When you first look at Google App Inventor for Android, it may not look like much. That is to say, it’s ugly. But as with many Google services, beneath a layer of homeliness, there appears to be much more under the surface. In this case, it could be a very big gateway drug for Android app development. Or is it a Doomsday device that will muck up native app development on the platform?
The service, unveiled tonight in the New York Times, is basically a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) tool for app development on the Android platform. Instead of having to learn code (in Android’s case, Java), App Inventor is a piece of software that allows you to drag and drop certain elements common to many apps to build a mobile app from scratch.
To use App Inventor, you do not need to be a developer. App Inventor requires NO programming knowledge. This is because instead of writing code, you visually design the way the app looks and use blocks to specify the app’s behavior.
That sounds great — on paper. As NYT notes, it has been tested with kids as young as sixth graders who were able to easily make their own apps. It also makes it easy for “regular” people to make apps. But as many web developers will tell you, the rise of WYSIWYG editors in their field led to an explosion of shitty websites.
Tools like Dreamweaver and eventually online WYSIWYG HTML editors from the likes of Geocities, made it so easy for anyone to create webpages that the web quickly filled up with garbage. Thankfully (and appropriately), Google popped up to restore a sense of order to the madness with Pagerank and its search engine. This allowed people to wade through the junk and still be able to find the quality sites.
So is that what App Inventor is going to do for Android? Create a flood of crappy apps?
Maybe. But there’s a flip-side to this as well.
Because this new tool makes it easy for anyone to make their own apps, it makes the idea of trying to create your own app a much less daunting one. And that’s the powerful thing here. If this tool can get some kid to start messing around with app creation, maybe they’ll get more interested and start learning actual Java. And then maybe one day they’ll create the next killer app.
Yes, this tool could be a gateway drug, of sorts.
A lot of software developers haven’t liked the idea of this movement towards native mobile apps because some feel they’re pushing people towards devices that aren’t as open to tinkering as PCs are. That’s especially true with Apple’s devices. But Android is a pretty open system, and it seems that a tool like this could inspire people to want to learn how to make great apps.
While WYSIWYG HTML editors led to an abundance of junk web pages, those tools also opened the door for a lot of people to learn HTML who may not have done so otherwise. With App Inventor, just as with those tools, it would seem that no one is going to be able to make a truly remarkable app without digging into the code eventually. And that may be Google’s ultimate goal with this.
But still, they have to hope it doesn’t backfire and simply flood the Android Market with more junk apps than already exist. Google already has a problem with surfacing good apps in their market—interesting, given that they are the ones that surface good webpages as mentioned earlier—the problem could get worse if this tool is a success.
Still, I’m going to be cautiously optimistic that this tool is a good thing. Potentially a very good thing. And it’s something Apple should be taking very seriously.