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July 17, 2013

Rise of the Mega SDK Vendors in Mobile
byPanos PapadopoulosinTools


Many would argue that the mobile platform consolidation in the form of today’s Apple / Google duopoly is a good thing for developers; less choice, but two mature platforms and a billion-smartphones addressable market. Despite the platform consolidation, developers face real challenges not just in developing, but also in prototyping, designing, marketing, selling and supporting apps.

The quality bar for apps is increasing; apps need to incorporate more functionality in a slicker UI, a sexier package (graphical assets and messaging), as well as through the right marketing channels and at the right price, which is usually free-to-try. App consumers are demanding, expecting utility, convenience and easy of use – all at a low or free price point with monetization shifting from paid downloads to advertising and in-app purchases. Enterprise apps have to talk to legacy systems, be an effective part of a company’s business strategy, enhance brand image, while being secure, reliable and cost efficient to develop and maintain.

To support the community of 500,000+ mobile developers globally, a new “SDK economy” has emerged to cater to the needs of mobile developers. A storm of over 500 SDK startups and Enterprise IT incumbents, have emerged since 2009 to help developers in everything from app prototyping and debugging, to user analytics, planning tools, and customer support. These days developers can choose from a gazillion tools to monetize their apps, test, monitor app performance, manage security, study user behaviour, cross-promote apps to attract & engage users, and manage API use and simplify use of cloud services.

Today most of the supporting infrastructure for app developers resides, within 3rd party developer tools, rather than within the platform itself. This SDK economy has become the critical infrastructure underneath the app economy.

Growth and consolidation in the SDK economy

The SDK economy has seen an impressive amount of growth and consolidation in the last 4 years. It’s also an economy that’s intensely suffering in terms of monetisation.

The very first SDKs or tools for mobile developers were App store analytics (tracking sales & downloads) from the likes of Distimo and App Annie. Then came ad networks (mobile-centric like AdMob, acquired by Google), later followed by web ad networks expanding to in-app advertising, with ad networks and servers now in abundant supply. Cross platform tools followed soon after, helping develop apps for more platforms, from a single code base. Led by PhoneGap and Appcelerator, the supply of CPTs has exceeded 50 vendors, practically making this area of the tools economy a red ocean.

Looking for investment opportunities, VCs began investing in the companies that support Enterprise and Consumer mobile app development. The VC capital created value but it also changed developer perceptions of value, by forcing tool vendors to offer base products for free. It also led to a string of acquisitions (see below), as covered in VisionMobile’s Developer Economics Q1 2013 report.

Table: Mergers and Acquisitions in Mobile Developer Tools

Company Product & type Acquired by Date
Aptana Development environment Appcelerator Jan-11
Metismo Bedrock Java-to-native source code translator Software AG May-11
TapJS Game hosting platform and API AppMobi Jun-11
TapLynx App factory Push IO Jun-11
RhoMobile Rhodes enterprise apps framework Motorola Solutions Jul-11
Particle Code HTML development tools Appcelerator Oct-11
Nitobi Makers of PhoneGap Adobe Oct-11
Strobe Web app framework and app management platform Facebook Nov-11
Usergrid Backend-as-a-Service Apigee Jan-12
Cocoafish Post-download app services Appcelerator Feb-12
Worklight Enterprise app platform IBM Feb-12
Chomp App store search and discovery Apple Feb-12
TestFlight Beta testing Burstly Mar-12
Trestle Back-end-as-a-service Flurry Jul-12
Appstatics App performance trackingservice Appsfire Jul-12
Instaops User analytics Apigee Aug-12
Cabana A tool to turn Facebook pages to mobile apps Twitter Oct-12
Nodeable Big data processing Appcelerator Nov-12
Crashlytics Mobile crash reporting Twitter Jan-13
Wavii Natural Language Processing Google April-13
Parse Mobile Backend as a Service Facebook April-13
Handmark/ OneLouder App Store & Mobile app advertising platform Sprint Nextel May-13
Proxomo Software Mobile backend technology Lucent Mobile May-13
Appshed Cross platform tool & App Factory IDG Group May-13
IrisCouch Mobile Backend as a Service Nodejitsu May-13
Aepona API exposure and monetization platform Intel May-13
Mashery API management and monetization Intel May-13
Staq Game management platform PlayHaven May-13

There are three reasons behind the consolidation of the SDK economy:

  1. Capital changing the perception of value. VC capital allowed tool vendors to offer developer products for free to accelerate user acquisition.
  2. The need to subsidise developer onboarding. Developers are always the side of a mobile platform that Apple, Google, Microsoft or BlackBerry will need to subsidise. As a result platform-provided tools will be usually free and 3rd party tools will be prime acquisition targets for platforms themselves.
  3. Catering to adjacent developer needs. There are substantial benefits to developers by integrating functionality across tools (e.g. ad networks with user analytics or crash reporting with performance management), which inevitably leads to acquisitions on tools that are adjacent in the developer journey. Catering to adjacent developer needs also helps tool vendors attract and, most importantly, retain their user base.

Who stands to survive and win in this ongoing consolidation of the SDK economy? As is already evident from the earlier M&A list, consolidation will become clustered around where developer money is flowing into: App Marketing Services & Enterprise Mobile Services.

App Marketing Services

Mobile Advertising is expected to be a 20B market by 2015. Traditional ad networks have already ported their existing products – banner advertising – over to mobile in the form of in-app advertising. This model doesn’t work well yet in mobile and is a factor in why traditional ad networks are not yet profitable.

One VC backed company, Flurry, followed a completely different path to capture app marketing revenue. Flurry recognized developers would first worry about the challenges of developing their app(s) and then worry about monetization. Flurry offered developers a host of tools (many of them free) to develop and track their app usage, built a relationship of trust with their developers, emerged as a leader in the mobile services market, and then launched a range of products that will help developers monetize their apps.

Flurry considered the developer journey and built a spectrum of solutions to engage developers from the beginning to the end of that journey:

  • Analytics: a free service to measure actual use of the application
  • AppCloud (free): a back-end as a service
  • AppSpot: helping developers monetise, once an app has achieved traction
  • AppCircle: where developers can re-engage, promote and reach out to more users

Flurry is capturing the lucrative app monetization dollars because VC funding gave them a head start. With strategic acquisitions like TrestleApp (a backend service startup that helps developers minimise backend coding) and giving away their analytics for free, Flurry is building the first true mobile, data driven (Big Data) ad network.

Other companies are understanding this formula and making a play for App Marketing Services. Burst.ly acquired TestFlight earlier this year in a bid to become the vertical solution that covers all developers’ needs. Similarly, Facebook wanted to reinforce its relationship with developers and did so by acquiring Parse, a BaaS service. This acquisition reflects a growing trend where non-mobile companies see developers as platforms rather than customers, and developer tools as routes for customer acquisition, rather than feature enhancement.

Enterprise Mobile Services

Enterprise IT needs are different from consumer app needs. In enterprise apps, companies are less concerned with advertising or virtual good purchases and care more about security, stability, predictability and scaling down costs of mobile development and maintenance. Enterprise apps take performance, security and systems integration much more seriously than virality, direct monetization and high engagement.

So which mobile tools do enterprises need? User analytics, app performance analytics, crash reporting, integration with existing business logic (connectors with SAP, Oracle, IBM), identity management, data security, and own app store distribution, to name a few.

In enterprise IT, the incumbent back-end systems players like SAP, IBM and Oracle have been in the space for years and are very well positioned to ride the enterprise mobility wave. They stand as a formidable wall, deterring smaller vendors from entering the enterprise mobility market because they “own” the back-end and related ecosystems (including solution providers and integrators) within the largest companies. Mobilising those “owned” back-ends by 3rd parties is expensive because of the licensing schemes imposed by the incumbent back-end vendors.

At the same time, a wave of smaller, more nimble vendors is making a play at enterprise mobility. Appcelerator, after failing to effectively monetize their cross-platform tools, is now making a vertical stack play, much like Amazon AWS, for mobile. They help developers of any platform access traditional services, such as user management, object persistence, push notifications and analytics via API calls to their cloud services or on-premise installations of their suite. Apigee announced a new product aiming at Mobile, offering user analytics, performance management, crash reporting and network analytics. All of these players clearly want to offer much more than a product that focuses on a tiny vertical or niche market. On the server side, there are tools like Splunk, which give insights into how an app is performing, identify bottlenecks and discover patterns. These tools don’t exist yet in Mobile, and big players, like New Relic, just entered this space. At the same time, the back-end incumbents are strengthening their mobile play. IBM has laid out a mobile strategy that wants to bring in Mobile as part of a more traditional IT strategy. The recent acquisition of Tealeaf aims at helping traditional business better understand and analyze their mobile audiences.

Consolidation is already playing out within enterprise mobile services.

As the mobile market heats up, we agree that consolidation will likely result, as larger vendors look to shore up their mobile service offerings. Operational tools, especially those that deliver critical capabilities for monitoring the performance of mobile platforms and the web infrastructures upon which they rely, will become a strategic area of focus in this process. At the end of the day, any vendor who wishes to emerge as a key player in this arena must effectively monitor the whole application environment – transactions, mobile devices, network response, real user experiences, application servers, database connections and more.
— Jim Gochee, SVP Products, New Relic

Tool vendors who stick to single functionality – be it prototyping or internationalisation or customer support – will become either niche players with a small but profitable market segment or zombie companies, surviving with minimal profitability and, given the Series A crunch, they will drive consolidation to new heights in 2013.

The rise of the Mega SDKs

The consolidation of the SDK economy will continue to accelerate leading to the rise of the Mega SDKs, along the two clusters:

  1. App Marketing Services
    Winners will be those who build developer trust with end-to-end app development support, monetizing all channels that can maximise revenues or reach (e.g. ad networks, cross-promo networks, user analytics).
  2. Enterprise Mobile Services
    Winners will be those helping developers write across more screens, manage more users, and better understand users (e.g. cross-platform tools, BaaS, app performance management, API management).

Competition in the marketing tools will force companies to offer more and more for free, making it difficult for smaller startups to compete with the breadth of tools and the scale of companies like Flurry and Facebook. In the enterprise IT world, we should expect new titans to emerge or incumbents like IBM to enter and become the Amazon Web Services of mobile.


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