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While mobile computing has been on the rise for several years now, it’s only recently that solution providers in the channel have seen the emergence of mobile application development platforms (MADPs) that they could actually build a practice around.

On one hand, traditional enterprise IT stalwarts such as Oracle, IBM and SAP have been working to unify the mobile and cloud computing frameworks needed to create an MADP. At the other end of the spectrum, a host of vendors that specialize in mobile app development tools have been expanding their reach into the cloud. And just to make things all the more interesting, cloud vendors such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) are now rolling out mobile application development tools that are optimized for their specific cloud platforms.

All this activity comes at a time when organizations of all sizes are looking both to enable their existing applications for mobile devices while at the same time building apps from scratch that will be used by external customers and internal employees.

The challenge that many solution providers face is that customers don’t always initially appreciate the long-term value of a platform approach that makes it simpler and less costly to develop mobile applications over an extended period.

“Most customers are trying to solve a business problem,” said Alexander Ilg, managing director for MSC-Mobile, a solution provider that specializes in building mobile apps that integrate with backend SAP applications.”It’s not until you start working with them on the third of fourth engagement that they see the value.”

Much of that value is derived from the fact that an MADP has standard connectors to backend systems. That approach, known as backend-as-a-service (BaaS), means that a lot of the work is required to integrate a mobile app with enterprise apps running on-premise or in the cloud can be leveraged across multiple projects.

In fact, BaaS is at the crux of the battle between traditional enterprise vendors such as SAP, Oracle and IBM and relative upstarts such as Appcelerator, Kony and FeedHenry.

IBM, for example, is betting that its Bluemix cloud integration service will be a critical differentiation once its Worklight platform for developing mobile applications is able to support it. Couple that with the recent alliance between IBM and Apple, and the opportunity for IBM channel partners becomes significant, said Phil Buckellew, vice president of enterprise mobile for IBM.

“We believe this is an alliance between two companies with a great strategic fit,” Buckellew said. “We think that, together, we can replicate the success Apple has had with mobile computing on the consumer side in the enterprise.”

Partners of IBM, however, are just as appreciative of the open Worklight platform.

“Our develoeprs chose Worklight because it’s a real integrated development environment,” said Stephanie Trunzo, chief creative officer for PointSource, an IBM channel partner. “We wanted the flexibility to work across multiple programming languages.”

SAP, meanwhile, is making a major push around an SAP Mobile 3.0 platform that will leverage the SAP HANA in-memory database platform running in the cloud.

Rick Costanzo, SAP executive vice president and general manager of global mobility solutions, said the ultimate goal is to give customers all the benefits of a framework for building HTML5 style applications that can run natively on any mobile computing device.

“There shouldn’t be any need to compromise,” Costanzo said. “What a lot of people don’t always appreciate is how important it is to be able to centrally provision all those applications.”

Oracle, meanwhile, is betting that its strong base of developers in the enterprise will naturally extend their reach into the realm of mobile computing via Oracle BaaS offerings being delivered via the cloud.

“Over time, we don’t think there will be a line between mobile and traditional application development,” said Bill Pataky, vice president of product management for Oracle. “Developers are going to need a common framework for developing applications that can run anywhere.”

Emerging vendors in the MADP space, however, contend that traditional enterprise vendors are too focused on their particular BaaS environments. There’s a need for BaaS platforms; it’s just they should be able to simply integrate with any backend application using open application programming interfaces (APIs) regardless of who developed it.

“The bigger enterprise vendors don’t really touch 70 percent of the available market,” said Burley Kawasaki, senior vice president of product for Kony. “We’re seeing a lot of rapid convergence around open APIs.

In fact, Appcelerator CEO Jeff Haynie noted that the size of the developer ecosystem is just as relevant as the technology when it comes to making a platform decision.

“We already have over 600,000 developers using our tools that make up a $1 billion ecosystem,” said Haynie. “In order for something to be a true platform, there has to be a real ecosystem around it.

Regardless of the platform, the most important issue is finding how to leverage mobile computing in a way that enables IT organizations to transform business processes, FeedHenry CEO Cathal McGloin said. In the future, that may mean increasingly giving tools directly to end users to build their own mobile applications.

“It’s really about sustainable innovation,” said McGloin. “That can only happen when you give people tools that the average person can use to build an application.”

Michael Vizard has been covering IT issues in the enterprise for 25 years as an editor and columnist for publications such as InfoWorld, eWEEK, Baseline, CRN, ComputerWorld and Digital Review.