Usually, my co-blogger Garett Rogers and I don't land too far from each other in terms of our views or we cover Google from such different angles that it really doesn't matter. However, two of his last posts have so thoroughly torqued my twister (and, I think, are indicative of a particular point of view held by a subset of programmers and users) that I had to respond. Here's the deal, folks: Apps don't lack value just because they're developed by non-programmers, nor are the ubiquitous body-function Apps that are easy to find in both the Apple and Android App repositories completely without value. Here's why:
This all began when Google opened up Android App development to non-programmers with their App Inventor tool. I hailed it as an incredible educational tool. Garett, like many others (the link, by the way is to a nicely balanced TechCrunch article that deals with both points of view) felt that it would degrade the Android Marketplace, "making tools that encourage people to create crappy meow apps, [instead of giving] developers better tools to build great apps."
Then, Saturday saw another pot shot at the Android Market. Garett cites Android Pit's ranking and download data as evidence that only 6250 Apps in the Android MarketPlace are "good." He goes on to reference App Inventor again:
That’s about 7% of apps. As we start seeing more submitted from App Inventor, it’s feasible that number will drop even lower.
Really? I suppose that might be true if one sticks with Android Pit's data as a measure of goodness. Since Garett in particular used 50 downloads as his minimum number to create his pool of potentially good apps. Since App Inventor lets a teacher create an interactive application for his or her class, then the 28 downloads from his students would leave him out of the running. Does that mean his App isn't good?
It lets me create an App (just as soon as Google processes my invite, hint, hint) that shows my 8 month-old daughter either pictures of our chickens or pictures of her brothers (the two things in the world that make her happy during a meltdown) with the slide of a finger, keeping the phone from turning off the screen in the midst of said meltdown. Will anyone else want to be able to show their 8 month old pictures of my chickens? Probably not, but this little App will have value to me. Would it be "good" by Garett's reckoning? No. Nowhere close.
The strength of Android has always been its openness. Even the closed and tightly controlled Apple App Store has its share of crap applications that don't have obvious value. And yet, they exist, people download them, and, in some cases, people buy them. This is what happens in a free market economy. As ZDNet Editor-in-Chief, Larry Dignan, put it,
However, the beauty here is that useless is in the eye of the beholder. Now I’m never going for the Wonder Bread app, but some sandwich junkie may think it’s the best thing ever. There’s something to be said for allowing anyone to create a quiz app (right). Sure, there will be clunkers, but open up mobile apps and let the marketplace demand decide.
Perhaps more importantly, App Inventor gives us the chance to make our phones do precisely what we want them to do, even without any substantial programming skill. Whether the Apps thrive in the Marketplace may often be irrelevant. Do you remember the first time you got a Word macro to create several document features automatically? Those features or that simple macro may have been worthless for everyone in the world besides you and, if you were lucky, a few grateful co-workers. But the power in the hands of non-programmers was profound.
App Inventor is a great democratizer in a world of Apps. Microsoft is getting in on it in their own way with their KittyHawk project and the entire Web 2.0 revolution made web content creation available to those without knowledge of sophisticated scripting, let alone HTML. Opening a tool to the masses and making it useful and accessible to those who can identify a need and meet it themselves without a team of programmers behind them is not a new idea. It's simply new in the brave new world of smartphones.
I have no trouble finding countless useful and well-designed Apps in the Android Market. Just like any other Google search, you need to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, the ability to create my own Apps, whether for instructional purposes, to gain additional insight into Android, to solve a particular and specific problem just for my own designs, or to bring the next great App to Android should never be viewed as a bad thing. Don't worry - programmers will still have plenty of work to do. But for anyone with some reasonable degree of computer savvy to be able to exploit the extraordinary power of current and future generations of mobile devices is nothing short of revolutionary.