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.

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  • Hi Jeff,

    My 4 year old daughter loves Scratch from MIT – the programming environment that inspired App Inventor – so put me in the non-skeptical camp.

    Instead of asking to play a video game, my daughter asks me to ‘play Orange Cat and MAKE a video game’. ‘Orange Cat’ is her nickname for Scratch.

    I believe that programming should be taught to children k-12 and Scratch is leading the way in providing tools that make that possible.

    And I think you are onto something here. We will get there someday. It might take a generation, it might happen in a few years, but we will get there.

  • I think it’ll have the similar evolution as the programs/technologies you mentioned: there will be an initial swell of sub-par apps, to be replaced over time with quality ones as people generally realize that while they *could* do everything, some things are better left to the experts, with a corresponding “culling” of the bottom-feeding apps around. More opportunities over-saturate any “market” initially, but quality eventually triumphs in the long run more often than not.

  • You will owe Dave Winer $20. What this will impact is sales of Android phones and devices. Excuse me for repeating a comment I left elsewhere:


    How do revolutions begin? How do tipping points start? Here is a clue: [I point to the video you’re also using]

    So someone sees that, creates their own. Shows it to a friend. “Ooh, I want to do that for my cat too!” And since that person is just about to buy a new phone, they go and get one with Android. Then that person shows a friend their own new kitty “app” and that person who is getting a new phone … repeat.

    Everyone looks for a great big downpour instead of a light rain to change everything.


    Never, ever discount the power of personal trivia. Look at how big I Can Haz Cheeseburger is! But that didn’t up-end anything, did it?

  • Banjoman0

    I would dare to say that Sturgeon’s Law is conservative, partly because that with the internet, the totality is now so huge. All those curmudgeons didn’t seem to be so bothered by all that crap before, and frankly alot of the crap comes from people who are supposed to know how to program. Enabling people to meet their own needs, by themselves? What heresy!

    I agree about teaching the young to program. Maybe Scratch can get my daughters interested …

  • People arguing that it’ll lead to the Android Market filling with crap by amateurs are missing the point. The Android Market is already full of crap by amateurs, the internet is full of crap by amateurs but we all manage to find good apps and good content. On the internet crap sinks and the good stuff floats.

  • I remember film-makers talking about how their craft was going down the toilet because now anyone could make a movie with a digital camcorder and iMovie. Sure, crap gets produced all the time, but there are also works of genius from people who may not have otherwise been able to afford the tools.

    The same is true with THIS tool. Yes, there will be spammers, but there may also be a kid (or 60 year old) with a great idea… just no current way of implementing it. Because as it stands, even a basic GUI using Eclipse is quite a bit of a learning curve.

    The cream will always rise.

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  • I am of two minds.
    On the one hand, I recall MS-Access, Hypercard and many other Rapid Application Development platforms. None left a long standing application, as they were impossible to maintain and scale.
    On the other hand, they filled gaps that large applications left.

    The main difference is that now deployment is done via “stores”, be it iTunes, OVI or Android MarketPlace. Those applications will require a new way of curating and indexing. It might require some sort of private stores.

    • As Kevin Marks pointed out on Twitter today, Hypercard inspired Tim Berners-Lee and I saw that it inspired the creation of wikis. I’d say that’s impact — if not applications — it left.

  • Programming is difficult, but very fun, so I can certainly imagine it can introduce more people into app development. I don’t think App Inventor will enable people to challenge “real” app development (though I’d love to be surprised) but it should certainly help the dev community to grow and open up a bit.

  • Jeff,
    Buzz is a big deal, at least for me. I find that use it way more than Twitter or Facebook and that my time on those other two sites has decreased as well. Some times I feel like you and Leo are the harbingers of Buzz’s death the way you keep talking about it, hah!

    • Agreed! I love Buzz. I’ve nearly dropped all my other social networks entirely because my conversations there are just so damn good. It’s rough around the edges at times, but the developers are actively engaged with the Buzz community, so it’s not so much that it’s underdeveloped as that it’s developing in response to the community’s wishes. I’ve never once had a Facebook or Twitter developer respond personally to a feature request or a bug report saying, “that’s a nice idea,” or “we’ll fix that right away.” To each their own, but from my perspective, Buzz is growing into something really wonderful, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

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  • ” I thought Buzz was a big deal, so what the hell do I know?”

    I heard you say this on TWiG last week as well. It may well turn out that Buzz is an “also ran” technology, but it’s awful early to pick winners and losers in this space, especially given the tech that’s behind Buzz.

    Twitter languished in relative obscurity for literally *years* before the network effect reached a critical mass, driving the recent explosion in popularity. I wonder how many people declared Twitter dead in August of 2006, 4 months after it’s launch. :-)

  • Banjoman0

    I think too that people expected Buzz to be like Twitter, and were disappointed when it was not; I count Jeff as one of those. Clearly, Buzz is something different, and I think it will hang on long enough to develop into something really useful. I personally find Twitter almost useless, but I still follow Buzz.
    Perversely, I think one of the biggest things holding Buzz back right now is its tie-in with Gmail. I think it would be more useful tied in with Reader, or as a stand-alone app, both of which could happen in the future, especially with an api.

  • Peter

    In my oppinion app inventor is a toy. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. There have been many similar products, think of all those “make your own games” tools there are. It is good for people and kids who want to learn how those new technologies work and even create their own. But the idea isn’t new, although it brings it to the smartphone.

    Having said that, you can’t use it to create professional apps. It’s not possible to make a complex things, which many people spend years of learning for, so easy, that anyone can do it. Sure, you can plug premade components together and they’ll work fine (wordpress + plugins). But if there’s no premade component for your problem the possibilities for a untrained person stops. So innovating, by using premade components, isn’t really possible since they are used by all others anyway.

    App inventor is a good thing, but it won’t revolutionize anything.

  • Jeff,

    I always enjoy reading your blog and I also enjoyed your book very much, looking forward to your next publication! Also enjoy watching TWIG!

    Having abandoned the Apple platform a few years ago for my mobile needs I have been with Blackberry for the most part, recently though I have gone Android and love it! I generally like most things Google do except the annoying stuff us SEO’s sometimes have to deal with. The thing I like about the Android platform is that it is truly open, if I had the time or brains I could code up an App and with all likelihood it would become accepted in to the marketplace, not so with Apple as we know.

    Providing users the tools to develop their own apps could be a headache if the marketplace is not managed but Google does a very good job of managing the web and organising the information stored there so I hope they can apply the same thought and skill in keeping the marketplace a decent place to get apps. I think this is another opportunity for them where the community can get involved, I would like to see a more review based system perhaps?

    Very early days, but I am all for allowing the masses to have the tools to share, create and liberate their ideas and dreams.

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  • Josh Stark

    Jeff, nobody wants to make there own apps… they just want cool apps made for them that are free and easy to use and fun….. go figure!


  • Chuck

    Interestingly, Steve Jobs actually had a similar concept to this on the NeXT Computer platform. It was called Interface Builder, and it was designed to allow non-programmers in academia to create their own “apps.” It worked with the Objective C. You could wire up database interfaces, etc, by visually linking objects. Perhaps you should discuss this with Dave Winer, because I recall him being there at a NeXT developer confab in San Francisco. But I don’t recall him being a big fan of that machine. I think the comparison to Quark is bizarre, however. Aldous Pagemaker, maybe (even that is a strange analogy.) Quark was just a better implementation of what PageMaker invented. Quark actually was more like what Apple is doing, because they were dragged kicking and screaming into allowing third-parties to extend their functionality. Maybe I just don’t get what you are saying vis-a-vis Quark.

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  • Minor nitpick: It was Pagemaker, not Quark that started the Desktop revolution. Quark came along later when it was clear that Pagemaker was underpowered.

    As to App Inventor, the early versions are a bit underpowered. You still need to be a programmer to do anything really complex ( Lets see what App Inventor 3.0 looks like.

    But overall, I don’t think it’ll do much for everyone, just get those already inclined to program more hooked on it, which is fine of course. What will be interesting is that those kids who flock to App Inventor and then move on, which platform will they want to program for?

  • Robert

    The unfortunate thing about giving everyone the ability to create their own apps is that it will take them away from concentrating on what they do best.

    I watched biochemistry PhD students spend a disproportionate amount of time fiddling with powerpoint to perfect a slide shows at the cost of time that could have been spent on their science.

    And it wasn’t a choice, everybody else struggled with powerpoint so they had to also.

    When the bar is lowered by tools it heaps an extra burden on to our backs. The benefit of communicating using the new tool is outweighed by the cost of being taken away from one’s specialty.

    Having a priesthood frees people from the tyranny of having to attempt the stuff that is not their primary concern. The specialist takes work away from us and does it more efficiently than we could have.

    It might be nice if the tools made the specialists cheaper and more plentiful but my argument is that is will just add another item to our jack of all trades cv.

    • Under that rationale, those students should still have to hire typists (scribes?) for their papers.

      • Robert

        Switching from hiring a typist to using a wordprocessor didn’t change the finished thesis. The sum effort of writing long hand plus typing work went down. Equally using powerpoint *could* have made presentations easier.
        Unfortunately the tool (powerpoint) changed the output; energy moved from the idea and communication to slideshow theatre. Good students expended greater effort to achieve the same effective communication. The tool demanded new effort in an area that was superfluous (typography animation.)
        When the costs are hidden by spending time rather than money it seems we are very poor at optimising for value.
        I like tools when they enhance what I want to do. Often the tools are inappropriate and change what I do (annoy me) and sometimes for the worse (annoy other people.)

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