Earlier this week, Google released tools designed to help non-programmers build their own apps on the Android platform. The move is consistent with Google’s strategy of boosting worldwide consumption of mobile data — and with that, mobile advertising. And though App Inventor is unlikely to be used by many novices to produce compelling smartphone applications in the near-future, in the long-term, App Inventor could be a game-changer.
More apps = more inventory
App Inventor is the latest offering from Google Labs, which has given birth to a vast number of offerings in mobile and online (often with mixed reviews). As TechCrunch documents here, it’s essentially a two-part tool: Designer is a web page that enables users to add buttons, text fields and other components; Blocks Editor is a Java application that allows users to do drag-and-drop coding. Google has given users access powerful tools such as GPS information, accelerometers and social components, and the company has been testing the offering with students at the University of San Francisco and elsewhere.
The escalating mobile ad war
Google is an advertising company, of course, and App Inventor is designed to expand Android’s developer community and to increase usage of mobile data, therefore increasing Google’s opportunities for mobile advertising. Indeed, Google doesn’t take a percentage of app sales in Android Market, which was created solely to increase “inventory” — space in apps and on the mobile web that can be filled with advertising. Apps created via App Inventor aren’t automatically added to Android Market, but many of them will surely find their way into Google’s store, given the ease with which developers (both professional and consumer) can bring Android offerings to market.
Android’s growth is now more crucial than ever, thanks to the emergence of Apple’s iAd, an aggressive play by Apple to leverage the dominance of the iPhone by delivering ads through apps and on the mobile web. Apple’s App Store teems with 200,000-plus offerings, more than three times as many as Android Market. And iOS claims more than 43,000 registered developers, according to a recent report by AppStore HQ, while only about 10,000 coders are building atop Android. App Inventor is an obvious effort to boost production and inventory of mobile applications, creating countless new little billboards upon which ads could be placed. And that would help Google in the battle for in-app advertising it’s currently fighting with Apple and iAd.
“An explosion” of crappy apps?
Interestingly, Google isn’t the first to offer a do-it-yourself service for mobile apps. Palm late last year unveiled Project Ares, an Internet development environment (IDE) that runs entirely on the browser and uses a drag-and-drop interface. But while the too has been widely praised by developers, it hasn’t done much to spark interest in webOS, a platform in dire need of attention from developers. Similar offerings have struggled too: Apple, in the early ’80s, failed to find an audience for Logo, a programming language that was marketed to teachers as a way to teach programming to students. And Yahoo Pipes, which uses a drag-and-drop editor to enable users to create their own content from multiple online sources, has gained little traction since its launch three years ago. The bottom line, it appears, is that non-programmers not only lack the technical skills to create their own applications, but the vast majority of them also lack the interest.
Some pundits claim App Inventor “will lead to an app explosion” as users from all walks of life begin programming their own software. But in reality, creating anything beyond the simplest (read: least compelling) apps isn’t easy with App Inventor, as TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid noted: “Unless you’re looking to make an extremely basic application — think “Hello World” — you’re going to have to read through the documentation. In some cases even the existing tutorials won’t be enough.” And as ZDNet pointed out, businesses aren’t likely to use App Inventor because Android claims just a fraction of the overall mobile enterprise market. Also, business generally depend on the kind of sophisticated apps that App Inventor seems ill-suited to help build.
App Inventor will surely allow some creative non-programmers to build apps that are actually innovative, but many will likely be the kinds of apps Google highlights in its video demonstration — an image of a cat that meows when the screen is touched. In other words, the most likely short-term result of Google’s do-it-yourself development kit will be an increase in the kind of third-rate apps that already plague Android Market. That’s not good news for the countless Android users already frustrated by the search for apps that suit their needs amid the stacks of crappy titles in Android Market. App Inventor will surely help non-programmers build me-too offerings for every fart simulator or sex-position manual that already exist.
Apple’s App Store has serious flaws, to be sure, but the notorious App Store ferrets out much of the garbage, even if that process seems somewhat arbitrary. Google essentially refuses to employ any filter whatsoever. Fattening Android Market with junk might not only slow Android’s recent momentum with consumers, it might make advertisers think twice about where they spend their advertising dollars. Google’s storefront is already developing a reputation as an inferior outlet for inferior apps That’s not an image advertisers want to tie their brands to.
Minding the store
In the longer term though, App Inventor could have tremendous impact if Google can better mind the store. Google is wisely positioning it as a learning tool (much as Apple did with Logo) in the obvious hope that students of all ages around the world gain an interest in creating mobile applications. App Inventor certainly lowers the technical hurdles, and Google is hoping to make software development less mysterious for youngsters. If App Inventor is successful — and it likely will be on some level, given Google’s ever-increasing presence in mobile — it could turn many of today’s students into app-development hobbyists years from now, opening an entirely new channel for the production of valuable applications. That would go a long way toward fueling the in-app advertising space already showing promise. It could also help close the gap with Apple and its effective new weapon iAd.
The strategy behind App Inventor, then, is simple: Create more places where Google can place ads and generate revenue, and build on Android’s momentum by opening the platform even to dilettantes. The problem, though, is in the value of the new inventory: Deep-pocketed advertisers won’t let their high-profile brands be soiled by appearing in third-rate apps; Android Market is already developing a Wal-Mart-like reputation. App Inventor could be a huge lift for Google in its mobile advertising race with Apple, but only if it helps produce apps that people really use — and inventory advertisers will really pay for.