DIY developer tools to boost apps market

Tools like Google's App Inventor can open doors and drive market competition even if quality of mobile apps may be affected, says industry analyst, who adds that apps remain an important factor in smartphone buying decision.
Written by Tyler Thia, Contributor on

Do-it-yourself (DIY) developer tools may affect the quality of apps but they will help open up competition and boost user interest in the mobile market, according to industry watchers.

Building mobile apps is typically perceived to be difficult and tedious, and a skill that requires programming knowledge. Market players, however, are introducing new tools to enable anyone to exercise their creativity toward improving smartphone usability.

Google's App Inventor for Android, for instance, aims to ease the barrier of entry into app development. Currently in beta, the developer tool is designed for people with little or no computer programming experience and knowledge, according to a Google spokesperson.

"For educators, App Inventor has become a powerful tool for exposing students to the world of computer programming and helping them become creators of technology, rather than just consumers of technology," she told ZDNet Asia.

"The App Inventor team has created blocks for 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. There are even blocks to talk to services like Twitter," she added.

Bryan Ma, IDC's Asia-Pacific associate vice president of devices and peripherals research and practice group, welcomes such efforts, noting that these initiatives not only open up more competition for the apps market, but more importantly, allow students and laymen to discover their hidden talent.

"Google is investing in the future… it is cultivating a new demographic [of app designers] for later years," Ma said in a phone interview with ZDNet Asia.

Screening policies in place
The IDC analyst, though, cautioned that with more amateur developers joining the fray, it may be difficult to control the quality of apps released into the marketplace, or specifically, Google's Android Market. However, he noted that the expected benefits to the overall app market would be more significant.

Ma explained: "It is true [the quality of apps will worsen] if there are no tools to ensure quality control, but does it matter?

"What Google is doing may in fact be intentional but to some degree, it might be their strategy [to drive the Android platform]," he said.

The Google spokesperson stressed that apps created using the App Inventor currently cannot be uploaded to the Android Market due to technical limitations. Only friends and users that have been provided a link by the App Inventor developer can download the app, she explained.

She added that processes will also be established to screen these apps when they are eventually made available to all Android users.

"We also have security measures in place forAndroid apps . We sandbox every application on Android so it, by default, gets only limited access to resources on the smartphone and any problems with the app will have limited impact that is bound by user-granted permissions," she said.

Heading for Apple
Asked if Google's app inventors will eventually rival that of Apple's, thereby, driving down the profitability of professional software developers, IDC's Ma believes such a scenario will not occur.

"I think the issue here is about uncovering hidden talent, giving laymen the chance to discover talent and for the market to nurture new ideas. It is not so much about the price issue," he noted.

However, the analyst credited Apple for bringing apps into the mainstream lexicon. "Apps developed by Nokia for the Symbian OS have been around way before the iPhone was launched in early-2008 and back then, these apps were 'techie' and less user-friendly," he said.

But thanks to the meteoric rise of iPhone's popularity, designers have managed to "app" almost anything under the sun, with the total number of apps for iPhone and iPad now exceeding 150,000, he said.

Ma believes that as more apps enter the market, it will raise awareness and generate greater interest among smartphone users.

With mobile apps and games dominating the functions of smartphones, he added that content will sway a consumer's purchase decision.

"In the consumer's mind, apps are actually a key factor," he noted. "If the content of apps and games is compelling, then they will purchase the hardware [or the phone, in this case] just to utilize the app."

There are about 70,000 apps in Android Market today, with over 60 percent available for free. Paid apps are currently not accessible to most users in Asia.

Mobile apps enthusiast, Ryan Huang, gave his thumbs up to App Inventor and expressed excitement over the possibility of creating apps specific to his own usage. The ability to customize apps is especially appealing to Huang.

"Being able to create and customize my own apps is something that will make me reconsider the Android phone versus an iPhone. It opens the door to so many possibilities like putting photos of your friends in games such as Whackamole," he told ZDNet Asia.

According to the Google spokesperson, users will need to submit a request via its site to access App Inventor. Google will process the request and approved users will be able to download the tool within weeks, she said, adding that because the tool is still in beta, Google needs to ensure its system is able to support the number of testers.

There are users already trying out App Inventor, she added, but declined to provide details about the actual number.

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