Android App Inventor: Another slap to Apple's closed model

Google App Inventor for Android

I hate to say it, but Google's new App Inventor for Android might just be magical -- and maybe even a little revolutionary.

App Inventor for Android, officially unveiled by Google on Monday, opens up the world of app development to anyone and everyone. The tool lets you build your own custom Android app simply by dragging and dropping code -- no technical knowledge required. As Google's Mark Friedman puts it:

"App Inventor for Android gives everyone, regardless of programming experience, the opportunity to control and reshape their communication experience."

To be clear, App Inventor isn't about to replace or even threaten the traditional developer model -- far from it. Apps built with Google's new tool will be less robust and advanced than what any professional developer could create; we're talking about two entirely different leagues of programs. In fact, despite what you may have read elsewhere, apps created with App Inventor won't even be published to the Android Market as of now.

What App Inventor will do is further open up Android's environment by giving users more powerful ways to customize and control their phones. It's taking the notion of iPhone-closed vs. Android-open and raising the stakes yet again.

In other words, this could be big.

[This story is from the new Android Power blog at Computerworld. Follow @AndroidPower on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

Android App Inventor: Exploring the Potential

For an illustration of the types of new opportunities App Inventor for Android creates, we turn to the gang from The New York Times, who got a sneak peek at some of Google's early testing.

App Inventor for Android

The Times chatted with the leader of the App Inventor project, a fellow by the name of Harold Abelson. Abelson has an impressive résumé, to say the least: He's a founding director of Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the Free Software Foundation; he's a director of the Center for Democracy and Technology; and -- oh yeah -- he's also a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT. When this guy talks, I'm inclined to listen.

App Inventor's goal, Abelson tells The Times, is to "enable people to become creators, not just consumers, in this mobile world." Per The Times:

"The Google project, Mr. Abelson said, is intended to give users, especially young people, a simple tool to let them tinker with smartphone software, much as people have done with computers. Over the years, he noted, simplified programming tools like Basic, Logo and Scratch have opened the door to innovations of all kinds."

The user-created apps may be simple -- Abelson himself says they "aren't the slickest applications in the world" -- but they can do some pretty powerful stuff. For example, one creation Abelson describes automatically determines when you're driving and sends away-message-like responses to anyone texting your phone. Another uses a phone's accelerometer to sense when its user has fallen; if the user doesn't get up after a set period of time, the phone automatically sends a call for help.

For anyone who appreciates a phone that can do more -- a true smart phone, you might say -- this thing is going to prove invaluable.

(Google's App Inventor for Android is currently in beta. You can sign up for access now; Google says it expects to begin granting access within the next several weeks.)

Android vs. iPhone: App Approach Comparisons

The iPhone comparisons here are inevitable. Apple, after all, recently revised its developers' agreement to restrict the ways in which developers can build iPhone applications. And we all know about the company's joke-inspiring policy of app approval and rejection. Let's be honest: The satirical likening of Apple to a communist regime doesn't always seem so far-fetched.

Apple may claim the benefit of its closed system is quality and security, but I'm not so sure I buy that explanation. After this month's App Store fraud incident, the crew at tech blog The Next Web uncovered numerous approved apps that appear to have no valid functions other than scamming users out of cash. These applications all made it past Apple's border patrol -- yet perfectly safe, high-quality programs like Google Voice, Google Latitude, and MSNBC.com cartoonist Daryl Cagle's Tiger Woods cartoon viewer are consistently rejected.

[See also: iPhone 4 vs. Android: And the winner is...]

What about sheer numbers? First, I'm a firm believer that it's not the size of your app collection that matters; it's what you can do with it. While Apple has long bragged about the 47 bazillion apps in its App Store, analyses suggest the vast majority of them actually sit unused.

That said, we know size can be impressive, especially at first glance (yes, we're still talking about app collections here -- get your mind out of the gutter). So some recent data from AndroLib.com is worth mentioning. The company's current measurements suggest Android's App Market is poised to hit the 100,000 mark any day now -- but, as is the case with overall Android adoption, it's the rate of growth that's the most striking.

Android Market Apps

As Android increasingly leads the way in innovation and adoption, the numbers and the breadth of the selection are only going to keep climbing. And with the new App Inventor expanding the possibilities even further, the future of Android apps is looking brighter than ever.

Hey, who knows -- maybe we'll even make eSarcasm's Steve Jobs E-Mail Generator into an Android app one day. I'd say we could offer it on the iPhone, too, but I think we all know how Apple would respond to that proposition.

Author JR Raphael writes the new Android Power blog at Computerworld. You can find him on Facebook: facebook.com/The.JR.Raphael

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