchronization, and intelligent data conflict resolution helps it to stand out in a world where those important issues are too often ignored.

InfoWorld Editor's Choice


Both online mobile app builder and back-end service, AnyPresence combines broad client support, useful code generation, and a rich set of options for data storage and enterprise integration. While I originally rated AnyPresence using the criteria of the MBaaS category (with a 9.1 and an Editor’s Choice), it is also an excellent app builder.

AnyPresence builds apps, back-end services, and API gateways. It has an online designer that not only generates back-end and mobile app code, but also customized mobile API code. All of the generated code can be downloaded, edited, and run on compatible platforms. To cite one of AnyPresence’s favorite customer examples, MasterCard has used AnyPresence to enable partners to easily build mobile apps against MasterCard's Open API services.

AnyPresence generates App UIs (or starter kits, if you wish) for jQuery, Android (XML layout), and iOS (Storyboard), and it generates App SDKs for Java, Android, HTML5, Windows Phone, Xamarin, and iOS. It generates back-end servers for Ruby on Rails and Node.js. The AnyPresence environment can generate deployments to Heroku (usually for a back end), to Amazon S3 (usually for HTML5 apps), and to native iOS and Android apps with or without Apperian security.

anypresence generate app build

AnyPresence's app build selection screen. Note the wide assortment of SDKs that can be generated, and the small assortment of prototype app UIs that can be generated. 

The AnyPresence design environment lives online and runs in most browsers. In addition to the interface designer, it has a dashboard; a settings screen; screens to create and monitor environments, deployments, and builds; screens to generate and deploy apps, back ends, and SDKs; screens to add and manage data sources and data objects; screens for authorization, roles, and authentication strategy; screens for stock and custom extensions; and a customizable set of themes.

I found the selection of data sources to be good and the implementation of the provided MongoDB data store to be on par with that of other MBaaS systems. What sets AnyPresence apart is the way the data model integrates throughout the design environment and into all the generated code. The only other app builder that comes close is Alpha Anywhere, which uses SQL databases for its back-end data store.

AnyPresence lacks its own monitoring service, but integrates with third-party services such as Airbrake and New Relic. AnyPresence pricing is high compared to many of its competitors, but offers more value for enterprises that need to integrate their existing systems with mobile applications. It is especially valuable for enterprises that wish to expose their APIs to partners who can in turn use them in their own mobile applications.

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