As a developer and college professor, I often get asked the following question: “If I want to develop mobile apps, how important is it that I learn object-oriented programming?” My initial response to this query is very straightforward: If you want to program just about anything these days, you’d better learn object-oriented programming.
I have been writing about object-oriented programming (OOP) since the early ‘90s, and the topic of how important it is has been raised in one form or another, well, since the early ‘90s. While the release of the first version of Java in January 1996 significantly increased the interest in OOP, the buzz, in fact, started even earlier than that, with Smalltalk and C++. Regardless of the context, the answer to the question posed above is always the same: Learning object-oriented programming is crucial to all modern software development—including mobile apps.
It can safely be said that the object has been the driving force in the programming industry for a very long time and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. The evidence to support this statement is pretty compelling! Today, just about every major software development methodology is based on objects. As a result, virtually all programming languages, scripting languages and application designs are object-oriented or object-based.
To back these statements up, all we have to do is take a quick look at the importance that objects play in mobile app development. This includes native apps for phones as well as hybrid apps that can be viewed on any browser (whether it is on a phone, PC, tablet, etc.). While mobile apps are the hot topic today in the software industry, they are just the latest technology in its evolution.
To demonstrate how important object-oriented programming is to mobile app development, let's explore the following questions:
- What mobile devices are the most prominent in the marketplace today?
- What programming languages are used to program these devices?
- Why has object-oriented programming become so important?
What Mobile Devices Are the Most Prominent in the Marketplace Today?
The category of mobile devices is quite broad and can include many products, such as smartphones, tablets, music players, computers, and so on. Since many of the development platforms across manufactures are similar—for example, the development environment for an Android smartphone is similar to that of an Android tablet,—we can focus in on the smartphone category to provide a good representation of mobile devices in general. So let's take a look at the distribution of the smartphone market.
One article from CNET listed the smartphone market share as follows: Apple's iOS at 51.2%, Google's Android at 44.2%, Microsoft's Windows Phone at 2.6% and Other as 2%. A bit more searching revealed that RIM's Blackberry held about 1% of the market, thus adjusting the “Other” category to 1%.
By looking at Figure 1, it is easy to see that about 95% of the market is dominated by two operating system platforms: iOS and Android. The primary difference between the two is that iOS is a propriety technology from a single manufacturer, Apple, while the Android market is a more open system with a variety of manufactures, including HTC, Samsung and Motorola. Despite the fact that the rest of the field represents less than 5% of the market, I wanted to include Windows Phone and BlackBerry in the discussion. Thus, the following four platforms—iOS, Android, Windows and Blackberry—make up approximately 99% of the consumer smartphone market.
Figure 1 Percentage Breakdown of the Smartphone Market
With this information defined, we can now explore what programming languages are used to create phone apps for each of the platforms.
What Programming Languages Are Used to Program These Devices?
This information can be displayed in short order, and does not need a lot of explanation. The list can be seen below.
Language: .NET (C#, Visual Basic)
Based on this information, we can safely make the following statements with regard to the primary programming languages used for smartphone app development: iPhone apps are developed using Objective-C, Android apps are developed using Java, Windows Phone apps are developed using C# .NET, and BlackBerry apps are developed using Java. The common thread? All of the languages listed are based on objects! So there really isn't much debate as to how important objects are to the mobile app industry.
It is not often that you can say that a single technology dominates virtually all of a specific market. However, in this case we can easily demonstrate that object-oriented programming is used in virtually all mobile app development.
Why Has Object-oriented Programming Become So Important?
It's all about the network! The rise of object-oriented programming was fueled by the emergence of the Internet as a place of business. While various flavors of object-oriented languages have been around since the 1960s, it is no accident that its widespread adoption coincided with that of the Internet.
If we consider the fact that Java, which was one of the first popular object-oriented languages, was based heavily on C++, the obvious question is why wasn't C++ used instead of Java? The answer is that Java was designed with networks in mind. Originally, in the early 1990s, Java's direct ancestor, Oak, was created as part of a smart appliances project.
The Oak development team initially attempted to use C++, but there were many features of C++ that presented limitations, including difficulty in networking. The team also wanted a language that was highly portable and included a graphical user interface. After considering extending C++, they decided to create a new language, which was named Oak. Regardless of how successful the Oak programming language might have been, the project was a bit (only a bit) ahead of its time. While the state-of-the-art in the early 1990s might not yet have been smart appliances and cable TV, something very state-of-the-art presented itself in the mid 90s: the Internet.
In 1994, Sun decided that the Internet was evolving into something that looked rather similar to the Oak team's vision of what the cable TV industry might someday look like. Oak was renamed Java, and the Java Development Kit (JDK) 1.0 was released on January 23, 1996. The rest, as they say, is history.
Because Java was originally created with many features designed for use on a network, it was a perfect match for the Internet, which was poised to experience explosive growth. Java was strategically positioned to share in this growth, and the stage was set for many other languages to emulate the features that made Java successful. Oh, and there was one other pretty important (and interesting) thing about Java — it was fully object-oriented.
The fact that Java was able to ride the wave of the Internet was partially due to the fact that HTML only presented static content to web pages. One of the cool new features that Java provided was a feature called applets. Applets provided dynamic functionality such as animation, capturing input, and a variety of controls (buttons, check boxes, etc). Java also provided a library for the creation of user interfaces (AWT) that would render on multiple platforms, which was, at the time, virtually unheard of.
Interestingly enough, the importance of Applets eventually faded as newer technologies within Java emerged (and AWT was superseded by Swing). Thus, some of the features of Java that led to its initial acceptance were somewhat quickly abandoned. However, the object-oriented nature of Java, as well as its networking capabilities, laid the foundation for the future of programming languages that fueled the Internet and, eventually, mobile devices.
Finally, perhaps the most interesting back-story in this discussion is the fact that, as often happens, the technology has come full circle. Remember that the emergence of object technology began in the early 90s with Oak and its vision of smart appliances. Also remember that this vision was well ahead of its time. So consider this: years ago the Internet was the hot development topic, and today mobile apps are the hot development topic. Perhaps tomorrow's hot topic may well be the concept of “The Internet of Things,” which is being promoted by companies such as GE and Microsoft. “The Internet of Things” refers to uniquely identifiable objects. Thus, the next generation of object development may be the realm of smart cars and smart homes, which contain smart appliances. Sound familiar?
The four major mobile device platforms — iPhone, Android, Windows and BlackBerry — use Java, .NET and Objective-C, which are all based on objects.
These four platforms make up 99% of the smartphone market, and thus an overwhelming part of the mobile marketplace. If for nothing else but dramatic effect, Figure 2 answers the question of how important object-oriented languages are to mobile development. As you can see, virtually all of the mobile app development platforms are object-oriented.
Figure 2 Breakdown of Languages Used in Mobile Development