Mobile App Development Comes of Age

Mobile App Dev

The role of mobile app developer didn’t even exist as a specific job title ten years ago, but today it’s the hottest job in IT as measured by salary growth. How did mobile app development transform from “What's that?” into one of the most lucrative IT jobs in less than a decade? The iPhone was the key.


Smartphones sales were very low before Apple launched the iPhone. In fact, Gartner pegged total worldwide smartphone sales at just under 28 million in Q2 2007. This created a serious "chicken and egg" problem in the mobile app developer market: Without many phones being available and no easy way of delivering applications, few application developers or programmers were going to move to mobile development. But without an assortment of quality mobile apps there was little demand for smartphones.

The result: While it was possible to be a mobile app developer, there was little reason to become one.

The work itself was difficult because the tools for mobile app development lacked maturity. Without widespread availability of programming components and libraries, developers were forced to write custom code which stretched product timelines and increased the risk of writing in bugs.

Enter the iPhone

The iPhone’s debut in June 2007 triggered a massive smartphone buying spree. iPhone technology brought a number of improvements to the market that encouraged application development: Namely, the iTunes App Store, which finally provided developers with a revenue model. For a modest registration fee, any developer who wrote an application could put it in front of millions of people nearly instantly. With the App Store's vending machine model of low-priced, easy-to-install "apps" instead of expensive and hard-to-install “applications,” it was not unheard of for mobile app developers to put together apps in their spare time and make good money selling them, 99 cents at a time.

iOS development tools raised the bar in the mobile app developer space. Developers with Mac OS X experience felt at home using the same tools and programming models they had been using for years. Every Mac shipped with a free copy of XCode which included tools like an iOS emulator, allowing developers to jump into the iOS development pool quickly.

Android’s rise

Not too long after the iPhone unexpectedly shook up the market for smartphones, Android burst onto the scene in 2008 to gradually become the rising star of the smartphone market. The lower price of Android phones plus a lack of carrier exclusivity (which ended for Apple in 2011) allowed it to quickly gain market share. Android grew until, in 2013, 1 billion Android devices were in use. In 2015, Android held 81.5 percent of smartphone market share while iOS held just under 15 percent. Why the shift? Google took some of the best pages from Apple's playbook and made them even more usable for mobile app developers:

  • The Android SDKs and tools didn’t require an expensive Mac to be used
  • Java is the de facto language for Android development
  • Any language that runs on the Java Virtual Machine will run on Android
  • Android is open source, making it easier to tinker with the system
  • The Google Play store approves apps nearly instantly
  • Android allows much deeper access to the system

Java is a well-known language to mobile app developers, but iPhone development required learning Objective C or working with a third-party tool such as PhoneGap. A developer who was curious about becoming a mobile app developer but was shy of the financial investment to buy into the Apple ecosystem now had a way to dip his toes into the waters with no cost other than time. This made it easy for developers and IT organizations to experiment with mobile app development.

It was not until 2014 that the Google Play store surpassed the iTunes App Store in terms of total apps available. More importantly to developers, iOS users download and purchase many more apps than Android users. This disparity means that Android’s market share advantage does not translate into an uneven attraction to developers. The end result is that being an iOS developer is still a great career path.

So what does a mobile app developer need on his resume these days? Companies may be looking for candidates with:

  • A bachelor’s degree in computer science or computer engineering
  • Strong problem-solving skills
  • Experience with Android, iOS, Symbian, Windows Mobile or Windows Phone 7
  • Knowledge of Java, JSON, Objective-C, .NET and/or HTML
  • Experience coding, testing and debugging
  • Experience changing and enhancing existing applications

Mobile app developers are in high demand due to growth in the use of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, and are likely to remain in demand through next year. The Robert Half Technology IT Salary Guide predicts a 8.2 percent salary increase in starting pay for them in 2016, ranging from $115,250-$175,750. 

Looking for a new job? Check out our latest application development job openings.

Hiring managers, are you trying to hire mobile app developers or other IT jobs? Check out these hiring tips from John Reed on the topic