Backend-as-a-Service Shootout (the best alternatives to Parse?)

Using a Backend-as-a-Service (BaaS) can reduce development cost and time-to-market. It’s a simple way of getting a highly scalable backend solution without significant upfront investment. This avoids the technical risks of having to scale your own service to meet demand as your user base grows; in a world where an app that hits the store top charts might gain more than a million new users before you complete your next iteration of development this is worthy of serious consideration. In most cases the tradeoff is giving up control of your backend. This tradeoff was brought into the spotlight recently when the most popular BaaS, Parse, was acquired by Facebook. This created a predominantly negative reaction from developers who went from buying a service from a neutral party to hosting their backend with someone many already distrust that has an interest in mining their app data. So, if you’re looking for a BaaS for new project but don’t want to share your data with Facebook, or want to migrate away from Parse, where do you go? Our last survey asked developers using BaaS offerings to rate their primary tool against a range of criteria – the results could highlight some attractive alternatives.

Splitting out the 8 tools which had more than 10 ratings each, the “other” category is still almost 25% of responses and includes a further 11 tools that developers had selected as their primary BaaS. Our own sector page lists 43 vendors at the time of writing, suggesting that the sector is still very fragmented and likely to see consolidation in future.

BaaS Shootout

Some popular BaaS options tied to other tools

Parse was by far the most popular with almost 2.5 times as many responses as Appcelerator’s Cloud Service as the next most popular. Appcelerator’s service is fairly heavily tied to their popular Cross-platform tool (CPT) much like the Sencha offering, which had a very similar number of responses. However, while Sencha’s BaaS had the highest developer satisfaction in our survey, Appcelerator’s was the lowest of the top eight. This situation is the same as the satisfaction levels for the corresponding CPTs. While may look attractive on developer ratings, adopting it implies using (at least some of) the Sencha libraries for cross-platform web development too – although this tool scored highly on cross-platform availability (the web works everywhere) there are no native SDKs.

Applicasa switched focus

Just behind for developer satisfaction was Applicasa. However, while our survey was running Applicasa were in the middle of a mini-pivot from a generic BaaS to a “Mobile Game Management Platform”, having recognised that the generic BaaS sector was exceptionally crowded. They haven’t yet come out of beta or announced pricing, although this is likely to reflect their value-adding services for game developers. If you’re looking for a BaaS offering with extra functionality for mobile games then Applicasa may be worth a look.

Open source or specialised

Behind Applicasa comes Parse, closely followed by Deployd and CloudMine. Deployd does not yet have a production hosting solution, so it’s currently just an open source project that you host your own instance of on Heroku or Amazon. That’s also an advantage in that you can modify the code and you’ll always control your own data. Another open source BaaS option like this, Helios, was recently launched by Heroku themselves. If you can take on responsibility for some of the maintenance of the backend in order to maintain control of your backend code and data then this kind of open source option is very attractive. CloudMine on the other hand is focussing on larger corporate clients – they’re targeting enterprises and agencies producing lots of apps. Like Applicasa, they’re specialising to target what they see as a more profitable niche and trying to avoid mass market generic BaaS competition.

Further acquisitions likely – select with care

The remaining popular BaaS options in our survey scored below the average for “others” on developer satisfaction. However, just by looking at the top handful we can see some trends for the still immature sector emerging. The generic BaaS space is all about scale. The remaining vendors fighting for this market are likely to get acquired by a larger company, or run out of cash trying to compete. It was implied that there were multiple parties interested in acquiring Parse who are presumably still in the market for a similar solution. If the acquiror of your chosen BaaS is a PaaS vendor then the service should continue to evolve and developers’ data remain private. The large PaaS vendors are likely to build or buy a more complete BaaS solution – we already see this with Helios and Windows Azure Mobile Services. Other companies interested in buying a BaaS vendor might want to integrate with their own analytics (as with Flurry buying Trestle) or other developer services, secure a key supplier or just get a closer relationship with mobile developers. There may also be large enterprises that snap up a small BaaS vendor for their own internal use. Other BaaS vendors will specialise towards specific developer segments.

If, like most developers, you’re still experimenting in the market and not yet building your own services with a long term view then a BaaS that’s specialised to your app category might be a great option. For those looking to select a common backend architecture that they’ll re-use across multiple products, or platform to build on top of for the longer term, the open source frameworks look like the safest option in the current market.


Usage Analytics Shootout

Usage Analytics tools help developers understand their users and the way they interact with their apps. Measuring app usage in this way and using the data to help target improvements to the app can significantly improve revenues. We’ve already highlighted the duopoly in this tools sector, with Google and Flurry dominating. Our survey showed that 74% of developers made use of Google Analytics while 41% used Flurry. Clearly there’s some overlap here with developers using both and in fact less than 7.5% of developers who use this type of tool don’t use either Google or Flurry at all. However, lots of developers work on apps across multiple platforms for multiple clients and they may not always be able to use their first choice analytics tool. We asked developers to rate their primary analytics tool across a range of criteria. This data tells us which are developers’ first choice tools and how they compare.

Analytics Shootout


[box type=”alert”]The infogram service is currently experiencing some technical difficulties. We’ll bring back the interactive chart asap. In the meanwhile, you an find the filtered results mentioned in the article here.[/box]

Looking at all responses for developers primary tools Google and Flurry still dominate the market with Flurry slightly closer to Google and more than twice as popular as all of the other vendors combined. All of the tools show very high levels of developer satisfaction with Google slightly ahead overall. Outside of the top five selection criteria the only areas where other tools show significant advantages over Google or Flurry are custom views of the data and real-time analytics. If you have requirements on those areas it may be worth looking at the competition in more detail but for everyone else we can focus on the shootout between the top two.

Google beats Flurry in a head to head comparison

To try to get a more accurate comparison between Google & Flurry we filtered the data down to those developers who use both tools (and possibly others as well) such that they were in a position to make a direct comparison. This produces some interesting results; first, amongst developers that use both, Flurry is the primary tool for a majority of developers (53.1% vs 39.4%); second, on average, developers that use both tools rate Google higher on every single selection criteria, sometimes significantly so. The ratings gap between the two tools is magnified if we weight the criteria by the relative importance developers assigned in the survey. For the most important criteria, ease of integration, Flurry scores higher than Google when all responses are considered but the result is reversed when looking at only those who can make a direct comparison.

The future?

It seems Google has a slightly better tool but Flurry is still holding onto a majority of the developers that have tried both. The explanation for this slightly conflicting result appears to be that Flurry established itself as a leader in iOS analytics early and there is higher adoption of analytics amongst iOS developers in general. So, while Google’s analytics product may have the edge, it’s not sufficiently superior to justify switching for most existing users. Android ports or web apps may use Google analytics but the iOS app sticks with Flurry. This suggests that unless Flurry can improve their offering we may see their market share decline in future surveys as more developers adopt usage analytics. Given developer’s emphasis on ease of integration, the most likely disruption of the duopoly in this market would be an integrated offering – usage analytics combined with crash analytics and maybe also marketing analytics (install/referral tracking) in a single SDK.


Cross-Platform Tools Shootout

The “write once, run anywhere” concept may be pure fantasy for most apps but sharing code across platforms is desirable and in some cases essential to making projects economically viable. With the application frameworks for all the biggest platforms being in different languages, the market for Cross-Platform Tools (CPTs) to enable code reuse is understandably the largest one (in terms of number of competing solutions) we track. The time required to evaluate all of them is far beyond what most developers can afford to spend on such research. So, which tools are the best?

Balancing mindshare with developer ratings

In our last developer survey we asked CPT users to tell us what they considered most important when choosing a CPT and also to rate their primary tool (some developers use several) across multiple criteria. Because that report was primarily about tools, several of the CPT vendors promoted the survey to their developers. Although we try to weight responses resulting from different promotions to attempt to remove this sampling bias in our statistics, it’s not possible to eliminate it entirely from the relative popularity of the tools themselves. As such, although the developer mindshare is a useful indicator of quality tools, we shouldn’t trust that alone. Amongst the most popular tools, it turns out that CPT users are generally very happy with their choices.

The average score out of 5 for all of the tools with more than 30 sets of developer ratings is close to 4 and weighting that by the relative importance of each aspect increases the average for all of the tools except Qt.

Compare with care

[tweetable]It’s important to be careful when comparing scores for individual tools[/tweetable], since they may reflect the typical backgrounds and expectations of developers using them rather than some absolute rating. For example, Sencha scored 4.08 for “Native UI look and feel” despite having pure HTML5/JS/CSS components while Appcelerator only scored 3.86 here despite binding JavaScript logic to actual native components! Haxe (pronounced Hex) also shows a couple of issues like this. It’s a relatively unknown code translation tool which seems primarily targeted at former Flash developers, although by no means limited to that audience. Since the Haxe language can be compiled to most of the major programming languages it scores very highly on “Availability across platforms”. However, it’s important to note that unless developers want to build their own application framework from scratch or integrate with one in the target language manually they’ll also need NME, which does support a very wide range of platforms but not as many as some other CPTs. NME’s feature set is fairly gaming oriented, with access to further native APIs via native extensions, much the same as most of the other CPTs – there’s certainly not sufficient additional API coverage built-in to justify the increased score. Clearly it’s important to make a more thorough evaluation of tools before making a selection, even so, lots of satisfied developers can be a good indication of an interesting tool to evaluate.

And the winners are…

Using the weighted average score as our benchmark, overall Haxe came out as a clear winner in developer satisfaction. Second place went to Sencha, which seems to come out top on almost all metrics (except popularity) amongst general purpose web-centric CPTs. A very close third was RunRev’s LiveCode, which has recently gone open source with a dual-licensing model. None of these top 3 tools by developer satisfaction have more than 12% mindshare amongst CPT users, let alone the wider developer population. They all cover mobile and desktop platforms and between them cater to most tastes – there’s a strictly typed language (Haxe), web standards (Sencha) or a very high level dynamic language (RunRev). All of them are free to get started with, why not give one of them a try and find out why their users are so happy? After all, a happy developer is a productive developer.