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Rhomobile chasing after mobile software dream

A start-up says it has found a way for mobile software developers to write applications once and have them run on five different modern smartphone operating systems.

A mobile software development start-up thinks it has found a way to the mobile industry's holy grail: an open-source method for writing an application once and running it anywhere.

Rhomobile is ready to release Rhodes 1.0, a framework designed for application developers who want to reach more than one mobile computing operating system--such as Apple's iPhone OS X, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, or Research In Motion's BlackBerry--without having to spend the time and money required to develop separate applications for each operating system. Rhodes allows developers to code their applications in HTML and Ruby and have that code natively execute on the phone of their choice.

Rhodes is basically a lightweight implementation of the popular Ruby on Rails framework used to build modern Web applications, said Adam Blum, CEO of Rhomobile. Rhomobile created a number of components that do the heavy lifting for getting the HTML and Rudy code to run on the various operating systems supported, which include Android, BlackBerry OS, iPhone OS X, Symbian, and Windows Mobile devices.

Developers who want to achieve this now can build Web-based applications, but Blum said Rhodes-developed applications run natively on the phone, which allows developers to build more sophisticated applications that can also use specific parts of the phone such as its camera or sensors. The framework uses the embedded browser components in the various platforms to make sure the applications conform to user-interface guidelines, and Blum said applications designed this way have passed muster with Apple's notoriously fickle App Store approvers.

The architecture for Rhodes, Rhomobile's attempt at that old "write once, run anywhere" promise. Rhomobile

Almost as long as there has been software development on mobile phones, developers have sought, and companies have promised, ways to develop an application once and have it work on multiple platforms. Unlike the PC industry, which eventually coalesced around one dominant platform, the mobile industry has had several strong operating system contenders for over a decade.

At one point, Java ME was considered the answer, but Java was implemented in so many different ways that "fragmentation" turned into the mobile industry's dirty word. More modern hopes have centered on Linux, but that hasn't exactly worked out either. The problem several years ago was that phones weren't all that smart, Blum said. For example, simple Java games actually worked fairly well across different phones but once developers attempted to create other types of applications, the constraints of older mobile phones were too much for more sophisticated attempts.

But these days, smartphones are finally maturing to the point where they are capable of handling more complicated tasks. And it's also clear that despite the attempts of IT departments to standardize on one mobile phone or another, an awful lot of modern corporations have BlackBerrys, iPhones, and Windows Mobile devices through their networks, Blum said.

That's where Rhomobile is pinning its hopes: the mobile computing corporation.

Right now, if companies want to put one of their key internal applications on a mobile device, they must either force standardization on a single device (sure to be unpopular with the BlackBerry or iPhone-addicted CEO) or spend time and money developing multiple versions of the same application (sure to be unpopular with the CFO). Rhodes could let those companies develop one version of that application and have it run on multiple phones.

There's a performance penalty on launching the application as a result of the design, which means this approach won't work for everyone. Blum expected to have three types of customers: hobbyists who will have to release their code as an extension this open-source project, independent software developers who will pony up 5 percent of their revenue from applications developed using Rhodes, and corporate IT departments who will pay a per-user-per-year license for the framework.

Rhomobile was founded by Blum, a veteran of Mobio Networks and Good Technology, in 2008 with seed capital from vSpring Capital.