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Google App Inventor woos early Android coders

Trying to get a new generation of developers to imprint on its mobile phone operating system, Google releases a programming tool for novice coders.

An illustration of the 'PaintPot' tutoral application written with Google App Inventor for Android.
An illustration of the 'PaintPot' tutoral application written with Google App Inventor for Android.

I remember watching in the early '90s a profusion of basic games flood the Windows world, spurred by the success of Windows 3.1 and Visual Basic and shared freely over the young Internet.

Later that decade came a profusion of Web pages as developers got their start with the burgeoning Internet, often beginning by copying and pasting code from another Web site.

Windows and the Web clearly showed how making a programming foundation approachable and easy to use can help lure a new generation of developers--and how developer interest and activity were instrumental in that foundation's later commercial success.

This lesson isn't lost on Google, which has been eagerly courting developers for years. Google's developer relations have generally catered to a tech-savvy. But a new tool, Google App Inventor for Android, is for those just getting started.

"To use App Inventor, you do not need to be a developer. App Inventor requires NO programming knowledge. This is because instead of writing code, you visually design the way the app looks and use blocks to specify the app's behavior," the Google project description states.

There are plenty of basic tools for early programmers, but Google is trying to awaken coders to the unique possibilities of mobile phones. For example, software written with the tool can tap into an Android phone's GPS location sensor or use phone and text-messaging features.

The tool has been under development for about a year, with testing extending to sixth graders, high school girls, and nursing students, according to project leader Harold Abelson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist who led the project and who's currently on sabbatical at Google. "The goal is to enable people to become creators, not just consumers, in this mobile world," he told The New York Times.

Google also hopes to make the App Inventor for Android an easier on-ramp to programming logic matters such as conditional if-then-else situations and for one of the powerful aspects of the Web: application programming interfaces (APIs) that let programs communicate with online services.

"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," the site said. "There are even blocks to talk to services like Twitter."

The tool is in beta testing and not open to everybody. Those who are interested can fill out a form to request access.