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Summary:

I recently spent a few hours kicking the tires of Google’s Android App Inventor with my 12-year old son Tyler, and found the toolset to be fun and easy. It has limitations but it offers a great way to learn more about mobile app programming.

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Google last week introduced the Android App Inventor, a simple development environment for creating mobile apps for Android handsets. I’ve spent a few hours kicking the tires of App Inventor, both alone and with my 12-year old son Tyler, and found the tool set to be a fun and relatively easy way to build software. But make no mistake — even though you can use the App Inventor environment to create apps for your handset, it’s still an early work-in-progress with limitations as evidenced by its beta tag.

The limitations don’t make using App Inventor any less enjoyable, though. Tyler and I have run through the various tutorials to create some basic apps and for us non-programmer types, there’s a feeling of accomplishment when getting the app working properly on a phone. And by using the tutorials, we learned concepts that will be the building blocks of our own apps. For example, the first hands-on lesson taught us how to add an image to an app and then have the phone do something when the image was tapped. Now that we know how to use that specific event, we can build an app with different interactions. And that’s really what App Inventor is all about — learning about mobile software programming concepts in a fun environment.

So how does App Inventor foster such learning? In typical Google fashion, nearly the entire tool set is an online experience. Your phone display palette is on a web page as are all of the controls such as buttons, a clock, images, and any other visual objects an end-user would see in your software. To use a control, you just drag it over to the phone screen within the same webpage and then fill in any attributes as needed. Examples of such attributes could be the color of a button or the text for a label. Think of this page as the visual look of your app.

Adding logic events are done through a secondary window called the Blocks Editor. This Java-based application knows about the visual objects in your app and uses a LEGO-like, puzzle approach to create programming flow. For example, one of the tutorials creates an app that allows you to draw with a fingertip on your Android phone.

A perfect example of using the Blocks Editor is when Tyler wanted to allow a user to change the color of the digital ink to red by tapping a button. In the Blocks Editor, he put the appropriate blocks for such an event inside the “ButtonRed.Click” block, telling the program to change the paint color when a user taps the red button. There’s a reasonably large number of events in the Blocks Editor to use — I was able to open the browser on my phone to a specific web page by tapping a button in one of my apps. Google allows access to the GPS, camera and other installed apps from within software created with the App Inventor.

The puzzle-piece approach may look familiar to some because it’s based on Scratch, a programming environment developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Google has leveraged the Open Blocks Java Library project — also an M.I.T. export — and added Android-specific bits to the compiler, so you can create an actual .apk, or software installation of your app for Android phones. App Inventor also creates a QR code for your app, so in theory, you have all the pieces needed to submit your software to the Android Market. But I don’t expect many will do that, mainly because of the limitations I alluded to earlier.

I’d like to pull in RSS feed in to an app, for example, but I see no way to do that. Right now, there are few APIs to use for external data — the environment can connect to Twitter, Amazon or other web services that conform to a specific protocol using the TinyWebDB component. For now then, Tyler and I are just having fun putting puzzle-pieces together and learning some programming basics. In the future, it wouldn’t surprise me if Tyler builds a useful app for Android phones as he learns more and as the App Inventor matures as a learning platform.

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  1. Brian Hayashi Wednesday, July 21, 2010

    After reading your post, I have a entirely new perspective on Google Voice. Wowza.

  2. Funny how no one else has access yet. Just like google voice, I never got an invite. Worthless app if I cannot use it. How did you get accepted?

    1. “How did you get accepted?”

      When Google announced the program, I reached out to their PR folks directly, just as I would for any new app or device.

  3. Crap Inventor Thursday, July 22, 2010

    Holy Smoke. I hope these junk apps aren’t allowed to be sold in the Android Market, not that it isn’t already full of junkware.
    There are already an abundance of very bad “professionals” writing crapware for Android not to mention all of the copycat programs that are just pale imitations of famous Apple iOS apps.

    1. I can’t even imagine what a pale imitation of Apple’s lousy iPhone calendar program would look like! For Pete’s sake, even the native Palm calendar on their early devices ran circles around Apple’s current offering. And let’s not even compare DateBk to the current mess of wannabe calendar programs. And yes, I would say that Google’s native Android calendar is not much better than Apple’s native iPhone calendar. And for the record, I have used them all for quite some time.

      –Ken

      1. Oh please.

        Angry Android Man doesn’t like it when somebody slams his device/platform, so he hurls random insults at competing/leading platform and then claims “Oh, I’ve used them all so I’m some sort of expert!”

        Yeah, yeah. Move along. We’ve seen this before on other blogs.

        While we’re tossing our credentials/background around, I’m both an iPhone and Android developer – and let me say, while Apple’s platform has its issues, the Android Marketplace is a morass of crappy apps. I was really hoping that the recent surge of interest in Android would improve the overall app quality in the marketplace … but now anyone, with or without a good sense of user interface design can build an app.

        Say goodbye to quality, and hello to apps written by graduates of 3-month business school “technology” programs, all wanting to cash in.

        Ugh.

      2. Please tell us how you really feel, Mike. As much as I like the title “Angry Android Man”, I am not really angry. Well, as least nowhere as angry as you seem to be. I was mostly taking exception with the statement about “famous Apple iOS apps”. But since we are stereotyping me, let’s at least get it right. I, like millions of others, am really “Needing Verizon Network Coverage Customer”. Its not nearly as catchy as “Angry Android Man”, but it is a more accurate stereotype. Truth be told, I would probably have been just as happy with an iPhone, but that is not available to me at this time through Verizon.

        And while I would agree with you that there are tons of crappy apps on both platforms, I have found apps in the Android Market that are comparable in both quality and function to those that I found in iTunes. I guess that I view the development and marketing of portable device apps as a new and somewhat immature market in comparison to software written for personal computers. While the need for productivity and business applications may not be as great as that for games and entertainment, I believe that it will grow to a reasonable size as networks mature and more people choose to carry smartphones and possibly tablets. Since you seem to value quality applications, I hope you are able to hang on long enough until your software is discovered and appreciated.

        Well, I guess its time I “move along” and make some room for more iPhone and Android developers.

        –Ken

  4. WOW..
    Great and use full post

  5. I’d recommend using EyeMags.com to create apps for any phone including Android (we do HTML5 installed webapps for iPhone but for Android its a real native app). You create it once and the apps work on all phones not just Android. What’s more the Android app can be uploaded to Android Market. So this is a better than App Inventor. The apps are more like just content though, eyemags does not yet have access to the shake api or location, so in that sense app inventor does a little more. It can play a sound if you upgrade to the pro version though.

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