The Quark of programming?

I think Google’s App Inventor tool that enables anyone to program an Android app could be profound. But then, I thought Buzz was a big deal, so what the hell do I know?

Is it possible that the App Inventor could do to development what Quark did to publishing and Blogger did to the web: enable anybody to do it?

Dave Winer is skeptical and speaks from experience. He and I just made a bet: “that in two years Google’s Android app developer will not have any effect on the priesthood of programming.” If it does, Dave pays me — and he’d be a happy man if he loses. But I fear he’s right and I’ll end up paying him $20, making us both sad because in my view it’s a good thing when priesthoods get displaced. (Nick Carr, Andrew Keen, et curmudeonly al would disagree.)

As soon as I tweeted about App Inventor, developer curmudgeonliness erupted. @srmccoy said, “I’m afraid the WYSIWYG model is going to create a bunch of lazy devs who never bother to learn the skills of their craft.” That’s what I heard about Quark and design in its time. @fakebaldur said, “Quark was an exp. app for print designers, blogger free for amateurs and App Inventor a hideous monstrosity for geeks.” Straddling the fence, @thunsaker said, “I’m kinda scared of what this will produce. Glad that non-techies will bet a taste of development, though.” Now that’s the attitude.

Will App Inventor yield lots of crappy apps? Of course, it will, just as Quark enabled sinful design and Blogger wasted bits. That is true of all such technologies that lower the barrier to entry to a former domain of priests. That’s precisely what the printing press did. As much as the web breaks down priesthoods, it created new ones. Developers are merely the latest. They say that mortals can’t do what they do. But what if they could? What if they could translate a thought not just into words and design but into action?

I imagine Marc Benioff of going positively batshit over this, enabling businesses to create apps for, say, their sales teams to manage and share information about and with clients. I imagine small businesses using App Inventor to create apps like Chipotle’s that enable customers to make burrito orders before they arrive. I imagine teachers being able to make exercises and quizzes in apps (forget the electronic textbook; give me the electronic workbook!).

More important, I imagine, as @thunsaker says, someone who never thought she’d develop picking up App Inventor to make the first step and then deciding to learn more using more sophisticated means. That’s how priesthoods really get destroyed. Oh, at first, the priests always lament that people can do crappy versions of what they do. But soon, they, too, start making good versions. And that’s when priests are displaced.

App Inventor is also a brilliant competitive shot at Apple. Steve Jobs would never tolerate this as he won’t tolerate crap. So those companies and small business and teachers I listed above will have to go to the free space of Google’s Android to create. There’s a clear competitive differentiation. Google believes it will win by having more devices running its free OS and more applications running on them.

But this also brings out a key challenge for Google and another key competitive differentiation: quality. There will be — there already is — more crap on Android. So Google has to do two things: invent better means to surface quality (if anybody can do that, they damned well better be able to) and encourage the creation of more quality (I think they need to invest in talent, as YouTube is doing with video creators). That’s what I said on the latest This Week in Google.

On Twitter @charlesarthur invoked Sturgeon’s Law. I’ll invoke another. What App Inventor really does is bring the new law of content creation even to development: In a world of overabundant content creation, value flows to the curator. Before, development talent and resources were scarce. Now, if their product is not scarce and if easy tools make the creation of crap easier, then there’s value in finding and enabling the good stuff. The trick is extracting value from that; that’s the problem journalists are having today.

As my son goes off to college to study computer science, this makes me wonder whether there’s a new opportunity and challenge here. Dave Winer’s right to question whether there will be any impact at all. We’ll see. I have $20 and more riding on this.