From technology boutiques to consultancies, your choices for mobile development services partners keep multiplying. Consider this advice from Forrester Research.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

May 18, 2012

5 Min Read

The growing volume of mobile transactions is changing the way we do business across every industry. In financial services, mobile banking is ubiquitous. In healthcare, doctors are adopting iPads in droves. In retail, offers with enticing on-the-sport deals at nearby stores are increasingly being pushed to mobile apps like Foursquare. With such fast-paced growth and rapid change, it's no surprise that companies are scrambling to keep up.

Leading organizations know that mobility helps them drive innovation and differentiate themselves against competitors, but many lack the in-house expertise to develop their own mobile apps or mobile web experiences. As a result, many firms are turning to third-party experts for design and technology know-how.

But in a market crowded with agencies, technology boutiques, multinational consultancies, offshore specialists, and telecommunications companies, selecting a mobile developer can be a challenge. Each of the key player segments gives buyers lots of choices, but there are distinct tradeoffs that must also be carefully weighed. Here are some points to keep in mind when considering a vendor.

[ Web traffic from mobile is increasing rapidly worldwide. Read more at 10% Of Web Traffic Now From Mobile Devices. ]

Agencies excel at design work and user experience. If your organization seeks highly creative, innovative mobile projects--especially for consumer apps--you might consider an agency. Examples of agencies include Chaotic Moon Studios, Cynergy, and EffectiveUI.

Technology boutiques provide focus, specialization, and nimbleness. With mobility moving so quickly and taking a high priority at many organizations, you might prefer a smaller shop where you can have attention from top executives and more flexibility in pricing and delivery than you would at larger firms that are likely more tied to corporate policy. Some leading examples of boutique mobility providers include Cantina Consulting, Virtusa, and Ci&T.

Telecos provide end-to-end device and applications management and security. Telecommunications providers like AT&T and T-Systems offer the broadest range of mobility solutions, especially in categories including device and network management. Leading telecommunications options for mobile solutions also have a strong heritage in enterprise applications and consumer applications so they can deliver an end-to-end mobility solution to customers.

Multinational consultancies, such as Accenture, CSC, and Atos, focus on driving business value. These companies have deep pockets to invest in building mobility resources (organically and inorganically), global resources, and a broad range of technology expertise. They are a strong choice for many larger-scale mobility initiatives, especially ones that require broader technology expertise that smaller firms lack, such as mobile initiatives that touch SAP or heavy analytics initiatives.

The best choice for your organization depends on your technology needs, the pricing model, and your long-term support needs. Ultimately, you should be sure to consider the following criteria:

OS and device know-how. The mobility market is still shaking out: Find out what each firm specializes in. Some service providers have built up more expertise in specific pockets; for example, Android, iOS, RIM, or Windows Phone. You may want to seek a partner with broad expertise, particularly if your organization has a bring-your-own mobile device policy or if you're looking to enable a consumer mobility play that is cross-device.

Breadth of services. Strength of vendors in the mobile service market varies widely, with some offering primarily design and development work and others focusing on device and network management services. It's important to evaluate your organization's own internal strengths and decide where you actually need third-party expertise--as well as how many providers you want to work with--so you can decide how broad a range of services you seek from a single third-party provider.

Pricing model. Many vendors offer pricing models for mobile application development that are based on time and materials; many have fixed-fee pricing. But more innovative pricing models are also starting to emerge. For example, firms like Chaotic Moon Studios are putting skin the game through outcome-based pricing models in which they charge a lower fee for application development and reap payment later when the application proves financially successful.

Cultural fit. The landscape of mobile services providers is a mix of creative artists, business-focused management consultants, and technology-obsessed programming geeks. What kind of partner(s) will fit with your organization's style? Some projects might do best with a formal, methodology-driven partner such as Accenture or Deloitte, whereas others might want a more creative "T-shirt-and-jeans" approach (although they might need to be willing to accept certain office formalities).

As noted in Forrester's recent research, the mobile app market is moving quickly and represents substantial value creation. Boutique services firms like Chaotic Moon Studios have appeared in just the past few years and have already built a roster of A-list clients. But today's small, nimble providers are also likely acquisition targets since larger consultancies want to quickly add capabilities. Prime examples include Deloitte's acquisition of Ubermind in early 2012 and's decision to bring in ModelMetrics with its strong line of Cloud2Go mobile products in late 2011.

The bottom line: Expect a market shakeout, and buy services accordingly. Buyers should insist on an exit clause (good practice in any case) with smaller boutique services firms, especially ones they are signing for longer deals or ongoing support work. Be sure to keep close tabs on existing strategic partners and revisit capabilities at least once per year. Every major service provider has identified mobility as a key investment area, and all are building up capabilities. Most are doing so organically. But acquisitions can quickly change the leaders in this space, especially when factors such as preferred devices, technology capabilities, and requisite programming languages are changing so quickly.

Liz Herbert is a Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, serving Sourcing and Vendor Management Professionals. She will be speaking at Forrester's upcoming Sourcing and Vendor Management Forum, May 24-25, in Las Vegas, NV.

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