With the launch of its App Inventor tool for Android phones, Google is bringing YouTube's user-generated content model to creating apps. The company's new "do-it-yourself" kit promises to let anyone, not just professional developers, build basic programs tailored to their own needs or whims.
That's one way for Google to catch up with Apple in the great apps race, where the latter enjoys a commanding lead with more than 225,000 titles available and over 5 billion downloads to date. Google's Android Market, by comparison, offers only about 90,000 apps so far. But if the App Inventor's drag-and-drop system proves easy enough for everyone to use, it could lead to a surge of new apps and help Google catch up, if not overtake, Apple for bragging rights in the total of apps available.
It's a clever step by Google to use App Inventor to bolster a perceived weakness of its Android platform compared to the iPhone -- its volume and selection of apps -- while also burnishing its credentials when it comes to openness and user participation. The crowd-sourcing approach to app development could eventually even yield a few hits for Android Market. (Apps created with App Inventor aren't available through Google's app storefront at launch.)
To help people get started on their app-building projects, Google has posted some sample apps, including one that shows schedules for the San Francisco transit system, another for locating a parked car, and a superhero-themed quiz game. Users will also be able to incorporate services like Twitter, Amazon and GPS to give their apps a more heavy-duty feel, according to Google.
App Inventor requires users to sign up online and provides some tutorials, but it still won't be as simple as uploading a video to YouTube. What's more, Google has found it difficult to build a business around the aggregation of user-generated material on YouTube. That's why it's turned increasingly to professional video content to attract ad dollars. By throwing open the doors to app creation on Android, Google is simply trying to attract more people to phones running its software.
But in the end, professionally made apps, like videos, will still likely be the most popular. That's why Apple is unlikely to try to follow on Google's heels with its own app-building tool for the masses. Apple isn't interested in democratizing app creation for its closed iPhone/iTunes system as much as insuring a certain level of quality and consistency for titles on App Store shelves.
How else could Apple charge a minimum entry fee of $1 million for advertisers to run iAds in apps? Marketers like Nissan, Nike, Chanel and Ford don't want their high-priced ads running inside Fred's TV trivia game app.
Still, if you've tried to build your own Android app with App Inventor, feel free to weigh in with first impressions in the comments section.