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During some recent discussions with clients, I noticed we tend to throw around the SDK acronym quite a bit. Today we’re going to simplify what an SDK is, share examples of SDKs and talk through how you might think about an SDK as a potential software product or product extension in the future.

What is an SDK exactly?

SDK stands for software development kit. An SDK is typically a 3rd party chunk of pre-written code. For example, in the majority of mobile apps, a user will need to login and most apps use social logins like Facebook, Twitter and Google. All three companies provide an SDK which a developer “drops” into the mobile application they’re building. That SDK allows the developer to quickly, easily make the right calls (via code) to Facebook for instance to authenticate the user (make sure the user is who they say they are).

Examples of SDKs you might hear used in mobile or even web applications:

Analytics and crash reporting

User Login/Authentication

Notifications, Engagement and Messaging

Advertising

Payments

There are also SDKs available for news feeds, weather data, restaurant reservations, and more.

Potential Downside of SDK usage in mobile apps

SDKs are pretty powerful in terms of speeding up app development. They allow a development team to quickly put a new feature in place without building it from scratch. As always, with great power comes great responsibility. Occasionally, and it’s probably not happening to your mobile app, developers (or product owners) start to integrate multiple ad networks, authentication methods and analytics services. All of these integration points can slow the performance of the app down and also introduce complexity in the troubleshooting process. The SDK will need to be updated when a new version is released by the provider to continue to receive support from the provider. With any new release or change, that update can either introduce or fix bugs. SDKs also introduce a layer into your application that can make debugging (or bug fixing) more complicated. Often times the bug will be in the SDK but the app developers hands are tied waiting for the SDK owner to release an update. Ask yourself these questions before integrating a third party SDK:

  1. Does it provide value to the user of the mobile or software application?
  2. What if the owner of the SDK goes out of business or is acquired (ahem…anyone remember Parse?)
  3. Does it impact the performance and user experience of the app?
  4. Is there clear documentation and support around the SDK?
  5. What security risks will the SDK introduce?
  6. Is the SDK a critical component? If so, are you OK depending on a third party for bug fixes and support?

Building your own SDK

It might make sense for your business to build an SDK depending on your product and market. For example, one of our clients came to us with a connected device for motorcycles (think IoT – Internet of Things). We’ve built an SDK that handles the communication between another mobile application, an IoT platform and the hardware device itself. The SDK is a part of the product and necessary for device operations.

In the case of Facebook or Twitter, the SDK is a free extension of their product that allows the social network to grow and also acquire data on the users. Whenever a Facebook or Twitter SDK is integrated into an app, it potentially allows the app developer to access data about the user and also share that data back to the social network. Yes, if you have an app on your mobile phone, you are likely being tracked for advertising purposes.

Here are a few more examples of potential market opportunities for an SDK:

  1. Connected devices (IoT) where you might want other developers to also integrate your product. Something generic like bluetooth beacons are a great example.
  2. Products that provide a general utility. Analytics services, data services, or “platform” specific products that house data from your application. For example, you might build a platform product that handles user reviews for consumer products. You could provide an SDK that allows a developer to easily pass user reviews from the application to your review platform that centrally stores the user reviews. The platform could then provide analytics on the review data. In that scenario, you might need to gain as many reviews as possible for data analysis and would consider giving the SDKs to developers for free and then sell the data to product companies.
  3. Unique app features that would take a developer extensive time and resources to build on their own, for example unique maps or even making an app screenshot-proof!

SDKs present opportunities and challenges for mobile and software applications. A discerning developer will help you choose wisely and also help you understand if there are potential market opportunities to expand your product. Along with APIs, they can be a pretty powerful tool in the software developers arsenal. If you’d like to chat more about SDKs or any software development project, drop us a note!