With the introduction of Google’s Android App Inventor last week, I noticed a number of tweets and comments about how the Android Market will be flooded with junk apps. Given that the App Inventor beta appears to make it easy to create mobile apps, I totally understand such concerns. But now that I’ve spent some hands-on time with it, I think those concerns are relatively unwarranted. For now, the App Inventor looks to serve another useful purpose — educating kids and the curious geeks (like me) about mobile application development.
I shared my full hands-on thoughts earlier today at jkOnTheRun, but here’s a summary of what my 12-year old son and I experienced using the App Inventor for a few hours. Save for one standalone Java piece, you create mobile apps on the App Inventor web page using drag-and-drop controls for the objects an end-user would see on their phone when using your app. The Java bit, called the Blocks Editor, is used to add logic, flow and events to the visual objects within your mobile app.
Blocks are like puzzle-pieces that you fit together to make things happen, so no actual programming knowledge is needed. When my son wanted to have his drawing app allow for a change in the onscreen “ink” color, for example, he linked the appropriate color block within a paint color block and both pieces were fit inside an event block. What looks like a virtual set of LEGOs to us became a way to click a button in our Android app and have the cursor color change.
Both the block approach as well as the web-based visual palette for creating mobile apps are leveraged from projects at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scratch is the visual web or designer piece while the Open Blocks Java Library project is the basis for Google’s Blocks Editor. Both M.I.T. projects have one common denominator: they’re geared to teach programming concepts. While that doesn’t mean complex apps can’t be made with the Android App Inventor, the core purpose is educational. And given the limited APIs that the App Inventor can currently access, it’s likely to reamin a learning tool for most users in the foreseeable future.
Could you create an application for your Android handset and submit it to the Android Market? You sure can, and Google’s new tool makes it easy, thanks to support for creating both the software package in .apk format as well as a QR bar code for your application. In fact, my son put some of the tutorial apps — with some custom tweaks, of course — on my Nexus One handset. But until App Inventor matures, I don’t think we’ll see a flood of junk software flow to the Android Market. And if we do, perhaps Google can find a way to flag such titles so shoppers can filter out apps created with the App Inventor. In the meantime, my son and I are happy enough just learning more programming concepts that we can apply to mobile software in the future.
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