July 12th, 2010

Google's new "App Inventor" is a game-changer

Tom Boutell
Chief Software Architect


There are now 10,000 Android developers, as opposed to 40,000 for the iPhone. And Google is gearing up to release App Inventor, a tool for nontechnical Android app developers that is strikingly similar to the Scratch programming environment for kids. Meanwhile Android phones themselves are catching up quickly, although the iPhone 4 remains the coolest thing around.

Like many others I'm sure, I considered developing a tool like this and abandoned it after coming to grips with Apple's harsh policies on the subject of alternative programming environments: 3.3.1 — Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited). Google's reliance on crowdsourced quality control for apps isn't perfect but it is beginning to add up to a real difference in spirit. As Android phone sales grow, making development for it an even more viable proposition, content creators will eventually vote with their feet for the platform where they feel most welcome and walk away from the walled garden.

I have an iPhone and I love it, in part because of Apple's excellent quality control in the core applications. If Apple's competition here were as bad as their competition in the MP3 player market— companies with almost no grasp of design— I wouldn't doubt the outcome for a moment. But Android also has quality designers at play. Google's approach to design may be a bit plodding and obsessed with A/B testing, but it does get results.

Apple knows they must continue to release cutting-edge hardware, but they don't seem to grasp what it takes to maintain a welcoming developer platform once there are viable alternatives in the game.

I'm going out on a limb here: a year from now there will be as many Android apps as iPhone apps. 18 months from now Android phone sales will surpass iPhone sales. Apple will still have the sexiest phones, and will still command a premium price for them. But inside two years the iPhone will occupy a niche similar to that of the Macbook.
Tom Boutell
Chief Software Architect