Dirk Knemeyer

Google App Inventor: an interesting little app

Originally published on the Involution Studios blog

Unveiled yesterday, Google App Inventor aspires to provide everyday people – extensively tested with sixth graders – to easily build their own Android apps using a relatively simple WYSIWYG editor. The interaction model appears based on LEGO toys, taking different, interchangeable pieces and snapping them together to create a complete app. The New York Times exclusively introduced the service on Sunday night.

There has been considerable fallout and speculation from this latest product launch by Google. We’ve talked about Google extensively here, both from the standpoint of being the now and future computing superpower as well as their open philosophy to Android development in stark contrast to Apple’s closed model. Many touts in the media see the Google App Inventor as a potentially “killer app” that could be the difference-maker in the mobile arms race between Google and Apple. Others are more measured but still believe Google App Inventor will have a major impact. I think both of these assessments are quite exaggerated. What Google has created is a tool that is akin to Microsoft Publisher in the 1990’s, a piece of software that takes a task reserved for a skilled technical elite – in their case, publishing periodicals; in today’s case, designing mobile apps – and allows even unsophisticated users to produce something with the potential to be usable, if not respectable.

The problem is, as Earth-shaking as this might at first appear, it really proves to be a simple sideshow to the larger circus. There are many reasons for this:

– Most people want things done for them. While seemingly every average Joe out there seems to be on YouTube, or Tweeting, or blogging, or otherwise “creating content” on the Interwebs, that is the behaviour of people trying to express themselves creatively in a “one-to-many” way. Creating an app is a much more personal thing. Even though your app may be made available via the Android Store – or otherwise shareable – it is not the same as putting a video on YouTube that people click a link and watch and takes little time or investment of grey matter. Who wants to download an app and “try it out”? Too much investment of time and computing clutter.

Thus, the psychology for people designing mobile apps is completely different from those who are creating media content on the Internet. Which brings us back to Microsoft Publisher: while it was immensely empowering for random people to craft their own newsletters with nice layout and some extra graphics it hardly changed the publishing business. Instead it was a great tools for the average computer user who wanted to create something for themself and a small group of people. Those of us in the industry know that the true creators among us are very few and far between. Ultimately those will be the ones enlightened by this product, not the masses.

– The quality isn’t there. Even the project leader, Hal Abelson, said in the New York Times article debuting the product that the apps it makes, “aren’t the slickest applications in the world.” If the project lead himself understands that this product creates simple, rough-around-the-edges apps, what does that say for how the rest of the world will see them? Some small segment of users will use Google App Inventor to create a bunch of small, idiosyncratic apps that make their life better with the hyper-customized features, functions and services they thus get. That is certainly cool. But “cool” is all it is. Most people would rather push a button and get a super-slick designed app that mostly does what they need even though they don’t care about 60% of the crap and wish it also did this one other thing.

– No interesting business application. The first smartphone to enjoy mass adoption was not the iPhone, it was the BlackBerry. Its success was the direct product of serving businesses well. With the new style and potential of smartphones ushered in by the iPhone there is a sorting out process happening around the enterprise use of mobile devices. This is a very unsettled space, yet it may prove to be where the smartphone battle is really won or lost. After all, it is a short path from an employee being issued a smartphone at work, to their spouse seeing it and wanting it, to getting a whole phone plan and bunch of phones for the family as a result. That is where the real money is won and lost. The Google App Inventor does not even sniff at this crucial market segment. It is designed, quite intentionally, to be used by anyone and simply design apps that “aren’t the slickest applications in the world.” They want sixth graders to be able to use it. Necessarily, anything that is easy for a sixth grader to use cannot solve the complex challenges inherent in business apps.

There is a sense that “this is only the beginning,” that while the apps being produced immediately might not be sophisticated these are the first unsteady steps of a glorious and inspirational journey. I think not. While it is seductive to get caught up in the purity of providing a tool for all to build their own applications, the reality is it function and impact is far less than the glossy glamour of the idea.

None of this is to say we don’t like the Google App Inventor; to the contrary, it is an interesting little app. But ultimately it is not the giant pomp-and-circumstance story that the media is trying to make it out to be. Google has become a hype machine, and anything that comes out of the Googleplex gets front page attention. Sadly, no, the Google App Inventor is not going to change the world. It’s not even going to decide the smartphone wars. It’s not even going to give many of us better apps than we already have, or have access to. What it does do is show how more of the magic wrapped up in our computing devices can be translated out of the realm of technical expertise and into the domain of average people, even children. Plenty of other hardware and software designed over the years have tried to do this and they are ultimately more novel than paradigm-changing. That is not a criticism, just simple reality.

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