Google’s new App Inventor gets to the heart of the cultural difference between Apple and Google. If you haven’t seen it yet, App Inventor is an experimental new SDK for the Android platform. What’s different about App Inventor is that there’s practically no coding per se; it’s an entirely visual language. Its heritage goes back to Logo, but more directly, to Scratch, which has a snap-together, building-block model for describing behavior.
App Inventor’s intent is to enable people who wouldn’t normally program to develop the apps that they want; to make it possible to write Android apps without being a “software developer.” This is revolutionary; they’re not trying to lower the bar, they’re throwing it away entirely. I don’t know if App Inventor will succeed, but it’s an important experiment.
I want to contrast this with the iPhone, which has a much different model. When I last wrote about the iPhone, many commented on Apple’s focus on the perfect user experience. I largely agree (and said so in the article), and I think Google is unlikely to match that. Apple has an app store to guarantee that poorly designed apps never get to the user (the fact that many junky apps make it into the store is, well, another issue). The user gets the perfect curated experience. I won’t even begin to argue about whether App Inventor’s UI components are as elegant as Cocoa’s. They aren’t. But Google has taken another direction altogether: the user’s experience isn’t going to be perfect, but the user’s experience will be the experience he or she wants. If you want to do something, you can build it yourself; you can put it on your own phone without going through a long approval process; you don’t have to learn an arcane programming language. This is computing for the masses. It’s computing that enables people to be creative, not just passive consumers.
It’s sort of like travel: you can go to Club Med or take a cruise ship if you want a crafted experience. But you won’t find out anything about the local culture, you’ll only eat the local food in controlled settings, you’ll never hear the native language spoken. You’ll just do the limited set of things the organizers want you to do. Many years ago, I was in Juneau, Alaska, wandering around on a back street in what may well have been a “dangerous” part of town. I kicked a piece of trash lying in the gutter, and it turned out to be an Eagle totem crudely carved on a piece of scrap lumber. That’s still one of my prize possessions, and it’s not the sort of thing you find if you insist on the safe guided tour.
That’s an important difference. Apple is saying “trust us, it will just work.” Google is saying “We’ll help you to be creative and make your own stuff that works for you.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with either approach. Apple’s approach is more appropriate for an entertainment device, more like the ’60s TV, radio, or dial phone. It does more, but it’s still sealed; you can’t open it up and hack it. There are plenty of people who want that kind of experience — possibly a majority. Google is opening up the guts and letting you create — and taking the gamble that people who haven’t been creative in the past will start.
What will we see coming out of App Inventor? Probably lots of junk, but does that matter? In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky talks about the “stupidest possible creative act,” which he associates with LOLcats. What Clay realizes, and what Google realizes, is that the “stupidest possible creative act” is much better than no creative act at all, or limiting creativity to a small elite. A world full of LOLcats is preferable to a world full of network sitcoms. The history of creativity is filled with lots of trash; but in a weird way, the trash enables the truly great creative works to come into being. You can’t have one without the other.
I did say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Apple’s approach, but it’s clear that I don’t really believe that. I can muster some grudging respect for that position (and yes, I do like stuff that “just works”), but I can’t imagine anything more dreadful than a world where creativity is always mediated by someone else. I don’t think I’ll ever take a vacation at Club Med. Apple has built a culture around creating the perfect user experience, and they’ve done wonderful things in refining that experience, but at great cost: I cannot imagine Apple offering non-programmers the ability to develop for the iPhone. If ported to iOS, App Inventor, or its equivalent, would presumably violate the iOS developer agreement. Creativity — whether the creativity of others or your own — is what makes life worthwhile, and enabling creativity is a heroic act. Google has built a culture around enabling others’ creativity, and that’s worth celebrating.