Google gives app development power to the people

Jason Ankeny

Although the overall number of applications in Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android Market still lags far behind Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) rival App Store, the gap is narrowing. According to new data from analytics provider, Android Market now boasts more than 91,000 applications, and is on pace to surpass the 100,000 benchmark by the end of this month--developers have already submitted over 9,300 new Market applications through the first 12 days of July, compared to 15,288 new Android apps in all of June. The growth spurt corresponds with a new survey issued by market analysis and strategic advisory firm VisionMobile, which reports that close to 60 percent of all mobile developers created software on Android during the first half of 2010--more than any other rival platform, including iPhone. (VisionMobile adds that most developers now work across multiple platforms, averaging 2.8 platforms each--one in five Android and iPhone respondents release their applications in both Android Market and the App Store.)

But surging interest from professional developers isn't enough to satisfy Google. The digital services giant is introducing App Inventor for Android, a free drag-and-drop software tool enabling users to create their own Android smartphone applications regardless of previous programming experience. Under development for a year and tested in environments including grade schools, high schools and nursing schools, App Inventor for Android does not rely on conventional coding language--instead, consumers visually design the application's appearance, using blocks to specify its behavior. The blocks span "just about everything you can do with an Android phone, as well as blocks for doing ‘programming-like' stuff--blocks to store information, blocks for repeating actions, and blocks to perform actions under certain conditions," notes App Inventor's Google Labs homepage. "There are even blocks to talk to services like Twitter." The blocks editor relies on the Open Blocks Java library to create visual programming languages, while the compiler that translates the blocks language for Android implementation hinges on the Kawa Language Framework.

"The goal is to enable people to become creators, not just consumers, in this mobile world," said App Inventor project leader Harold Abelson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist on sabbatical at Google, in an interview with The New York Times. It's a quintessential expression of the open-source, anything-goes spirit at Android's core, and while it's doubtful that more than a small percentage of users harbor aspirations of building their own apps, App Inventor could prove to be a godsend for IT departments looking to customize their own mobile services--a major shot in the arm for Android's enterprise aspirations. Sure, it's inevitable that App Inventor will yield some ridiculous applications, but it could also unleash game-changing apps that redefine what Android is and what it can be. And ultimately, it's that kind of creative freedom--that kind of possibility--that explains why so many developers are embracing Android. The first 100,000 applications is just the beginning. -Jason