App Inventor is not only about education

App Inventor team’s initial impetus was education. But when it was released on July 12, 2010,  thousands of people showed up to the party. some were experienced programmers who love how easy it is to develop apps and prototype, some were web designers who suddenly could create something other than static web pages. Still others were creators/entrepreneurs who had found a way to prototype and create marketable apps, to take part directly in the development process.

Nobody really knows what to make of them because they are a new social group, a new phenomenon made possible by App Inventor’s low barrier to entry. Hard core programmers scoff at them and say they’ll ruin the Android market with trashy apps– they don’t want them at the party. The business world doesn’t even realize they exist. Its like we needed a Malcolm Gladwell to come in and make sense of a new social entity.

Anyway, this group has been ignored somewhat in the discussion concerning App Inventor’s closure, with most of the focus on educators like myself. Many of them have worked incredibly hard, taught themselves programming and app design, started businesses, and contributed greatly to the advancement of the language and Android in general.

Like teachers, this new technological group will have the carpet pulled  from under them if the transition to open source doesn’t go smoothly. Its a shame because our society needs more creative people with the skill to create not just blog posts and web pages, but interactive media, i.e., apps.

I guess this is, in a nutshell, why Google is closing its labs and focusing on fewer projects– they just aren’t able to fully support and promote the very cool projects they had. Perhaps in the transition to open source, with more organizations having a chance to contribute directly, this new group of software developers can be nurtured as they should be.

App Inventor Discontinued: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Google quietly announced the discontinuation of App Inventor, effective end of the year. They plan to transition the product to a non-profit organization, the goal being that, for App Inventor users, only the URL will change come December 31st of this year. They will also open source the project.

There’s some good in this announcement, but it’s mostly bad and ugly.

Will I still be able to access the apps I’ve built and create new ones?

This question is especially important given that your work lives on the corporate servers. If Google shut App Inventor down today (they won’t), you would have no way of accessing the existing apps you’ve created.

Google has promised to keep the current version of App Inventor running until Dec. 31, 2011. The plan is to turn the system over, at that time, to a non-profit organization. If things go smoothly, you’ll be able to access your apps and App Inventor on Jan. 1, 2012 just as you do now, just at a different URL. Update 8/12/11: Karen Parker, the App Inventor Program Manager, notes that legally, Google can’t transfer user data– your apps– to another site. So there may be some download/upload on the part of developers to get their apps to the new system. The key, of course, is that the new system can upload apps created by the old system.

The “if things go smoothly” is the kicker, of course. There will be uncertainty unless Google pledges that a smooth transition will occur, which I believe they should do.

Until then, it’s a matter of trust. I’m optimistic, based primarily on my experiences with Hal Abelson, Mark Friedman, Karen Parker and the rest of App Inventor team. They put their heart and soul into the project, they want to see it succeed in the new form, and they feel responsible to the community they’ve created. I trust them to get the job done.

App Inventor is being open sourced. Isn’t this good news?

There are two separate things going on here. Google is discontinuing App Inventor, which is bad. They are also open sourcing it, which is good, even if it does come packaged as damage control.

First the bad. As of January 1st , App Inventor will no longer be administered by Google. The 5+ wonderful engineers on the team will no longer be fixing bugs and adding great new features. Perhaps a non-profit with equally great engineers will take over and provide a seamless transition, but this is uncertain. All we know at this point is that the greatest tech company in the world won’t be running it.

It is a good thing that App Inventor is being open sourced. An open source App Inventor means that developers and researchers can make use of the App Inventor code base to build new tools. We could see an App Inventor for building iPhone and iPad apps, for building cross-platform apps. In the long run, it could spur innovation in visual programming.

But make no mistake: these are potential benefits for the future, and really are not helpful to App Inventor developers and educators in the near term. The truth is that a closed source App Inventor, supported fully by Google, is far and away better for App Inventor enthusiasts. This announcement is a blow to the many kids, students, educators, and newly empowered software developers who love App Inventor, and will at the least  slow the momentum of the project.

I’m a teacher planning to teach App Inventor in fall 2011 and in the future. Should  I abandon this idea?

Teachers hate uncertainty and don’t have unlimited hours to prepare a course and learn new tools. But my advice is to stick with App Inventor. I believe its a revolutionary tool for teaching beginners and non-computer-geeks programming. It combines a visual blocks language proven successful with Scratch with the motivating force of mobile computing. Young people are fascinated by the little computers they now carry around with them and they are blown away when they realize they can actually create software for them, actually control them.

There is risk here and there will no doubt be issues. But as I mentioned above, I trust that the App Inventor team will come through. For me, the rewards—a bunch of highly motivated students in my class—are worth the risk.

Did Google behave poorly by cutting App Inventor?

Yes.

Can you expand on that?

I’m a mild mannered professor. I don’t know beans about corporate politics and even less about the best way to make money. But I’d say the following is probably good policy:

Don’t start initiatives to inspire, empower, and educate, then indiscriminately pull the plug.

I understand the Google Labs closure: focus more on fewer projects. And Google has every right to cut Google labs projects– users of such tools should be aware of the risk.

But in the case of App Inventor, the decision effects more than just your typical early adopter techie. It hurts kids and schools, and outfits like Iridescent, who use App Inventor in their Technovation after-school programs for high school girls, and Youth Radio’s Mobile Action Lab, which teaches app building to kids in Oakland California. You’ve hurt professors and K-12  educators who have developed new courses and curricula with App Inventor at the core. You’ve hurt universities who have redesigned their programs.

I don’t want to over-dramatize this: these groups will be fine, especially if Google makes good on transitioning App Inventor. My melancholy is more about what could have been had Google truly supported and actually promoted the tool, and about the loss of momentum for this wonderful project. We really need more programmers and inventors, and App Inventor can have a profound effect. If President Obama knew about App Inventor’s potential to inspire a whole new generation of engineers, he’d be really pissed at Google for this move.

Even looking at it from Google’s perspective, I find the decision puzzling. App Inventor was a public relations dream. Democratizing app building, empowering kids, women, and underrepresented groups– this is good press for a company continually in the news for anti-trust and other far less appealing issues. And the cost-benefit of the cut was negligible—believe it or not, App Inventor was a small team of just 5+ employees! The Math doesn’t make sense.

Let’s end with Clint Eastwood

As a teacher, I like to end things on a positive note, on the Good. The App Inventor project has shown that ordinary people, not just computer geeks, can program the mobile computers we all now walk around with us. It provided a glimpse of a world in which people don’t just use phones and tablets but take control of them, customize them for their personal use.

It fired up a bunch of kids, college students, and tinkering adults, empowering them technologically beyond their dreams (click on the pics below for  just a few of the success stories). It drew the interest of young women and demonstrated a way to lure more of them into computing. Larry Page may not get it, but his tiny group of 5+ engineers created something revolutionary. In the long run, the ideas and design behind the App Inventor project will live on and fulfill their great promise, Google or not.

In closing, I encourage Google to do the right thing, to support those 5+ engineers in the transition, vigorously fund the non-profit entity that takes over, and most importantly, make a firm pledge to the App Inventor community that the transition will occur seamlessly. If they do, the ugly will turn to beautiful, the bad to good, and App Inventor will outlive the Spaghetti Western.

Just a couple of the many App Inventor success stories….

HS Girls in NYC build apps for the Technovation challenge

USF Student-Teachers at the Technovation Challenge

USF students learned App Inventor, then taught high school girls

A new app developer at BAYCAT SF.

Google: The Time is Ripe to Flood Schools with Android Devices

I just gave an App Inventor workshop at the CS4HS seminar at the University of Illinois in Chicago– 30 high school teachers from the Chicago area were hosted by UIC professor Dale Reed and sponsored by Google.

One thing I learned is that the kids of Chicago are in good hands, at least the ones lucky enough to learn from these  teachers.

The other thing I learned is that App Inventor is striking a chord with high school teachers. Many have been teaching Java, at least for Advance Placement (AP) courses and they know how few students thrive with that as a beginning language. They see how visual blocks languages like App Inventor and Scratch can work for a much larger subset of the population. They also see the potential for App Inventor to leverage the students’ intense fascination with the tiny computing devices they carry around  in their pockets.

The BIG QUESTION, however, the first one I hear from every high school and university teacher, is

WHERE CAN I GET SOME PHONES?

How can I teach App Inventor if only a few of my students have Android devices?

One answer is that you can develop apps without a phone, using the Android emulator that comes with the free App Inventor software.  If you can scrape together a few phones for your class, or leverage those that your students bring, the emulator-based solution is workable and one I encourage teachers to take.

But there is a much better solution, one with much broader implications, but one which would require some great vision by the folks at Google and perhaps a T-Mobile.  The solution involves giving every student who signs up for  a high school Computing 1 course a device –phone or tablet.  Let them live with it and program it as part of their life. The number of citizens with the ability to create technology would explode explode! The students will learn what software is, they’ll learn problem-solving and logic, and they’ll learn entrepreneurship– how to formulate ideas and create things of use to society.

We’re not talking incremental change, but historical– and at a time when everyone from the Labor Bureau to the White House has identified a need for more programming-savvy citizens.

Why Google? Couldn’t it be some other deep-pocketed organization?

Yes, but right at this moment in history Google has a motive that can make it work. This scheme can win them the multi-billion dollar battle between Android and the iPhone. App Inventor only works for Android and there’s not yet an iPhone equivalent that is even close. This will change, soon, but App Inventor has the momentum, and so does Android in terms of casual “end-user” programming of mobile devices. Partner with a service-provider like T-Mobile, give the high school students a free device and a semester or two of free service, and suddenly you’ve got thousands of young new clients buying Android devices and service for the next 80 years.

Google’s Mark Friedman at USF’s CS Night

App Inventor Director Mark Friedman gave a great keynote talk at USF’s CS Night.

Our CS 107 students– non-cs majors with no prior programming experience– presented and demo’d their Android app projects alongside the seniors and MS students.

CS 107 students Jose Malave and Crystal Ferguson show their app

CS 107 student and filmmaker Angelo Taylor

CS 107 student Angelo Taylor documented the night with this short film, and librarian supreme Shawn Calhoun contributed these photos

 

App Inventor at USF (the video)

Google featured yours truly and Chris Witte, one of the students in my original App Inventor class, in this video. The clip was played at the Google booth during the ACM Conference on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE 2010).

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