PhoneGap Seeks to Bridge the Gap Between Mobile App Platforms


Building apps across different mobile platforms is hard and time-consuming for programmers because each platform has a complex, proprietary language. Objective-C, for example, a language used mainly to write for the iPhone, is known for being significantly different than other, more standard ones. This, especially in a tough economy, often forces small teams to make a choice about which platform they’ll build for, eventually leading to fewer choices for phone consumers and fewer places developers can offer their apps.

But the larger pool of developers out there, who know how to write for standard languages like JavaScript, CSS, and HTML (Ajax), now stand ready to blow this system wide open. They’d do it with the help of PhoneGap, an open-source app platform for which software company Nitobi took home top prize this week at the Web 2.0 conference’s LaunchPad competition. PhoneGap uses the standard web languages to allow programmers to write one code that can work on many different phones. By expanding the reach of apps to more phones, PhoneGap could give developers both a bigger audience and faster outlet on which to test the commercial viability of those apps.

The huge need for a multiple-platform service is only heightened by the recent growth in app store solutions. Just this week, BlackBerry launched its own app store, and Nokia (s nok), Palm (s palm), and Microsoft (s msft) are prepping theirs for this year. PhoneGap currently allows developers to work on the iPhone (s aapl), BlackBerry (s rimm) and Android OS (s goog), and will soon work with the others’ systems as well.

Nitobi CEO Andre Charland admitted on stage that using an easier language will not help developers build super-complex apps, like those required for some games, but noted that developers don’t need that level of complexity to build good web apps. PhoneGap actually faces a bigger problem with the growing functionality of mobile browsers, which will allow developers to just write for the web. That’s still a ways off, though.

While PhoneGap is open source, the company won’t give away the invention entirely. Charland said Nitobi plans to sell the tool to large developers through an enterprise license that would promise API stability for up to five years.

Apple, in the meantime, continues to lead the App Store buzz  because developers like its renewed emphasis on outside apps and its more robust store. But if programmers could write for three other phones while working on their iPhone app on a single platform, while other companies begin to enhance their own online stores, the specialness of the Apple App store will dissipate. Only then could developers and their apps be liberated from Apple’s grasp.

According to Nitobi developer Brian Leroux, PhoneGap has history on its side. Developers gravitate towards open source, and previous versions of ‘platform fragmentation’ have been solved by open web tech. This means that hardware makers will need to keep innovating tech specific to their product to offer a different experience. That’s a good thing.

Phone makers are tired of letting Apple take all the credit for bringing apps to the mainstream and customers want access to the apps iPhone customers currently enjoy. If PhoneGap doesn’t work, another company will go for this space to open up the app process. Google has been expected to do this with multiple phones carrying its Android OS, but 18 months since its announcement, only one G-phone has been released. That’s not nearly enough for developers chomping at the bit.