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App Inventor for Android – First steps into mobile participation

30. July 2010 – 10:31 by Bengt Feil (TuTech Innovation GmbH)

ss-2010-07-30_092509Clearly mobile platforms are quickly becoming an important way to use the internet and some are arguing phones and other mobile devices have already become our most important devices. In the wake of this development the idea of mobile apps, most importantly on iPhone and Android devices, has become the way to get additional functionality in the hands of users. App development however is not for the faint of heart and very specific skills are needed to get started in this field.

Google tries to improve the app situation for Android phones by introducing App Inventor, a tool that allows building Android apps simply by using a drag-and-drop interface. The video below shows how a very simple Android app is build and run on a phone using this web-based tool. As I am getting into App Inventor right now I can assure you it is much more capable than what you see in the video but it still illustrates the concepts.

This being an eParticipation blog I would like to point out two ways this kind of tool (maybe Apple could improve Xcode to also include beginner’s drag-and-drop functionalities) could be useful for our field:

  1. Getting started with mobile participation: The pressure to offer ways of mobile participation is rising quickly and eParticipation projects and solution providers have to address this issue. However the barrier-to-entry into this field (multiple platforms, different languages etc.) is fairly high. A tool like App Inventor could be used to take first steps into apps and to learn how to bring a tool over into the mobile world with reasonable effort. Lessons learned here can than be used on other platforms or in a final version. One note of warning here: Even though App Inventor does generate real applications which can be fully used on the phone and other devices it does not put out human readable code. Therefore editing the finished code itself (without using the App Inventor tool) might be difficult or impossible (for the techies: App Inventor is based on the OpenBlocks java library).
  2. Collaboratively developing software: In many projects future users need to be involved in developing a software solution. This process, which for example can take the shape of a Living Lab (aka user-centric open innovation), can be very difficult as software development is an abstract and complex process. In many cases non-functional mockups and lengthy descriptions are used to engage into discussion with future users. App Inventor (and OpenBlocks for that matter) could be used to make the process of co-developing more interactive. Users, designers and developers could directly collaborate to build first drafts of tools or rearrange existing ones. This again could be done either in persons or using eTools and online deliberation.

These are of course just first ideas and I would be happy to see more of them in the comments. I will take a closer look at the inner workings of App Inventor and report back with more information on how capable the tool really is.

PS: I got my App Inventor invite recently. And as far as I know I cannot forward additional ones.

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  1. One Response to “App Inventor for Android – First steps into mobile participation”

  2. By Fraser on Aug 4, 2010

    Nice find. I have been swooning over Java and ‘Andoid for dummies’ type books – but think that this sort of ‘visual programming’ can be just as powerful.

    For example, I used LabView extensively at Philips Research which was perfect for most programming tasks.

    Let’s just hope it provides the sort of ‘depth’ required (e.g. code point entry if required).

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