When Google first made its entry into the mobile market with the launch of Android, they also set about to create a new tool to allow would-be app developers to quickly migrate to the new ecosystem and get their projects working on Android phones. The resulting project was Google App Inventor, a graphical user interface for building mobile apps using drag and drop elements and building block code. Amy wrote about the Google App Inventor beta back in 2010, before the project was shut down and set free as an open source project but without the support of Google’s servers. Thankfully for those of us who were already excited by the idea of a simple tool for rapid mobile prototyping, App Inventor has re-emerged.
MIT recently resurrected App Inventor and expanded it with particular attention to educational use, and the new hub for the tool includes the beginnings of a section of resources aimed at teachers. While the project is now in the hands of MIT, it still integrates fully with Google, and packages the resulting programs for Android devices. The beta started this month, and offers a compelling first glimpse of a tool with potential applications in classrooms across disciplines. The philosophy of MIT App Inventor embraces rapid prototyping, so the results might not look beautiful quickly, but there’s a surprisingly powerful core accessing both internal functions of an Android phone and outside social networks and other possible integration. Perhaps most importantly for the classroom, the engagement with the concepts of programming in an easy to rearrange interface looks like it will have great potential for courses that want to engage with digital development skills without getting deep into the syntax and logic of coding.
The block programming interface is reminiscent of a more grown-up version of Scratch, MIT’s popular “first programming” tool. The Java-based tool for working with the program itself only loads options based upon the elements active on the user’s screen, and thus eases into the complexity while also giving a glimpse of tools for drawing and animating on the Canvas and other more advanced functions. The end result lends itself more to functional apps than games or highly interactive experience design, but it could offer a great front-end for presenting undergraduate research, building a reference tool, or even developing a mobile tool for campus information.
Developing for mobile is still a challenge, with Apple’s SDK far from beginner-friendly and third party tools often excelling at one type of development rather than general functionality. MIT’s resurrected App Inventor doesn’t lend itself to creating anything revolutionary, but it does offer an accessible opportunity not only to master the fundamentals but to see the final product actually work. I’ll be trying it in a future class (although there are still a few bugs in the system that will hopefully be resolved as the beta continues).
Have you played with MIT App Inventor, or its former incarnation? What do you want to try in the world of mobile development?