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AWS mobile portfolio approaches critical mass

Amazon Web Services has slowly built a compelling portfolio of mobile app dev and management tools, and now the company is poised to shake up the market.

A cloud behemoth has cast its shadow over the mobile app development market and put competitors -- not to mention potential customers -- on notice.

There are plenty of tools for organizations to choose from, but Amazon Web Services (AWS) is banking on the popularity of its infrastructure services and a new mobile backend as a service (MBaaS) product to attract customers. The moves come as mobile app development becomes more critical to businesses, said analyst Jack Gold, principal and founder of J. Gold Associates.

"It's not a niche market anymore like it was four or five years ago," Gold said. "Everyone expects a mobile component, and if you don't have it, you're in trouble, especially if you're a consumer-facing entity."

Amazon is approaching a critical mass of AWS mobile offerings, said Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC.

"There is no doubt that AWS is pushing hard to be a one-stop shop for all mobile cloud needs," he said.

AWS mobile products overview

Some of the tools that make up Amazon's mobile platform are dedicated to mobile, and others are general-purpose offerings that IT and developers can also use for desktop Web apps.

These products include Amazon Cognito for identity management and user data synchronization, Simple Notification Service (SNS) for push notifications, Device Farm for app testing, Mobile Analytics, Simple Storage Service (S3), CloudFront for content delivery, the DynamoDB database platform and more.

Amazon also provides the AWS Mobile software development kit (SDK) and APIs to help developers access its back-end services. Some developers prefer to access back-end infrastructure directly from their apps through SDKs, which provide libraries, code samples and documentation for Apple iOS, Google Android and Amazon Fire OS apps, as well as support for additional development tools. But other developers wanted a simplified interface that brings together all these services.

For that reason, AWS launched its Mobile Hub, an integrated console for developing mobile apps against its back-end services, in 2015. Mobile Hub walks developers through feature selection and configuration and then provisions the required AWS services by generating a "quick start" application. Developers can use that as a foundation for a new app, or they can cut and paste snippets of code into an app separately. Generally available as of February 2016, Mobile Hub comes with no additional charges, and neither do AWS Mobile SDKs. Customers pay for the underlying services they use.

AWS Mobile Hub's 'end-to-end' gaps

Mobile Hub is just the beginning of Amazon's typical disruption of an existing market, a pattern the company has become famous for. As infrastructure as a service and traditional cloud computing platforms become commoditized, Amazon will have to do a new repackaging of services to uphold its differentiation in the market, and that's where Mobile Hub comes in by simplifying the development process and offering a unified interface into the underlying AWS services a mobile developer needs, said James Young, CTO at VidRoll, an advertising technology firm in Santa Monica, Calif.

"They're trying to figure out where the new value-add is going to be, where they can capture and retain customers," Young said.

Amazon's work to curate its services for mobile app developers is far from done. Some options are not part of the console yet, such as support for the Unity and Xamarin mobile development platforms. (Microsoft acquired Xamarin shortly after Mobile Hub became generally available.) In such cases, developers can use the Amazon Mobile SDK to fill in the gaps in Mobile Hub apps.

Everyone expects a mobile component, and if you don't have it, you're in trouble, especially if you're a consumer-facing entity.
Jack GoldJ. Gold Associates

Not every feature of the underlying services is available through Mobile Hub yet, either. For example, Cognito supports end user logins through Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Digits and Google Plus, as well as support for unauthenticated users. But for any logins other than through Facebook and Google Plus, developers must configure them through the SDK rather than the Mobile Hub console.

Mobile Hub doesn't match up against more robust products such as those from Kony, Adobe PhoneGap and Appcelerator, which offer front-end app development tools in addition to mobile back-end services, said Kurt Marko, technology analyst at MarkoInsights in Boise, Idaho.

To measure up, Mobile Hub needs to strengthen its ties with integrated development environments (IDE) that are included with those tools. Cloud competitors Microsoft and Google have already done this kind of integration work in their Visual Studio and Android Studio tools, respectively. With Mobile Hub, there's still a fair amount of do-it-yourself involved, Marko said.

"When you're talking about most mobile back ends, it's intimately tied to the client side," Marko said. "[With] most AWS apps … there isn't much of a client piece."

Amazon could overcome this limitation through acquisitions or partnerships in the near future, he added.

Amazon infrastructure could win out

Amazon's well-established infrastructure will remain its biggest competitive advantage as it enters the mobility market, said David Linthicum, senior vice president at Cloud Technology Partners, a consulting firm and cloud software provider.

"If you're sold on Amazon, it's certainly going to be the platform of choice," he said.

Independent attempts to establish mobile back ends have not always been successful. The poster child is Facebook's Parse, which abruptly shut down just as AWS brought Mobile Hub to market. Companies are looking to make hay from Parse's demise, but with a million customers already operating on its infrastructure, AWS may offer the path of least resistance for displaced Parse users.

One such shop is Jobvite, a talent acquisition software maker based in San Mateo, Calif. Last year, as Jobvite looked to create its first mobile app, it evaluated Amazon's SNS for mobile push notifications because it had already standardized on the AWS Elastic Compute Cloud for many other services.

"Strategically, it would've been nice to go with SNS," said Daniel Lipkin, director of engineering at Jobvite.

Still, Parse had a leg up with its monitoring dashboard, where IT administrators and developers could drill down into details of events, and other features, Lipkin said. When Parse shut down -- just as Jobvite's mobile app was about to go into beta testing -- Mobile Hub's general availability was timely. Lipkin was able to easily pluck out SNS code generated within Mobile Hub and drop it into an application, he said.

"Amazon did a good job of planning for [that] scenario," he added. "I imagine there are probably a lot of other people in my boat who are now looking at this as a Parse alternative."

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer in TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Follow her on Twitter: @PariseauTT.

This article originally appeared in the April issue of the Modern Mobility e-zine.

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