Design Your Own Android Apps Without Programming Skills

This article was written in 2010 and remains one of our most popular posts. If you’re keen to learn more about Android development, you may find this recent article on free web development apps of great interest.

If you like the idea of creating your own App but don’t have any coding skills, you may be very interested to hear about Google’s new offering. The App Inventor (with the obligatory BETA in the title) is a new tool which allows non-programmers to build fully working applications for Android. Google announced the availability of the App Inventor on its blog earlier this week.

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.

Google has been working on the tool for over a year and it has been tested in schools and colleges. It works by using blocks for everything you can do with an Android phone, such as store information in a database, repeat actions and integrate with services such as Amazon and Twitter. The App Inventor also provides access to a GPS-location sensor, so you can build apps use your current location.

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Here’s a 60-second video (with jazzy, xylophone background music) showing how a simple app can be created using the App Inventor.

You can learn more about the App Inventor and see tutorials and sample apps here. If you’re interested you can get an invite here.

So designers, do you think this is a good thing and something you might use? And developers, what do you think? Is this kind of block building setup the future or is it letting the lunatics* take over the asylum? Does a person even need design and development skills to put together a cool and fun app or just imagination?

* Designers please don’t be offended, I’m including myself here as someone who couldn’t program their way out of a paper bag.

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  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    Mmm. Programming for non-programmers is one of those holy grails that many vendors state they’ve found. I can remember various solutions being announced more than 20 years ago. Yet we’re still writing code.

    The problem with application generators are the limitations — and App Inventor looks very limited. You can only achieve what a programmer has coded in. If it were really a viable alternative to programming, you could use it to build a better version of itself!

    Finally, I think the whole concept is flawed. If you’re interested in programming, you learn it, love it, and live it. Non-programmers don’t programme because it doesn’t interest them — not because they lack an ability to learn it. App Inventor won’t change their opinion.

    • Jack

      People, please don’t be narrow minded. I am a design engineer for spine implants. My expertise is designing. That doesn’t mean a non engineer can’t come up with a good idea. That is what this developer is aimed at; helping non programmers cultivate their ideas even though they don’t know how to write code. Programmers will always be needed, don’t worry :)

  • Luca74

    U Craig are right. Non-programmers are not interested in the art of coding and i remember, many years ago, in the early 90’s when i was a beginner coder, a lot of solutions developed for writing apps without a single line of code written by the user…All failed in their mission. And yes, it’s true, generally these apps are very limited from a programmer point of view. U can only build UI and accomplish simple and pre-packed tasks, but that’s all. I think App Inventor will fail as its predecessors. Bye!

  • vlc

    This is the future…. visual programming will dominate the market and hand coding will be strictly for situations requiring extreme performance and bleeding edge originality. I’m very confident Lego style software production via a visual workbench/IDE will prove to be very popular.

    • Andy White

      I’m pretty sure it won’t. You’re just exchanging the visual representation of the code for something a bit prettier.

      I’ve seen a huge number of vendors try this visual programming stuff. At one particular trade show, one such vendor confidently assured me that I would be out of a job within 4 years (4 years later, I’m still coding).

      Most of these visual programming IDEs/systems allow you to do just the things you’ve been allowed to do. They’re great for creating one of a finite subset of possible programs, but I’ve yet to see one that is “universal”.

      You can take a finite amount of complexity out of coding, but there’s always going to be a fundamental and irreducible difficulty level in making a complex system work (and work the way you want it to).

  • Mea.Culpa

    Ive been on the edge for a while on debating wether or not to stick with my iPhone or end up switching to the droid. The newest version coming out is a lot slicker, and the open OS would help a lot. I think this might have just made my decision :D

  • aweb4u

    Hey guys I think you’re being a little bit critical here! App Inventor is meant to allow non-programmers to create basic apps for their Android phones, it’s not meant as a replacement for real programming.

    I can think of dozens of uses for something like this where the requirements for the app are fairly simple and straight forward. For example, web designers can use it to write Android apps that communicate with their websites. Tradesmen could write an app that tracks the time they spend on a job.

    If you have a look into it, as I have, you’ll find that you can do some pretty clever stuff with it. You have access to sending and receiving txts, access to the GPS, sending and receiving stuff over the internet, storing and retrieving data in a database, etc.

    Sure it can’t do everything that a real programmer could do, but I don’t think this should be dismissed as a toy. Many people said similar things about Visual Basic when it first came out, and look how many useful apps were made with that as Microsoft steadily improved it. I expect Google will do the same with App Inventor.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      OK, perhaps some people will find it useful. It might be good as an introduction to programming, for example. But do you think many tradesmen have the time and inclination to learn the system and write their own apps?

      Consider “easy” online website builders. These are far simpler applications, but websites still take time to create, the results limited to a finite number of templates, and few novices create great, successful sites. It still takes effort — if web development doesn’t interest you, you won’t bother.

      Visual programming has it’s uses, but how many people shun WYSIWYG website builders for hand-coded HTML, CSS, and JavaScript? Once you’ve learnt the basics, hand-coding is quicker and infinitely more flexible.

  • http://www.cluelessbot.com zkiller

    I agree 100% with aweb-4u. While this by no means illuminates the need for developers, it is a nice feature which allows non-programmers to complete basic tasks on their own.

  • enomsoft

    Nice Post

  • fraza

    The pinnacle of programming in my opinion would enable ordinary folk to bring their ideas to fruition. Truth be told, it is conceivable to have a situation where idea creation exceeds being able to afford the required programming skills. Whenever this happens there is either a delay or the death of possibly great idea hitting the market.
    On the flip, if this trend of programming to avoid programming continues, you have got to believe that 20 years from now the result of great programming might eventually lead to its own decrease in necessity.

    • qi24

      Ideas are the easy part; the implementation of the idea is difficult. People come up with good ideas all the time, it’s the well executed plan that brings benefits.
      That often times takes time, effort and money-

  • Jarrid

    While I semi agree with Craig, I also think he is completely wrong to write this off as flawed. Yeah sure other companies have failed but I think the google approach is different to previous attempts at this sort of thing in that they will not try to make it too advanced and rather deal with basic logic.

    As for being better than something a programmer can write I actually think if it puts out valid code that uses best practice it might be better than 90% of programmers out there….

    • Seb

      Well I could see App Inventor like the Commodore 64… remember back in the 80’s when you could “make/build” programs with it… well where almost 30 years later and by the look of it and it’s ultimate goal, App Inventor it’s clearly light years ahead of Commodore 64 but I can see it has a early introduction/educational to programming for non-programmer… plus, you get to make app that can be “easily” share and use.

  • Yaseen

    Nothing can take place of programming. As app inventor is also programmed. I agree with Craig Buckler that if app inventor is not limited is could be used to build better version of itself. But yet, it is very helpful to at least have a introduction of how android apps work and what as a programmer we have to learn. BTW i’ve requested an invitation.

  • Logo Design

    Its The Future .Visual programming will get control the market and hand coding will be strictly for situations requiring extreme performance I am very confident IDE will prove to be very popular.

  • pdillonp

    I think people are missing the point: this isn’t ‘replace programmers’ this is ‘expand the market’. I’m looking at a simple way of packaging material for smartphones, and this would probably do the job, but sometimes programming would be more efficient/effective – it depends on the complexity of the task. As an (old) programmer myself I’ve seen a lot of ‘visual programming’ tools and hybrids: some have worked (Visual Basic) some are forgotten (ObjectVision). How much programming is needed to produce iFart? On the other hand perhaps that’s an argument against….

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Vladislav-Rakov/100000313410890 Vladislav Rakov

    Im a beginning programmer but that doesn’t prevent me from developing apps like i make on snappii site.

  • http://www.hypernextandroid.com Malcolm McQuoid

    App Inventor is a great tool that has undoubtedly captured the imagination of some people and given them the hope that they can create their own Android apps. Of course creating/writing software above the Hello World level takes some effort and being interested is what gets people through the early difficult stages. I’m sure that some must have used App inventor, found it too limiting, then moved onto the standard Android SDK with Eclipse or Netbeans. The hard part is getting people to believe they can create something and once that happens it ignites their interest.

    By the way, I work on the development of HyperNext Android Creator, a software creation system aimed at beginner programmers. Here is the blurb from our website:-

    HyperNext Android Creator (HAC) is an easy to use software creation system that allows almost anyone to quickly start building their own Android apps that work.

    The HyperNext interface has just one design window and simple toolbar, and three modes: Design, Preview and Run. Controls such as buttons can be rapidly placed and their English-like scripts edited with its easy to use Script Editor.

    With HyperNext there is no need to learn Java or the Android SDK and it is much easier to use than Eclipse or Netbeans.

    Test our demo apps by downloading them directly onto your Android device. Try demos like our Lunar Lander game, our Pre-School Sums app or Stock Quotes app to see how much fun they are.

    I hope HAC gets people interested in Android programming just as App Inventor did.

  • stewart

    My basic training is in traditional design. I have worked almost exclusively on the web. As most programers and designers know, the boss does not always understand that these are two separate jobs. With both flash and dreamweaver, I have learned the economy of working in code. I have also tried to learn server protocols that many times foul up the wysiwyg chunks of code. I have also had the joy of working with programers who help separate the look and feel from the dynamic elements under the hood. I sometimes use downloaded or one size fits all solutions to build a working demo with firm comments on what each chunk does. I also get dynamic programs with the only formatting being named elements that I can easily make changes.

    My point is these are tools that can be integrated very well, but both sides need to stretch their skill base to make the hand off work well. Or if needed do both dynamic and UI, but well commented ready for for assistance when and if needed.

    It is really less of a problem of what set of tools, but of the individuals developing a product for mass consumption not realizing that one set of skills limits the size of a user base that can be effectively satisfied.

    Yes, I do get weird shakes when I catch MS word formatting in html pages.