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App Inventor First Impressions : Coding An App

Google App InventorWe finally got our first App Inventor mobile application built and are underway on our second app. Here are our first impressions of building an actual app.

First App – The Pat A Cat Tutorial

The initial tutorial went very easily, after the fight to get the development environment set up. The first application took less than 5 minutes to create and get working, even in a standalone packaged app sent to my phone. I glossed over the “pet a cat” tutorial then created it without referring to the docs. It was very intuitive.

Second App – Barcode Scanner

The second attempt was a basic prototype of a far more complex application that was created with Eclipse and the Android SDK combined with the open source Zxing project. The idea is to have a simple bar-code scanner that when it scans a valid bar code calls a URL for one of our client sites and returns back the price they will pay for a book, dvd, cd, or video game.

With the initial Eclipse based project we had a standalone and fully self-contained app on-line within a hour. It worked well for a prototype and provides all the elements we need for a full blown app. It has to be coded in Java and requires a coding background.

With App Inventor we have a few hurdles as outlined below.

Hurdle 1 : Separate Install of Zxing Required

The built-in scanner class requires a third party application, the freely available Zxing App, to be pre-installed on the phone. That means if you were to put this into production all of your users would be required to go fetch and download another app before they could use this app.

Hurdle 2: Checking/Launching Third Party Prerequisites

Maybe I’m missing it, but I don’t see a simple way with the drag & drop interface to check if a third party app such as Zxing is already installed when running my new test app. That means we will only be able to wait until someone tries to scan, catch the error (we have error catching abilities, right?  We’ll need to look into that), and then tell them to exit the app and go install something else then come back.

There also does not seem to be any way to automatically launch a third party app other than the select few that Google App Inventor supplies. So that means not launching the marketplace and sending them a “search for zxing” command. Luckily we can launch a web browser with a URL, but that is not exactly the same.

Hurdle 3: Bundling Other Apps/Libs

The best solution would be to bundle the other app along with our app so that installing our test app automatically installs Zxing. Even better would be the ability to make it a self-contained component within our test app.

Test 2 Summary

All-in-all we could knock together a simple prototype of our new scanner app, but it would be a rudimentary version of the final app. Not being able to bundle Zxing easily and, even better, including the libs directly in our project, makes it hard to sell this as a consumer friendly application.

Of course this is a new IDE we are playing with here. Maybe all of this is possible for the expert App Inventor developer, but for a noob the methodologies are not readily apparent.

Initial Thoughts

After a full day of playing with App Inventory, here are my initial thoughts. The environment is perfect for simple to somewhat moderate level applications. It is good for things like a basic toddler app or a simple limited use consumer app. It may even be able to do some more complex tasks.

It is not going to build something like Angry Birds. Not even close (I know, that is not really what this IDE is for, at least not yet). It also is going to be difficult to create anything that is not based on down-the-middle business forms or simple media interfaces. Showing pics, playing sounds, firing off the camera or phone apps… no problem. But trying to complex interactions with any of those devices becomes more & more of a challenge to the point that learning some Java and using a full blown IDE starts to make sense.

So for a casual mobile app hacker that wants to create some simple apps for their kids, themselves, or their business it is great. It is also a good prototyping tool. Heck, you can even create some marketable apps here with some effort. At some point you will outgrow the environment and will want to start learning Java. This is a great way to get a layperson interested in the craft of computer programming though, and even teach them the basic concepts of logic and device interaction along the way. A perfect 101/201 level class in application development.

The only problem for a large number of casual app hackers is that you may need a comp sci Phd just to get the environment setup. And therein lies the rub. Google App Inventor is obviously targeted squarely at non-technophiles, the layperson that has an idea and a little bit of computer coding knowledge, NOT a hard-core tech geek. Yet, as you may have noticed in my prior posts, just getting setup can be a trail in patience and computer expertise. Yes, I have a “talent” for making technology break… any of the guys on my team will tell you that, but I assure you I’m not the only person who  will run into problems.

A promising start, and a great fit for the right people. We’ll probably use Google App Inventor for some of our own simplistic apps and definitely for more than one prototype. However, for prime time level A applications it is not there yet.

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1 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. gale
    December 17, 2011 at 8:13 AM #

    Could you use it for developing interactive books?