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The state of mobile development: Deep linking + containerization + IoT

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Phil Simon, Speaker/Author, PhilSimon.com

This is the second of three articles on the state of mobile development.

There's no shortage of hype around app development these days. Even experts have a difficult time keeping up with every trend. Predicting which trends will stick is an exercise in futility, a point that I've made many times. I can't make this prediction, but it's likely that mobile app development will increasingly incorporate the following three trends, at least for the foreseeable future.

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1. Deep linking enables context-sensitive searches, results

Deep linking creates a sort of web that connects a myriad of standalone apps. A developer could link a website, an app on your phone, and a specific page within an operating system. The possibilities are limitless, and developers are taking notice.

As Ilya Gelfenbeyn writes, more and more apps are integrating deep linking. The benefits include improved app navigability, user convenience, and superior search. Via deep linking, the new Android M and iOS 9.0 provide context-sensitive searches and results. That's right: users will now be able to ask their devices about what they're viewing. For example, let's say you're listening to a Skrillex song on Android and you ask your phone, "What is his real name?" Your Android or Nexus will know that you're asking for Skrillex's real name. (In case you're curious, it's Sonny John Moore).

Apple is developing similar deep linking mobile technology with Proactive and Siri. These will be front and center in the upcoming incarnation of iOS. Apple wants to facilitate search through the apps installed on the device rather than on the web. (Why let Google make even more money?)

iOS has always provided some method of deep linking into an app via URL schemes. (You may even briefly see a URL with the words deep link before being redirected somewhere else.) This means an app can register with the OS a URL such as "facebook://." Put simply, the OS knows to open the Facebook app if a user clicks on that link from either a website on the mobile device or via an app.

With the release of iOS 9, expected in fall 2015, Apple will offer the ability to search third-party app content. In other words, search will get much smarter. Let's say you're searching for Geddy Lee, lead singer and bassist of my favorite band, Rush. When you type his name, iOS wouldn't just present basic search results. Instead, "simple" and public results will be intermixed with web content, contacts on your phone, and any information sorted in Facebook, if you've installed the app.

This feature also allows apps to link in a much deeper way. New and improved APIs will let users search for and find information currently contained, or "trapped," in third-party apps. Unlike today, with a simple tap, users will be able to go directly to the link and content in that app. Users will be more connected to third-party apps than ever before.

Development is improving, but it can always get better. "Still, there is some web hackery that makes things magic and the user experience [UX] leaves something to be desired," says Ben Lamm, cofounder and CEO of Chaotic Moon Studios, a mobile software design and development shop. "We are still a ways away from seamless development. Apple's new on-device search/deep linking API is going to change the game. Phones are going to be magical."

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2. Containerization is becoming the standard

The Open Container Project may not seem sexy, but trust me, it's a big deal—why else would Microsoft and a bevy of tech companies agree on it? Microsoft, Google, Amazon, HP, IBM, Intel, Red Hat, and VMware are all in. (Try getting these companies to agree on anything else.)

Docker is a fantastic piece of technology. It's not an overstatement to say that it's revolutionizing application deployment on many platforms, including Microsoft Azure. There's a reason Docker has become the latest member of the unicorn club. However, it has yet to make serious inroads into the mobile world.

"Containerization is Docker's version of virtualization," says Lamm. "It's the same concept of what virtual machines [VMs] used to do: it provides the opportunity to quickly create developer environments. It makes it easier to attract new developers. They can jump right in without having to download any dependencies that a device might need. It makes it easier for developers to get up and running and involved on a project. Finally and most important, it allows for multiple people working on a team to work in the same environment. That is, there's no discrepancy that causes conflict. It removes the variation in development."

The benefits of preserving all the tools and elements of development environments in one place are hard to overstate.

3. IoT: The hype is starting to become a reality

Hype aside, IoT is a big deal—and plenty of companies are going all in. Aside from tech's usual suspects, behemoths like GE, IBM, and Cisco are betting billions of dollars on it. The timing of these companies' big bets is propitious, as home automation is picking up. Devices such as the Nest thermostat and Dropcam (both Google properties now) are the harbingers of things to come. And let's not forget new devices such as the Amazon Echo, which supplants the screen with a human voice as the primary user interface.

It's not difficult to imagine being able to control your oven with your iPhone. Novelties aside, a truly connected home remains a vision of the future. For the IoT to blossom, large companies need to work together to create a common standard that allows devices, appliances, and everyday objects to seamlessly talk to each other. Developers can only do so much with disparate tech. Unfortunately, the Open Container Project is still the exception that proves the rule.

On the developer front, Apple recently introduced HomeKit, "a framework for communicating with and controlling connected accessories in a user's home." For its part, Google has launched Brillo, its "development platform for the Internet of Things."

This brings us to wearables as it relates to the IoT. Yes, they're exploding. (Fitbit shares surged following its IPO.) Still, there's an IoT angle here as well as a huge opportunity. Think about the different Android Wear devices. We're in an age in which all your valuable information and data can be stored on watch. In the future, it's easy to see things like brick-and-mortar door locks and hotel keys becoming a thing of the past.

IoT will become a reality, but we're not there quite yet.

Next: Where we go from here

This post has examined some of the key trends driving mobile development. In the final installment of the series, I'll provide some guidance on where to go from here, as well as some careful predictions.

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