Google Gives Android App Inventor A New Home At MIT Media Lab

Back in July 2010, Google announced a nifty educational project called App Inventor. The goal? Give non-programmers a relatively easy way to build their own applications for the Android platform, using a drag-and-drop interface to add pre-written ‘chunks’ of code. It was heavily inspired by the learning language Scratch, but with an Android focus.

I ran the platform through its paces soon after its launch, attempting to build some basic apps of my own. It was rough. It wasn’t even close to being easy to use. But it was fun, and it clearly had a lot of potential in a learning environment. A year later, around 100,000 people were using the platform, many of them in education.

Unfortunately, last week Hack Education broke the news that Google was going to be shutting down App Inventor, despite the fact that it had gotten substantial traction with educators. The move apparently was part of Google CEO Larry Page’s drive to make Google a more focused company, which includes killing off Google Labs.

Today, Google has some better news: it’s announcing that App Inventor will live on as part of a new MIT Center for Mobile Learning, which will be housed at the famed MIT Media Lab and run by App Inventor creator Hal Abelson, along with fellow MIT professors Eric Klopfer and Mitchel Resnick (both of whom were also instrumental in the creation of the project).

I really like App Inventor — it’s a good introduction to programming, and it also gets students used to programming with mobile devices in mind, which is obviously going to be a big deal going forward. And I’m glad that MIT has agreed to accept the torch from Google and keep it going.

That said, I think it’s pretty ridiculous that Google announced App inventor and then killed it off (at least, as an internal project) only a year after its launch. There’s no way this was a serious burden for the company in terms of resources. And if Google was intending to work with a university on the project, why didn’t it do that from the start?

Android is still very early in its lifespan, and some portion of the kids who cut their teeth on App Inventor are going to want to dive even deeper into the platform. If anything, I think Google should consider putting more resources into making App Inventor more intuitive, expanding its functionality, and then launching additional learning tools to help students make the transition from a drag-and-drop interface to Java and/or HTML5.  Hopefully that’s exactly what will happen at MIT. But I’m wondering why Google didn’t see fit to see it through themselves.

Here’s an excerpt from Google’s post, which was written by Hal Abelson, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT:

App Inventor for Android—a programming system that makes it easy for learners to create mobile apps for Android smartphones—currently supports a community of about 100,000 educators, students and hobbyists. Through the new initiatives at the MIT Center for Mobile Learning, App Inventor will be connected to MIT’s premier research in educational technology and MIT’s long track record of creating and supporting open software.

Google first launched App Inventor internally in order to move it forward with speed and focus, and then developed it to a point where it started to gain critical mass. Now, its impact can be amplified by collaboration with a top academic institution. At MIT, App Inventor will adopt an enriched research agenda with increased opportunities to influence the educational community. In a way, App Inventor has now come full circle, as I actually initiated App Inventor at Google by proposing it as a project during my sabbatical with the company in 2008. The core code for App Inventor came from Eric Klopfer’s lab, and the inspiration came from Mitch Resnick’s Scratch project. The new center is a perfect example of how industry and academia can collaborate effectively to create change enabled by technology, and we look forward to seeing what we can do next, together.