If Google and Apple won't help us, we'll sort it out the Linux way: 21 companies form Mobile Native Foundation

Lyft, Microsoft, Slack, Capital One, Airbnb become bedfellows


Twenty-one companies concerned about making and managing mobile apps have come together to participate in the Mobile Native Foundation (MNF), an initiative hosted by the Linux Foundation, to share knowledge and resources.

The two major players in the mobile app market, Android overlord Google and iOS rights holder Apple, have nothing to do with the MNF (if you ignore Google funding the Linux Foundation). And their lack of involvement explains the initiative.

Keith Smiley, staff engineer at Lyft – creator of an app for scheduling rides with non-employees and one of the founding members of the MNF – said in a statement, "Like many of our industry peers, Lyft discovered that platform vendors did not solve all of the problems we faced as our mobile team grew from a dozen engineers to hundreds of active contributors."

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The vacuum left by Apple and Google, Smiley contends, has led to too much duplication of effort as companies each implement their own solutions to common mobile app development and maintenance problems.

Eric Amorde, software engineer for payments biz Square - which has also tossed its hat into the MNF ring - frames the problem more specifically in a discussion posted to the new MNF community forum.

Inquiring about how developers at other companies have dealt with large-scale refactoring of a large single-repository project, Amorde writes, "We have a large amount of Objective-C and Swift and Xcode's built-in refactoring is not reliable enough nor does it support more complex refactoring."

Thus ignored by the mobile platform landlords, Airbnb, Capital One, Corellium, Elotl, Flare.build, GitHub, GogoApps, Haystack, Line, LinkedIn, Lyft, Microsoft, Peloton, Robinhood, Sauce Labs, Screenplay, Slack, Solid Software, Spotify, Square, and Uber have come together under the MNF to share best practices and develop tools to improve the coding, testing, building, and maintaining large mobile apps.

The MNF's name suggests it will be focused specifically on native mobile apps, which generally speaking means apps written in Objective-C or Swift for iOS, and Java or Kotlin for Android. Smiley, however, in an email to The Register said that's not the case.

Open to all

"The 'Native' part of the name wasn't meant to exclude any cross platform frameworks like Flutter, or React Native," said Smiley. "We've already had some interest from Shopify who is a large React Native user and I'm hoping we can get them involved. I think these days these frameworks are less used among the companies involved so far, but I think it's a very interesting topic to discuss."

Underscoring that focus is the initial set of projects, three of which originated at Lyft. There's Kronos, an NTP client library written in Swift, index-import, a tool for importing swiftc and clang generated indexes into Xcode, and set-simulator-location, a CLI for setting the location of the currently running iOS Simulator. A non-Lyft project, Flank, an Android and iOS test runner for Firebase Test Lab, is also said to be headed to the MNF for tending.

"We see this as a great opportunity to more inclusively collaborate on challenges we face across the industry and we can’t wait to see the improvements to mobile development we can make when we all work together," said Mike Borysenko, distinguished engineer at Microsoft, in a statement.

I think if there is interest from the community in having a library that solves similar problems as part of the MNF that would fit perfectly with our goals

Smiley suggested that the MNF might look at a standard UI framework as a possible project. "There's a lot of interest in declarative UI frameworks these days like we see with Jetpack Compose in the Android community and SwiftUI in the iOS community," he said.

"I think if there is interest from the community in having a library that solves similar problems as part of the MNF that would fit perfectly with our goals."

Mike Dolan, EVP and general manager of projects at the Linux Foundation, suggested the MNF will accelerate and simplify mobile app development while enhancing the health of the open source community. Perhaps it will also shame Apple and Google into improving their native app development tools.

Asked whether the MNF intends to advocate for platform rule changes, Smiley said, "We don't currently have any plans to try and push on the platform vendors for something like this, but that could change in the future. I think we have plenty of ideas of things we could focus on while still working within the current platforms' guidelines." ®

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